Today I ran in a low-key cross-country event at Shipley Park in Derbyshire, organised as part of the North Midlands XC League. These events have races for juniors and seniors, men and women. The running clubs enter, so there is no charge for the individuals who run, and everyone who wants to run can run (there are no selection criteria). We don’t even wear numbers. In the men’s race, we all start together and when we finish we are given a token with a number on it showing which position we finished in. We give the token to somebody from our club who tabulates the results and hands the results and the tokens back to the organiser. I was 169th today, but it will be a few days before I know how many people were in the race and before I know how I did in my age category.
Cross-country in the UK is a very well-established form of racing, and even our top middle-distance track athletes have tended to run cross-country races in the winter. The main features of a cross-country race are mud and hills. Today’s route was 9.5km and consisted of three loops through the country park. We run up hills, down hills, mostly on routes that were not part of paths, just straight across fields, which makes for uneven ground. This requires very different skills to road running.
Events this today’s race are a great example of why it is good to join a running club if you like running. You get to find out about events like cross-country, somebody does most of the organisation, and you get the social/tribal aspects by running in team colours and having plenty of teammates to talk to before and after races. There are usually one or two people shouting encouragement from the side, either because they are injured or because they ran in an earlier race – and that gives you a nice boost as you run round. Many of the clubs, including my club Redhill Road Runners put up a tent near the start, which provides somewhere to put your stuff, and if it is raining hard, it provides somewhere to stand before and after the race.
Today I wore my running spikes, for the first time this season. When the mud is not too bad, I prefer to where trail or fell shoes, but today they would have been too slippery. I could have got round in fell shoes, but I would have to slow down on the downhill sections. Running in spikes requires a change in running style. The spikes are only at the front of the show, the mid and heel areas are just smooth plastic and have no grip at all. When running downhill, you lean forward, land your forefoot under your centre of gravity and trust the spikes – this is fast and exhilarating.
Because I have a six-hour race tomorrow, I did not push too hard today. I control my level of effort mostly by monitoring my heart rate. I wear a chest heart rate monitor and I keep looking at my current heart rate level on my watch. I do not pay much attention to my pace – the pace is a consequence of my effort. Some runners focus on their pace; in their case their effort is a consequence of their pace.
In the running profile, you will see that I let my heart rate (in red) get up to about 140 beats a minute and then I held it there until the last few hundred metres when I let it go up. Over the last couple of years I have found that 140 beats per minute is a level of effort that I can maintain for an hour or so comfortably. When I race longer I keep my heart rate lower, in contrast, when I do a 5K race it is up around 145 beats per minute. (Note, if the formula Max Heart Rate = 220 – your age is true for me, then my max is about 154.) I keep my heart rate at 140 beats per minute by adjusting my pace (and I try to adjust my pace by adjusting my stride length, not my cadence). My speed (the blue line) varied quite a lot. On my best downhill, I reached 3:43 per km, on my slowest uphill I dropped to 6:54 per km. The other really slow bit was when there was a narrow part of the route and there were too many runners and we had to queue for a while to get through. If you are curious about my use of heart rate pacing, you can follow my Strava data.
At the end of the race I put on my new DryRobe, bought for my birthday by my three children Mish, William and Josh. These DryRobes (and other similar coats) are great for things like cross-country. We run in shorts and vest, and today it was really cold. While we are running, we stay warm, but we cool down really quickly when we finish. So, right after finishing (and before cooling down) I put the DryRobe on, on top of my dirty and wet running gear and I am suddenly ‘snug as a bug in a rug’.
The final bit of kit I will mention is my Dexshell waterproof socks. On long races (especially multi-day events) I find waterproof socks are essential if the terrain is wet. In an event like today’s, where I was only running for 47 minutes, the waterproof socks are just about comfort. It does also mean that when I get home and take my socks off I do not have mud embedded under my toenails.