Tag Archives: Cross country

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Bridge Over the River Cray

An almost epic battle on the damp meadows of the Sidcup borders for the prizes in final cross country of the season.

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Like many of the open spaces that the League has ended up at over the years, this was formerly home to the wealthy of Georgian and Victorian England. Foots Cray Meadows are the grounds of a pair of former country houses. On the north western edge was Foots Cray Place – a Palladian mansion built in 1754.  It remained in private ownership until 1946 when Kent County Council bought it for use as a museum. It was demolished following a serious fire three years later – its location is obvious from terraced areas high up on the north-western side of the meadows.

On the south eastern side was North Cray Place which dated back to at least the mid-18th century, but was hit by a WW2 bomb and demolished in 1961 to make way for housing.

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Presumably the River Cray formed the boundary between the two – it was partially dammed to create a small lake – the plans for the landscaping, including the splendid five arch bridge, are attributed to Capability Brown.

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The course was much easier than all but one of the cross country venues that I have raced this season. Like the first, Stanhope Farm in Wilmington, it is a venue I know quite well – we used to come quite often when the children were younger – there is a pleasant mile and a half circuit along the banks of the very clear Cray with a children’s playground strategically placed at the mid-point.

The organisers eschewed the option of a water feature forming part of the course – there is a wide ford which is ankle deep in summer but would have been up to knee height for most (a bit higher for me) in February.

The course zig zags around the western side of the Cray passing the five arch bridge on quite uneven ground, it is clearly mole paradise beneath the lush grass, before eventually climbing up to the terraces of Foots Cray Place, then descending along a track back to close to the start for another meandering loop.

For reasons I never really understand, the final fixture of the year always seems to see fewer runners than the others, particularly in the slower, older categories – like me. It was a bit of a struggle from the start, the opening metres were a quagmire – I wished that I had worn longer spikes as I nearly hit the deck after ungainly avoidance of Talpa europaea deposits – but it dried out a little later, and I decided my spike length choice was probably correct. After about a mile, there was a turn and I could seen very few runners behind me and the finest of Kentish youth stretching out in a long line in front of me. After this point I passed no one and no one passed me and the race became an oddly solitary affair.

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On the route back down through the woods seemed to be a mixture of gravel and hardcore with a thin veneer of mud – it was treacherous with spikes and I had to pick a careful path along the edge of the path to get some grip. The two runners in front of me from Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells that I had been inching towards pulled away from me taking a good 50 metres out of me on the shallow descent.

On the second lap the runners behind me seemed to struggle more than I did, my glances behind saw the distance increasing considerably. In front of me, the gap was narrowing a little, but if I was to improve my position I would have needed to pass and take out at least 50 metres from the runners in front to make up for the time I would lose in the woods. I made a bit of a push and got the gap down to 20 metres at one point, but never got closer. The last few metres back through the quagmire were very reminiscent of Michael Rosen’s wonderful children’s book -‘We’re Going on a Bear Hunt’

Uh-uh! Mud!
Thick oozy mud.
We can’t go over it.
We can’t go under it.

Oh no!
We’ve got to go through it!

Squelch squelch!
Squelch squelch!
Squelch squelch!

I stayed upright, although nearly nearly stacked it in the funnel – I was rather generously awarded a 5.7 for my efforts by the officials there, one of the best of the afternoon – worth waiting for apparently! I was 109th out of around 120 and sadly for Beckenham, our 4th scorer, ‘helping’ us to 10th out of 11.

Overall in the League, the club was 11th out of the 11 teams who had four finishers in all 4 fixtures – not surprising really, we are a relatively small club without a youth section and relativley little interest in cross country. Using the same logic in terms of age group placings, based on turning up to all four events, I can proudly announce that I was top ranked MV55 runner in the League. There were only two of us that did all four races mind – myself and another Beckenham runner, Andy Small.

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Finally, two sets of apologies – firstly, most of the photos are from a visit to the Meadows a week ago when the sun was out unlike yesterday’s drizzle; and secondly, I am sorry if you stumbled across this by mistake thinking that this was a piece on the David Lean WW2 epic, ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’ – I hope you eventually find what you want.

