If only because I managed to eat my own weight in barm brack afterwards, my cross country debut was a success. Last Saturday I ran the BHAA Eircom CC 5-mile race in 34:09, for a good time in every sense.
(The BHAA is the Business Houses Athletic Association, who organise a series of short races hosted by local companies in the Dublin area. The BHAA Eircom CC results are now online. And barm brack is a type of fruit cake usually eaten at Hallowe’en but which the BHAA serve up in industrial quantities post-race all year round. Now read on.)
I had entered to enjoy the buzz of a new running experience, and with the expectation of mud, cold, exhaustion and a tough slog of a race. In all those counts I wasn’t disappointed. The mud was at a minimum, though – a few nights of hard frost had left the ground quite firm, so any mud on the course was generally at surface level rather than up past the ankles.
Still, I was surprised at how many people wore ordinary running shoes instead of spikes. I didn’t see any slips or falls but some of the tight, churned-up corners must have been quite hairy for those in smooth soles.
My brand-new pair of spikes worked a treat. I felt sure-footed all the way around, and the lightness of the shoes helped me lift my feet off the sticky ground with less effort.
The 5-mile course comprised three laps of Cherryfield Park in west Dublin and combined football pitches, parkland and a grassy trail. There were two small climbs, each perhaps only 7 strides in length, and apart from those the course was flat, firm and fast. Spikes of 5mm did the job.
To warm up on this bitterly cold morning I did a light one-lap trot where I could check out the course and stick up some mental Post-It notes to self. The corners and trail section were narrower than what I was used to in road races. To cross a tarmac path on two occasions we would run on a green felt mat that looked like a Subbuteo pitch, but my short spikes were okay on them – I didn’t have to use the clomping, sliding walk you’d use when crossing a road in your football studs.
Given the novelty of the situation and the challenges of your typical cross country course, my expectations were slow. I decided to use the first lap to get the feel of the course and find some running room; after that I would see how I felt. My road 5-mile PB is 33:29, but for my first off-road race I would have been happy with sub-40 minutes. (A muddy field invites a bit of sandbagging.)
I’m glad to say that I had an uneventful race and I ran at what felt like a consistent pace all the way around. My fears of getting spiked were unfounded. The surface felt fast and my spikes were comfortable.
And I had the deep, deep pleasure of moving up steadily through the field. After the first lap I remember only one person having the audacity to overtake me, and no one passed me at all in the last 800 metres.
After I finished I was tired to the bone. This 5-miler through the fields seemed to have the same effect on me as a marathon. I changed into my spare pair of running shoes – were they really so heavy compared to my spikes, or was that the tiredness? Summoning one last effort worthy of a cross country finishing straight, I shuffled across the road to race HQ, where coffee, biscuits and and barm brack waited.
Barm brack aside, the organization was excellent – I noticed what looked like Dublin Marathon race director Jim Aughney at the trigger end of the starter’s electronic pistol. My only gripe would be that the 5-mile race was billed as the ‘men’s race’, and was preceded by a 2-mile ‘women’s race’. This gender gap wasn’t so strictly enforced; some women ran in the longer race, although I saw no men in the shorter race. But it looks bad and sounds patronising; I can’t think of any reason why a cross country can’t consist of one mixed single-distance event, like at road races.
Anyway, I enjoyed my first cross country race and it won’t be my last. The BHAA will be bringing their barm brack roadshow to some more Dublin fields between now and April, so if I can’t have Christmas every day then at least I can enjoy some extra Hallowe’ens.