It was a new experience for me. There I was, stood shoulder to shoulder with some of the best XC runners in the UK. I wasn’t nervous anymore, as I had nothing to lose. This was a race I would savour and try to enjoy.
When the Coach down at the track first told me I had earned a place in the Suffolk XC team I was excited and worried in equal measures. These things don’t normally happen to old boys like me. However, a couple of years of tough training and an obligatory slice of luck was all that was needed. I was going to Loughborough for the National XC Championships, and I was as proud as a Suffolk Punch.
A couple of weeks before the big day I looked up last years results. That’s odd, I thought, no sign of the usual winners from the Suffolk races. Then I kept scrolling, and scrolled some more… Yes, the chaps that comfortably beat me in local races were finishing in amongst the masses. Okay. This is going to be interesting. From then on my mission was simple – don’t finish last!
It was a wet and windy day and the 8 of us in Suffolk vests were ready to give our all. On the organised chaos of the start line I found my natural position (near the back!). One of my team mates tried to point out an Olympic athlete near the front. I nodded and smiled knowingly, although I confess I didn’t recognise him, he did look the business.
Suddenly the gun fired, the tape was still down and we all took 3 steps forward crushing the front line. A false alarm. A sheepish official looked accusingly at the smoking start gun in his hand, laughter and banter broke the tension and we re-set and focused again. A minute later and we were off.
Congestion on the first bends soon eased and I found my rhythm. Within a couple of minutes it became clear that this was like nothing I’ve ever done before. The leaders were a blur against the treeline in the distance. How did they get that far ahead so quickly?
I held my own, heart pounding and lungs burning. Crickey, I wish I was as young as some of these lads. A late surge to hold off an attack by the Norfolk runner who’d been on my shoulder most of the race. I was damn sure I wasn’t going to lose this hard fort battle for 237th place to him now, even if it killed me (which it nearly did)!
As I peeled myself off the muddy grass in the finish area I looked around, there were probably about 100 people behind me. Some of these runners have parents younger than me, most won’t even remember Euro’96. Well, I thought, as my grimace morphed into a broad smile, not bad for a 41 year old – mission accomplished.