Cross Country in Monochrome

The first snow of the winter in London greeted the morning, it hadn’t settled on the grass and nothing more than a light dusting remained on windscreens in Lee, but at the start of the annual mob-match with Blackheath and Bromley Harriers in West Wickham there was more than a dusting on the fields and in the churchyard of St John the Baptist next to the start.

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It is probably my favourite race of the year, a point to point run, a genuine challenge in attractive countryside – much better than the multiple laps of the traditional cross country course – like last weekend’s race at Brands Hatch.

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There were more of us at the start than normal – Beckenham had had a three line whip on attendance, doctors certificates were required from non-attendees, and to encourage our participation the club had decided to pay entry fees – but Blackheath had also invited Striders of Croydon, Petts Wood and Bromley Vets to join the fun.

The course was the same as previous years apart from, pushing the start back a few metres and then going to the right (instead of left) of a group of bushes thirty metres later. The net result was the same length. I’ve described the course in my posts on the race in 2014 and 2015, so I won’t duplicate it here. The snow made for a slightly more circumspect descent of the hill just after Layham’s Farm though; and there was perhaps slightly more mud than last year – particularly in the closing stages across the common.

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There were the traditional obstacles on the course – stiles, the waits early on we’re a little longer as there were more of us; horses – there were a lot loose in a field early on and some of the quicker runners had to wait for the harasse of horses (other collective nouns are available) to canter to safety; and on the part of the course that edges New Addington, the lack of horse power of a small burned-out motorcycle.

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One of things I love about cross country is the camaraderie, in the second half of the race I ran with a woman from Striders of Croydon, she had run in the Surrey League yesterday – we chatted, we swapped places a few times but she was stronger in the end. She was probably spurred on by the encouragement shouted out by Simon, 50 metres from the line, suggesting that I should be able to pass her. Quite rightly, she was having none of that, and all I could muster was a burst fast enough to protect my place from the runner behind me, whose footfall I could clearly hear.

We hugged at the end, thanking each other for encouraging each other round, comparing notes on broken bones and recovery, obviously my broken neck from almost a year ago top-trumped her broken ankle of seven months ago.

My time was about a minute slower than last year, but around half of that was the waits at stiles as there were a lot more runners. I beat a number of Beckenham runners I expected to finish behind which was pleasing.  All in all, it felt like progress – a 10k before Christmas had seen me over 2 minutes down on 12 months before.

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At the time of writing the result of the mob match is still unclear, Blackheath and Bromley seem to have had a few technical problems with the results, so Beckenham will probably have to wait until tomorrow to find out whether we have gained our first victory in the match.

 

Pumpkin Patch Cross Country

The first cross country match of the year marks the beginning of the autumn, for the last few years it seems to have always been in bright, warm sunny conditions and dry grass but it is the harbinger of shorter days and mud to come in the late autumn and winter.

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The venue of the first Kent Cross Country League of the season was a new one for the League, but a familiar location for me – a fruit and vegetable farm in Wilmington which my daughter and I pick strawberries at most summers.

The course and conditions were benign to say the least, a four lap course around wide, firm farm tracks, with the first lap missing out a narrow section. It was an easier opener for the season, but bereft of all the things that make for the best cross country – mud, hills, mud, driving rain, near freezing temperatures and more mud; it did have a field of pumpkins though. While I scraped off the last bits of last season’s mud from my spikes, I needn’t have bothered – road shoes would have been fine.

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One of the great elements of the Kent League, unlike the Surrey League, is that, for most of the fixtures, there are separate women’s and men’s races which leads to more encouragement from the sidelines. The women’s race was after a series of junior races – the women did well with Donna leading us to 9th overall.

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As for my race, it has been so long since I have properly raced that I wasn’t that sure of what pace I could cope with so I put my trust in my heart rate monitor, starting at the back, but aiming for around my tempo race – 165 beats per minute – in reality this equated to 7:45 pace. This saw me gradually moving through the field passing a couple of fellow Beckenham runners en-route.

