08 February 2011

'Is that wind or is the hotel falling down?' (AKA: BUCS Cross Country Championships 2011)

(Photo taken by a team-mate)
 Those who are frequent readers of my blog will know that when I say 'I will continue this tomorrow' I really mean 'sometime within the next month...maybe'. My word is golden when verbally given, but in writing (and especially on this blog), not so much. Life happens, you know?(It is for this precise reason that the quality of this post is significantly lower than I would have liked. I am posting it as is because I fear that if I delay much longer I will forget to put it up.)

So...back to BUCS. Neither wind nor rain nor cracked ribs was going to keep me away, although all three certainly tried. On Saturday morning, the team awoke (relatively) early to enjoy the hotel's complimentary breakfast. Self-labeled as a 'Victorian guesthouse', the Awentsbury was quaint but clearly was unused to having more than 3 or 4 guests at a time.I felt a bit bad as they clearly had not planned for having 19 hungry runners, but we had booked months in advance. And we were courteous.

The race was held at Sennelly Park outside of Birmingham. The course consisted of a small loop (roughly 1k) and a large loop (roughly 2k) with lots of hills. In fact, there were very few flat bits in the entire course. The only part that could be considered relatively flat was incredibly muddy and windy. The Men's Long Race was 10k and began at noon. Our top runner came in at 46th place, but a valiant effort was put forth by all Uni. of London men, as the pace was fast and the course particularly challenging.

Next up was the Women's Race at 1pm. The wind was absolutely howling by this point and as we (all 330 or so of us) lined up at the start, a fine rain started to fall. Unlike road racing where it doesn't matter how far back you start as chip timing means that your race starts whenever your chip crosses the start line, cross country is a free-for-all. We did wear ankle chips for this race, but they were there simply to confirm our finish times. The point of cross country is that you are actually racing against everyone else, and so how you start can have a huge impact on the rest of your race. Although I wanted to make sure that I was positioned mid-pack so that I wouldn't get boxed in by slower runners, a team-mate pointed out that it would not be do me any good to be elbowed in the ribs at the start. (Elbowing and spiking (hitting other runners with the spiked bottoms of your cross country shoes) are the two main ways that runners will try to sabotage each other's races). So I took a spot well towards the back and spent the first portion of the race (the short loop) fighting my way past the slower runners.
Photo by a team-mate

By the time I hit the beginning of the first large lap, I was in the groove. I made up a lot of ground on the first downhill and found the first major hill to be relatively unchallenging. By the middle of the second lap, however, the wind and the mud were beginning to take their toll on me. Most of the time the wind was pushing against me, making me feel as if I were working twice as hard to get the same result. At the same time, the mud was attempting to suck my shoes off and made getting a good footing very difficult. Still, it wouldn't be proper cross country without it. The final loop was the hardest, and at some points I really just felt like it might be wiser to either walk or die - it was a toss-up between the two. In the end I did neither and finished the 4.8 mile course (it was over the 7k advertised!) in 35:37-ish. I was the 161st woman to finish (out of 318 finishers). That'll do!

The rest of the University of London women's team finished strong as well, with our top runner coming in at 34th. In a field as competitive as the one at BUCS, this is no small achievement! After we had recovered with Jelly Babies, cookies, and clementines, we walked over to the bottom of the hill to support our Men's B team in the shorter 8k race. I didn't envy them as by this time the course was simply nothing but one giant mud pit. Our men's team ran well and we celebrated their achievement by piling into taxis (much to the dismay of the drivers, who had to deal with the muddy aftermath) and heading back to the hotel for naps, snacks and warm showers (not necessarily in that order).

Following a nap of a few hours, we reconvened and went to dinner at an Indian restaurant. I have only had Indian food on one prior occasion and so spent the better part of an hour deciphering the menu. This was not an issue, however, as it took over an hour before our orders were taken. The food itself was delicious. I ordered the 'vegetable saag (something) garlic' with rice and a (huge) naan. So much food, but so delicious! (Perhaps more exciting was the fact that my stomach didn't give me trouble like it usually does when eating, well, anything.) The fact that I washed this down with 2 pints of Magner's cider probably helped. :) Afterward it was off to the Uni. of Birmingham's Student Guild for the after-party. It was a strange experience, especially as I: a) haven't been to any student-type parties since February of 2010 at SMCM, and b) haven't been single at a party since December 2009. :( Like I said, a strange (not entirely welcome) experience, but fun nonetheless, though I think it is safe to say that my hard-partying days, such as they were, are well behind me at this point. It was a tame evening for me.

Competing at BUCS was a special moment for me as it represents a highlight (although hopefully not the crowning highlight) of my running career. Had you told me two years ago that I would be competing in a cross country race (let alone championships), I would have thought you mad. I only started running (sort-of) in the fall of 2008 when I studied abroad at Oxford as a way to work off the doner kebabs and Katy ciders consumed at the pub by night. I competed in my first race, the 10k Bupa Great Edinburgh Run, in May 2009, by training 3-4 days a week with a few laps around the Meadows in Edinburgh. I remember that most days I would do perhaps 2 laps (around 2.5 miles) and usually had to walk at least once during that time. I ended up walking up most of the Queen's Drive hill in Holyrood Park and down the Cowgate during the Great Edinburgh run, but I finished. And that feeling was amazing. I didn't actually race again (in a real race) until January 2010 with the New Year's Resolution Run in Patterson Park, Baltimore. So my 'competitive' racing career has been relatively short. I still find it mildly odd that I manage to do so well in my races, because part of me is still clinging on to the memory of the days when I couldn't. As I cooled down after finishing BUCS, all I could think was 'how did I ever get here?' It just seemed unreal.

Running has changed my life in ways I never expected, and I have watched as my love for it has spread on to my family and friends. To those who believe that they are too slow, will never be able to run X distance, don't consider themselves a runner: do not give up! Persistence will help you achieve your goals. Even if you can barely make it one lap around the track, that is a start, and everyone has to start from somewhere. Running is less about the distance or splits that you run and more about the changes you bring within yourself. It is about working until you can accomplish your goals, about pushing yourself even when you want to give up. Everyone starts from somewhere and what matters is not the point at which you start, but how far you are willing to go.

In the next post: my recent speed-dating experience!

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