Digested read: well I did go forth, but didn’t really conquer the XC at Penistone in any meaningful way. Still, showed my face, that’s the main thing.
I’m not sure if this post is more reminiscent of a dog returning to it’s vomit or a bee revisiting a favourite flowering shrub, but whichever you choose I have to ‘fess up this isn’t a freshly written post. Due to lack of internet (yawn) since 6th November, I’m writing this post on 19th December, so I’m probably giving a less than reliable witness testimony of the event, but here’s hoping you’ll find an emotional truth all the same.
So, since as has previously been established I’m generally conscientious if not keen, I had agreed to going along to the Penistone cross country (XC) event on 19th November 2017 as ballast for the TNT ladies XC team. That reminds me, I wonder if I should update my LinkedIn profile with my sporting team memberships? I’m sure there’s a section for it somewhere, although it may necessitate upgrading my membership option. If I did, I might be able to pop in a note about early membership of the Tufty Club too, I’m sure both would represent a mighty boon to my professional memberships section and therefore help jump-start my currently flagging career. Food for thought….
The day dawned. With it came my usual trepidation. Truthfully, I’m still a bit on the fence about the whole XC thing. It is definitely a competitive arena, generally friendly, but there is a certain tension given off by being in the presence of others that are clearly there to push themselves to the limits. I can’t help feeling a bit out-of-place amongst the tiny shorts and spiked shoe runners. It’s like I’m a different species entirely.
I dug out the instructions for getting to the show ground at Penistone. Good, they looked really clear. The blah de blah directed:
There is a reasonable-size parking area off St Mary’s Street: coming up the hill fromthe Bridge Inn traffic lights, take the final turn-off from the small roundabout just beyond the railway bridge and follow the road leading straight ahead into a large flat area to park – this is the old goods yard. There is access to the Trans Pennine Trail from here and you can see the Showground. For Satnav put in: “The old goods yard Penistone S36 6DT” When this gets full, there is parking on the roads around the Showground and a small car park down next to The Paramount cinema. Please take care not to restrict access for residents. Tesco will not be over-pleased if we fill their car park, I imagine.
So I set off with a complete confidence which turned out to be entirely without foundation. I followed the satnav and ended up on what I thought was the right road near a church but seemed to end up in a sort of vortex of narrow impossible-to-park in roads. I was completely lost. I ended up heading back to the railway station I’d passed on the way in, and then after loitering there a while worked out how to find the nearest Tesco to where I was using my satnav and headed there instead. I parked in their car park in direct contravention of the stated parking policy, but this did facilitate nipping in to use their nice clean loos. There was a queue of XC runners doing the same thing so I knew I was in the right place. Well I assumed I was, it might be that the good folk of Penistone like to do their weekend shop in their active wear complete with a XC number for extra credibility. A sort of wannabe runners take on the country look of hunters wellies and a 4X4 outside, even if you don’t have chickens and/or a country estate that you need to monitor.
Comfort break concluded, I bought some chocolate cornflakey things to share with other runners, and then
fearful of being caught out by clampers for misuse of tesco parking facilities being a fundamentally law-abiding and compliant individual, I left the car park and tried to find the show ground which I could see from where I was parked. After a bit of circling around, I ended up in a residential street adjacent to the grounds. There was a fair bit of space to park. I hoped it wouldn’t annoy the locals too much, but I couldn’t see any reason not to park there, and I made my way to the show ground.
Hmm, the show ground. It was a fairly dark and dismal day, and the ambience of the place filled me with foreboding rather than eager anticipation. Whereas the XC venue at the Kimberworth fixture had been unexpectedly lovely and reminiscent of a jolly festival of quidditch and camping, this venue seemed somewhat grim. I walked past a playground, and the facilities – no queue though, and took in the view of tesco’s car park along the way.
Mud underfoot, it was really cold, the sky was so low I’m pretty sure it was on the verge of falling in, and the scattered tents looked somewhat makeshift and ramshackle rather than proud and majestic. More start-up refugee camp than splendid medieval tournament tent HQ to be honest. I felt unsettled. This didn’t feel immediately like it was meeting my desired fun quotient for a Sunday. Luckily I’d already had some of that at Graves Junior parkrun first birthday party earlier. Maybe I’d already had my allocated fun for the day, whole week even – and so it was inevitable all the hours that followed would seem dark and hollow by comparison?