I was expecting a torrent of younger runners to lap me during my penultimate circuit, but it was just a trickle – the final one was team mate Daniel who finished in 20th place – I was still feeling good, my pace wasn’t dropping and I was inching closer to a brace of Beckenham runners. Ultimately, Steve had too much left in the tank and finished about 25 seconds in front of me, probably taking 10 seconds out of me in the last 800 metres. Henry though remained in my sights, and I sprinted past him in the last 200 metres to finish the 100 metres or so shy of 10k in 47:16 – 176th out of just over 200, and 3rd in my age group.

It had been a good race for me, I had proved to myself that my structured recovery and training were going to plan and it bodes reasonably well for the rest of the autumn and winter. The next outing on the hills of a school just outside Tonbridge in a fortnight will be a much tougher proposition though, particularly if the weather turns, but it is one I am relishing.

Mob Rule

Mob matches are a standard feature of the cross country season. Today’s match with Blackheath and Bromley is a relatively recent one – around the 7th ‘edition’ although for a few years before that Beckenham runners ‘guested’ for a Bank of England team. Beckenham Running Club, like a lot of the sports clubs & ground in the area between Catford and Beckenham had its roots in the banking sector – until around 2000 it was known as Forbanks.

The links of Blackheath and Bromley to Blackheath is historical – they were based for around 50 years at the Green Man, just off Blackheath Hill, but moved to their current base in Hayes in 1926. The original Blackheath Harriers became Blackheath & Bromley after a merger of clubs in 2003.

The course is unusual for a cross country course in that it isn’t multiple lap, it isn’t even a lap – starting in a field below the fine church of St John the Baptist and finishing on the slightly higher ground of West Wickham Common about a kilometre away.

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(From Blackheath and Bromley website)

The 10 and a bit kilometres between the two start around a paddock to spread the field out a little followed a flattish kilometre across the fields to woods that run alongside the New Addington estate.

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There are numerous stiles to traverse en route, I (49) helpfully managed to close my eyes just after the first ….

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(From Blackheath & Bromley website)

Then it is a long slog up gaining around 70 metres by the halfway point, around Layham’s Farm, and I was certainly feeling Wednesday’s long run in my legs by this point…

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Photo by Tom Simpson
There are often loose horses in a field just before the farm who don’t take too kindly to over 90 runners using the public footpath through their field – which often leads to some perturbed looks from both parties (me from 3 years ago ….)

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Photo by Tom Simpson
Helpfully those planning the route allow most of the height gained to be lost almost immediately. Then the height lost is predictably regained over a couple of kilometres along a bridleway which is dominated in dry years by mud, and in wet years a quagmire of thick glutinous mud where you hope that you have done your off-road shoes up tightly enough; today was the latter.

To add insult to injury at the end of this section there are steps of a number and length to make running up them more trouble that its worth unless you are an experienced fell runner or mountain goat. Any time gained attempting to run up is almost always lost on the flat three kilometres (it always feels longer) to the finish which is partially along a road.

As usual Blackheath and Bromley ‘won’ although it was closer than it had ever been before. My time was a few seconds slower than last year, however, 2014 didn’t involve a nearly 25 second wait for some very slow horse riders to pass the other way on a single track bit late on.

Finally, a few Beckenham ‘penguins’ huddling together for warmth before a rather cold start.

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40 Furlongs of Cross Country

Today’s cross country outing was somewhere much more associated with another sport, horse racing. Surrey Cross Country League Divisions III & IV were meeting at Tattenham Corner on the Epsom Downs, close to the home of The Derby. I was in the rather shiny white and black ‘silks’ of Veterans AC, my second claim club.

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It is a relatively easy course, 2 and a half laps of a gentle downward slope, followed by a long slog upwards to make up the height lost and then a few gentle undulations which are then repeated to make up the 40 furlong/5 mile/8km distance. Being on the Downs there is little mud, but occasional loose horses to worry about.

