On Saturday, I was a “DNF” for the first time. I failed to finish the Nottinghamshire Cross Country Championships race. I stopped at just past the 3-mile point in the 5-mile race due to a calf strain. I had walked a bit, stretched and massaged my calf and hamstrings, but I realised that running another two miles was not going to be possible.
I felt sorry for myself and disappointed. The things I had done the day before had probably contributed to my calf being tight at the start of the race. I had got cold at the start of an outdoor training session and then come home and spent a long time sitting at my desk.
I stopped near the club tents and as I walked somewhat painfully back to the Holme Pierrepont Running Club tent I managed to stop myself from crying. The men were getting ready to set off for the start line of their race. I was just in time to get some pictures of them before they set off. One of the team, Sam, told me that he had to withdraw from three races in the past and this made me feel a bit better.
Having had two days to think about it, I now feel that, rather than being disappointed, I should be celebrating the fact that this is my first withdrawal from a race in nearly eleven years of running. I don’t tend to get injured and I can learn something from this experience.
I was lucky to get to race at all. The numbers were lower than in previous years, with only 52 women completing the race and only three women in my age category were racing, including me. When the Championships were last held in January 2020, there were 88 women and I was fifth out of eleven women in the v55-64 category. The 2021 Championships were cancelled due to Covid and it is quite likely that Covid led to some of the women who registered this year being unable to attend.
One benefit of doing part of the race is that I’m now familiar with the course at Berry Hill Park in Mansfield. I’d taken my daughter there to do cross country for school and she competed in the National Cross Country Relays one year for her athletics club, but I’d never run the course myself. If I recover quickly from the calf strain, I’ll be running there twice more this month. On Saturday, the fourth and final fixture in the North Midlands Cross Country League takes place at Berry Hill. I really want to be there as I’ve run all the other races and am placed second in my age category (v55-59). I don’t think you get a medal for placing second but I would still like to see if I can do it. At the end of the month, Berry Hill hosts the Midland Counties Cross Country Association Championships which will also act as the cross country championships for one of my second claim clubs, Midlands Masters AC.
My love of cross country racing has been a slow burn. Like many new runners, in my first few years I focused on road running and on improving my times in road races and that took priority. I did have a go at a cross country race in October 2012, about 18 months after I’d started running, but it was another two years before I ran another.
Unlike many people, I hadn’t been put off cross country in childhood as my school didn’t do cross country running. But I think it took me a while to realise how much I liked it. I don’t mind getting muddy and wet. I enjoy the challenge of running on muddy, uneven terrain (especially now that I have spikes). I love letting myself go and running as fast as I can downhill. It reminds me of our family holidays which involved walks with opportunities to run and climb and play. It connects me to my younger self, the feeling of freedom and the willingness to take risks. I’m far less confident about climbing trees now than I was as ten-year-old girl but I can still run down hills with joy and abandon. And overtaking other, more cautious, runners on the downhills is very satisfying even if they may subsequently catch me up on the uphills.
Taking part in cross country makes me feel part of my club. Holme Pierrepont Running Club is a big club with over 300 members, but we don’t have a huge turnout for cross country races, particularly the ones that are longer or further afield. Being part of a smaller group of cross country regulars is a nice feeling. When there are separate men’s and women’s races, the men and women can usually cheer each other on for at least part of the races (they often overlap a bit). Sometimes in league races, even if I am the last to finish my points will contribute to keeping our women’s teams in the competition. And there’s usually cake afterwards, sometimes we even have more than we can eat.
By the 2017/18 season, I was starting to get keen on cross country. I did six races and five the following season. In 2019/20, I did nine, including travelling over 40 miles to a North Midlands League race in Corby in Northamptonshire. I’d decided to run every cross country race I could. This would have been twelve, but I was on holiday for the first one, one was re-arranged and I couldn’t make the new date, and another was cancelled due to a storm.
There was no cross country season in 2020/21. This year, I’m trying to do as many races as I can again. I’ve run four races so far, not including the County Champiopnships, and there are four more on the calendar for this month and two in February. The only one I’ve not signed up for is the National Championships but I would love to do that one year, partly because it’s a historic event and partly because everyone from the club who’s done it, says that it’s a “must-do” event.
Learning from a DNF
Reflecting on my DNF a few weeks later, I feel that the bigger picture is more important than dropping out of a race. For me, that bigger picture is being able to continue running for many more years into my sixties and seventies. Focusing on that has reduced my disappointment at missing nearly all the remaining cross country races of the season. I had been hoping to do all six of them. I did venture along to the East Midlands Cross Country League fixture at Colwick Woods on 6th February but was unable to run the whole course due to a recurrence of the calf pain. I was determined not to pull out so I walked the last half a mile. Fortunately, the women’s race is short.
I’ve withdrawn from my main target race of the year, the Crawley A.I.M. 6 hour track ultra. It takes place at the beginning of April and I wouldn’t have had time to train for it properly.
I’ve seen my physio twice and I have been running a few times in the past two weeks and am feeling hopeful that I have got past the injury. I’m not making firm plans yet for races, but think I may do some track races over the summer as well as running the Nottinghamshire AAA Summer League races for my club.
The most important thing is to keep running.
Banner photograph: the Holme Pierrepont RC women runners at the North Midlands Cross Country League race at Shipley Country Park, December 2021: Editha, me, Gina, Lisa, Emma, Janet (Ladies Team Captain). After three out of four races, our club is in first place in the Vets (Masters) Women’s team competition which will be decided on Saturday.
At the County Championships on Saturday, Lisa, Emma and Janet made up the Vets Women’s team which won Silver.
Maddy Collinge, who I interviewed in 2018, won Gold in the v65-74 age category at the County Championships in 2020 and Silver on Saturday.
I am very grateful to our Events Secretary, Steve Tupholme, who organises our entries for the cross country leagues and the championship races and brings and erects the club gazebo at events. I’m also grateful to my club for giving me the chance to find out I like cross country and to take part in all these events free of charge.