I think some of my growing apprehension was because I couldn’t find anyone I knew. I saw the Valley Hill Runners tent and vaguely sauntered in that direction as I figured I might see a friendly face there, but it was abandoned. When I say ‘abandoned’ what I actually mean is I wasn’t sure I recognised anyone well enough to say ‘hello’ and those present looked to be in conference over tactics so I slunk away without making first contact.
I didn’t really recognise anyone else, and because the ambience is a bit different to parkrun where it’s quite acceptable to strike up a conversation with pretty much everyone i didn’t know quite what to do. Where was the TNT tent? Where were my running buddies? I’m not saying other runners wouldn’t have been friendly, I’m sure they would, but I felt really intimidated, what with being a different species from all these toned athletes sprinting about. I couldn’t find an obvious organisers tent where I could find out what was going on, and I didn’t even know what time the women’s XC was supposed to start. I can’t lie, I was on the brink of turning round and going home, figuring if no-one else had shown up, no-one need ever know I’d ventured into this alien territory. I could gorge the chocolate cornflakey things when I got home by way of comfort food, and chalk up the whole thing to experience.
Just as I was about to act on this impulse, a shout went up ‘Lucy?!’ I’ve
never rarely been so relieved to hear a familiar voice. It was a TNT buddy from before. Hurrah! It seems everyone had turned up late for various reasons, including the holder of the tent HQ. She’d spotted me wandering around like a lost soul, and rounded me up to join the little huddle of other TNTers who were up for a run. Phew, that was something, you are never alone at an organised run it seems. It also seems to be the case that people really do bond in adversity. In that moment, she was absolutely my best friend in the whole world, and I’d happily have given her possession of all my worldly goods so grateful was I to have been seen by her and called back to the fold. Phew. I say all my worldly goods, but I do have a pebble with a cat painted on it of which I’m particularly fond. I might have regretted parting with that.
It was all a bit last-minute, and our co-ordinator/ tent holder had been delayed en route (partly by struggling to negotiate the navigational challenge of the labyrinth of confusion that following the parking directions led to) so worryingly we had to use our own initiative to work out where the start was. Working out the route was even more perplexing to me. Lots of running round in circles basically. Big circles, little circles, then doing them again (and again and again for the mens’ races) but without the reward of creating a crop circle at the end of it all. Hang on, I wouldn’t normally introduce a spoiler at such an early stage, but in the interest of clarity, this is the route we ended up running:
So you see it is indeed pretty much a case of running round in badly shaped circles (twice). I don’t mean to be negative about the route, but l think it’d be tough to argue that the shape is as geometrically pleasing to the eye as either a crop circle or the Nazcan desert shapes of deepest, darkest Peru. I think Paddington drew them, but I’m not sure.
I think Paddington and I probably would have similar running styles XC now I come to think of it. It’s a real shame he’s London-based, otherwise he might have been a grand addition to the TNT XC teams. Oh, and also that he’s a fictional character, since I get the impression XC organisers are sticklers for the rules so that could be a problem. It would be like Babe at the sheepdog trials all over again. Might get away with it ultimately if he put in a good performance, but some upsetting consternation along the way could be perturbing. As a newbie, I don’t want to cause trouble this early on in my Cross Country career, but food for thought…
So where was I? Oh yes, panicking, then rescued. We assembled, and tried to pool our knowledge about the course. Turned out that was approximately zero. There were people running round the fields in circles all around us. The best guess was that at least one of our number said they’d done the event before. ‘Great!’ we collectively exclaimed ‘what’s the course?’ She froze. Zero recollection. Couldn’t even think where the start was. The only promising detail was that she seemed very confident that the route would be obvious. I was dubious, people seemed to be running in all directions and marshals looked thin on the ground. This did not bode well, but hey ho, here we were with a job to do. We would make it so! Just as we had resolved to run onward, Doctor Smiley/ TNT XC co-ordinator appeared and the sun came out and all was well, just time to pose for a quick women’s team snap:
and then we headed over to the start.
Because I was a bit vague about start times, and the direction in which we were supposed to be heading, and still trying to pump my fellow TNTers for information about what to expect, I found I was quite literally facing the wrong way when the start shout went off! Oops, that was a first for me, and a new low in my running experiences to dat, as although my running ineptitude can manifest in many forms, I’ve never previously considered that I might be caught out looking the wrong way. In the circumstances it was fortunate that I realised my mistake and didn’t actually run off in the wrong direction altogether. Somewhat embarrassing though. I’m beginning to understand now, why no other running clubs have tried to poach me. I dread to think how I’d fare in an actual blindfold race. Memo to self, don’t bother to try to find out.