The first 6 furlongs are crucial because then the course narrows and it is difficult to get past people on the first lap. Armed with this knowledge, I went off at a canter rather than a gallop and ended up too far back in the field on the first lap. But once the grandstand came into view I was able to start picking off other runners – passing around a dozen on the second lap before being out sprinted by an Oddball (an Epsom club) about 50 metres from the funnel and then trotting home. I finished around 38:20, probably around 170th out of around 200; about 90 seconds slower than my last outing there in 2011 – but I was much fitter then. However, as I discussed with a friend afterwards the important thing was being there, running and enjoying ourselves – which we most certainly did!

Mud, Mud Glorious Mud

It’s that time of year, the leaves are turning and the last vestiges of summer are becoming just a memory, it’s a time of year I always look forward to – it’s cross country time.

Locally, at least, it was the beginning of the season today – both my clubs were in action, Vets AC in the Surrey League in SW London, but it was to Swanley Park I headed with Beckenham.

It is a park I have been coming to for years, particularly when my children were small – there is a small lake with boats, a really pleasant playground, a massive sand pit and a miniature railway, which was oddly running today.

In cross country terms it is quite a benign course – three 2 and a bit mile laps with two moderate hills each lap and no quagmires. The senior and veteran men were last to race, and after some incredibly heavy showers during the morning, the course was quite cut up in places and I was glad that I put long spikes in my running shoes but it was still mild and the rain held off whilst we were racing.

I got there in time to warm up watching some of the women’s race and having separate races means that there is a lot of course-side encouragement.

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The course was a slight variant to previous times that I have run there and a full 10k this time, so it is difficult to know how my run compared with previous years but it was successful in that I wasn’t lapped by anyone – always a risk in the Kent League where large numbers of the front runners are considerably less than half my age. There seemed a few more more behind me than normal – I came home in 49:51 in 156th place out of around 190, I would guess. Time and placing don’t really matter though, I thoroughly enjoyed it, cross country for me is more about battling against the terrain and the elements – there will be much tougher challenges over the winter.

Elsewhere in athletics, the IAAF announced the short lists for the Athlete of the Year and included the seemingly unrepentant doper Justin Gatlin, who dominated sprinting this year as Usain Bolt effectively had a year off. The problem with Gatlin is that never has anyone ever run as fast as he has over 30 years old, and there is now evidence of doping having ‘benefits’ beyond the time of the doping itself. Gatlin’s inclusion of the short list prompted the German discus thrower Robert Harting to ask for his own name to be taken off the list.

Irrespective of Gatlin’s presence, there should be joint winners in the men’s category – Mutaz Essa Barshim and Bogdan Bondarenko who have produced the most competitive and entertaining high jumping for years. As for the women’s prize, it is difficult to see beyond the amazing Valerie Adams in the shot put.

Mud, Sweat but No Tears

Cross country running has a long and distinguished history going back to at least the early 19th century with racing at Shrewsbury School mimicking fox hunting in a very similar way to hashing. In London a similar approach was used by Thames Rowing Club in the late 1860s to keep fit over the winter with paper chases which soon became more formalised into the Thames Hare and Hounds, the first race was a fool hardy night time race over some of the boggiest bits of Wimbledon Common – a tradition was born…

Today’s race is an inter club ‘mob match’, primarily between the hosts Blackheath and Bromley, in black, and Beckenham, in claret. The links of Blackheath and Bromley to Blackheath is historical – they were based for around 50 years at the Green Man, just off Blackheath Hill, but moved to their current base in Hayes in 1926.

The course respects the history of the sport and is always muddy seemingly even in the driest years; after the torrential rain of recent weeks, parts of it were the muddiest I have ever run the it in. The conditions overhead were almost perfect.

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(From Blackheath and Bromley website)
The high winds had brought down nearly a dozen trees on the course, while most just involved a step over, there was one small detour and clambering over one blocking the path. While there is always a field of horses to negotiate, today’s race had the added excitement of a loose horse on a very muddy bridleway; it made a dramatic entrance from stage right and had I been a second or two slower, it would have probably collided with me.

My finish time was about as expected in the conditions – around 40 seconds slower than last year; but unlike my last cross country outing, I didn’t end up completely covered with mud…

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The winners on the day were the team in black, but it was the closest result in the half dozen years that the fixture has been running.