It was almost a relief to be underway. Incidentally, I now realise that there was in fact a pdf file explaining the route – but I couldn’t find a map even retrospectively, so that didn’t really help. Here it is in case of interest, good luck making sense of it!
To be fair, these guides that are intended to be helpful might instil fear in the uninitiated, but I can honestly say that on the day, it was marshaled, and it was ‘obvious’ where to go, albeit sometimes not until you got to a friendly marshal who was pointing the way. However, you do get a sense of the running round in circles feel to it all that’s 1 small loop, one medium loop and one large loop to be run twice. I increasingly feel this is not a Lucy-friendly format. I also had a moment of realisation when running at Penistone, because you are basically running round the perimeter of grassy playing fields, and this necessitates looping through the tent base where other (more serious and better athletes than me) are hanging about waiting for their events to start, I got flashbacks to the humiliation of school sports days. It just feels quite exposed. I don’t mind being a shite runner when I’m invisible out on the trails or part of a huge gang of other runners, but there’s nowhere to hide at these XC runs. It feels like you are running under surveillance. Although in my head I know nobody is really that interested in what I am or am not doing, and of the minority who are there is only support and encouragement being offered, it does rather play into my insecurities. I don’t want to let the team down by being caught walking, I’m worried that I won’t know where to go, and I’m worried about falling because that grass gets slippery when you are at the back of a pack of runners who have already run through leaving mud baths in their wake. XC perhaps epitomizes the truism that successful running is as much about what happens in your head as in your legs. I have nothing but respect for those who embrace this as a sport and put themselves through such angstyness year after year. Horses for courses I suppose.
So, underway, and it immediately felt a bit better. Yes, I wasn’t going to set any records, but I could put one foot in front of the other, there were a couple of other runners at my speed and it became clear the marshals were going to support us and not let us get lost. It was hard for me circling back round to the start in a mini loop straight off – you get a tantalising look at the finish but have to run on by. Through the tent city and then off round and bypassing the fields, down more of gravel path, and up a hill. I preferred this bit as I felt less watched. However, disaster struck. My dark & White buddy did a face plant in slow motion just ahead of me. It looked really bad. At first I thought maybe it was because she was wearing running spikes and this was hard under foot, but in fact it turned out it was nothing to do with that, she had literally just mis-stepped on a stone. Looked nasty. I stopped, and so did our fellow TNTer who was also just behind. A marshal came running to check she was OK and she bravely got to her feet, protesting she was OK. We walked as a trio for a bit, which is how come I was able to clock that the route passed by a somewhat unlikely placed small cemetery! No, it really, truly did! It was bizarre, but I couldn’t help thinking that would have been handy had her fall been fatal. We could probably just have rolled her in amongst the graves and her demise would have been all done and dusted in less time than in takes even Jessica Fletcher to resolve deaths in Murder she Wrote. For the record, I was pleased we didn’t have to take such action, convenient as it would have been, as I am counting on said buddy for Smiletastic purposes, but that’s for a future post. Anyway, our fallen runner bravely continued for a bit, but then retired so as not to exacerbate a likely injury.
Incidentally, falling over is something that can happen to even the most elite of runners. I am most grateful to the Smiley who sportingly shared this action tweet of Dr Smiley showing how to fall with real grace at a previous XC fixture. Expertly executed roll I think we can all agree. Here she is, doctor smiley showing how it’s done. Most impressive. Thank goodness for social media and its infinite capacity to recall what might otherwise have been forgotten and consigned to history eh?
We stayed together for a bit, and then as she protested she was OK started off running again. The course was twisty and had a couple of fairly savage hills to be negotiated as part of it. The marshals were genuinely superb though. Super friendly and encouraging. I was feeling self-conscious about my manifest ineptitude, but they cheered me on. I tried to thank each as I passed, sometimes in slightly strangled tones. They do help though. There was one really muddy bit where I slid about, but hills aside, it wasn’t too bad terrain. Towards the end of the big loop you end up back in amongst the XC village. I was spotted by one of the frontrunner team who gave me a cheery shout. Thank goodness I was actually running at the time, always a worry to be caught out either walking, or worse yet, collapsed in a star shape or sobbing on the ground when you are supposed to be taking part in an organised running event. Well, that’s my experience anyway.
Past the finish again, ooh, the temptation to join that funnel of people who were all done was pretty strong, but one of the marshals at the finish tape spotted me and gave me a sympathetic but firm look indicating in a glance that I’d be welcome to take that path at the alloted time, but there’d be no sneaking through any earlier – so round I went again.
I did find it a bit of a slog, it was cold, and I’ve not been running regularly so that made it harder. I am desperate to get back into a decent running routine, but life is a bit all over the place just now. XC feels to me quite a solitary discipline ultimately. It’s very much a team in terms of the being part of a gang at the start, and the party at the tent flaps afterwards with shared goodies. Plus as the women and men’s teams run at different start times and come through the camp you can shout support at each other as they pass, but you are on your own for the actual running bit. Maybe that’s what I find hard. Participants are focused and giving their all whilst running, you can’t really be having a chat with other runners on the way round, it wouldn’t feel quite the done thing.
Eventually, I made it round to the finish, and parasitising supportive cheers from valley hill club members, smiling with relief I stumbled back to our TNT gang. There a few more were gathered in a chilly huddle, ready to support the men who were shortly starting their event. Or possibly already had, I can’t remember!
We shared provisions, and stood to watch the men running by, which they did loads of times. They were like they were on a running carousel, I don’t know how many laps they did officially, but unofficially it was dizzying just watching them.
No wonder at least one of them had to stop for a refreshment break and pep talk before continuing.
Once the hardship of running was concluded, it was nice to chat to my new TNT gang, and there was a multitude of biscuits and other goodies to be shared. For future reference, there was also a sports club of sorts where you could have got a hot drink and for non-veggies a bacon sandwich. For our club there was an impromptu knobbly knees picture contest (pick your own winner, I think it was an unofficial contest, and there may be sensitivities around the placings – it’s always hard with these more subjective competitions) – good turn out though! 🙂
So as the day got darker and the races were finished and the chill set in, we all started to depart our separate ways. For various reasons many of us had come on our own, I’d come from Graves junior parkrun, others had also had busy mornings pre XC so it was a bit sad saying farewells at the showground and missing out on the in the car going home debrief. Ah well, there will be other XC opportunities for such race dissections I’m sure.
Oh, if you want the results from the day, the final Penistone XC results for 2017 are here.
There you go, my observations (belatedly) on my second XC experience. I’m still a bit on the fence about it all to be honest. I get why other people enjoy it. I like the social being part of a club aspect, but I feel a bit overwhelmed by the inherent competition which is understandably the focus of it all. I guess it’s a confidence thing. I certainly couldn’t imagine rocking up on my own to do a XC event, whereas I would a bigger race or a new parkrun quite happily, then again, as XC is inherently a team thing, I’m not sure you ever would.
I had wanted to complete the season – there was final winter fixture in December, but alas I didn’t make it due to a knee/ calf/ shin thing going on. That was a darned shame, as I feel I have unfinished business. I don’t know if TNT will still exist as a club in its current form next year, so whether or not I’ll be organised and proactive enough to seek out another group to have another bash in 2018 remains to be seen. Still, where would be the fun in life if we knew exactly what the future held. It will be good to be able to maintain some element of surprise right through to the end of next year!
So, thank you TNT buddies for making me welcome and Elder Smiley for recruiting me in the first place. Thank you XC organisers, marshals and fellow runners for being open to a wide-eyed newbie. I’m glad to have given it a go, but I hope if I do again I’ll have upped my game a bit to reduce the stress. At least I’ve now understood the importance of catering on such occasions. Can’t believe I missed out on mince pies and Amoretti for the pre-Christmas XC shenanigans. These XC clubs have really cracked the motivational and team building aspects of running, or TNT have anyway. Bravo.
Plenty of time to up my game before next winter, so will I be there next year? Well, let’s say the jury’s out, which is a pretentious way of saying I haven’t decided yet. Then again, one should always leave one’s reader wanting more, apparently… I understand The Guardian believes XC to be running in its purest form:
Foul-smelling mud, biting wind, freezing rain and dangerously uneven ground – the English National Cross Country Championships has it all. What’s not to like?
and the thing is, I actually agree with that statement, so I do have the potential capacity to enjoy it, it’s the running round in circles aspect I wrestle with. Now maybe if it were more point to point? Maybe if I did some different courses? Just think, I do all that, and one day this could be me! Now that does look like fun!