Friday, 23 December 2016

The Art of Cross Country

You could say that cross country is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get next. And that’s the beauty of it.

One week you’re floating over a perfectly dry, pancake flat course, the next you’re struggling up hills and through mud, running into that sort of horizontal wind and rain that seems to save itself for race day.

Often the same venue can throw up completely different experiences two weekends in a row, just to keep things interesting.

At a track race, the smallest unexpected detail - an outside waterjump, finishing in the back straight, no lap times being called out, 30 minute call ups, an official reminding you (still without a valid reason why) to tuck in your singlet, wider than normal bends, flowers in front of the water jump, toilets without toilet paper - can mess with the mind, and cause already simmering pre-race anxieties to boil over.

But at cross country, anything goes.

Hell toilets, never mind toilet paper, are an unexpected luxury!

Cross country is an art form

Summer will be soon enough for carefully timed warm-up routines, racing the clock, analysing progress, cursing headwinds, pollen counts and humidity (often all on the one day) and, when everything goes according to plan, sitting and kicking. Summer will be for formulas and for measuring.

Winter is for conquering hills, measuring performance purely by how much (or little) you had left in the tank, and gently smiling to yourself when, on the last lap, you finally work out the best route through that energy-sapping muddy patch. And if you think you’re going to just sit and kick, you’ll not just risk the result you hoped for, but also much of the fun.

It’s the lack of lap times, kilometre markers, and any form of measurement other than finishing position that makes cross country so enjoyable.

Winter is when the science of running gives way to the art of running!

Twenty-three years of experience

Twenty-three seasons of running cross country has taken me to 22 of Ireland’s beautiful counties, across much of England and Scotland, and occasionally to mainland Europe; it’s swallowed two of my spikes, never to be seen again; it’s taken a toe nail; and it’s blocked up my parent’s bathroom sink on numerous occasions.

My memories of running in the early days are dominated by images of four or five of us cramming into my mum’s less than reliable car, carefully placing school books into the back window – where they would inevitably remain for the weekend – and heading to the brown fields of Claremorris, Cavan or Stranorlar.

Sometimes we’d have had accommodation booked in advance, more often than not we didn’t, but we’d always hope that wherever we ended up staying the night before a race would also happen to accommodate some young male runners from Cork or Donegal or Belfast, or such exotic lands.

And we’d laugh a lot. Those weekends were full of laughter.

And now…

And despite those wonderful memories, I’ve probably enjoyed cross country more in the past year or two than I ever have. And I plan to continue to do so for a few years yet.

On the good days I’m reminded how much I enjoy it. How fresh, wet mud doesn’t actually hurt, how much enjoyment can be gained from simply reaching the top of a hill, and how, even on the days when I’m the only one from my club or county, this is a team sport. We are all in this together.

And on the bad days I’m reminded how wet socks and hardened mud don’t make for a pleasant journey home.

At last season’s English National, I spent the final kilometre of a gruelling race, where the main challenge was simply staying upright, locked in battle with a fellow mud warrior. We ran together for a while, then I got dropped only to come back on the next muddy patch where I went past my rival, she rallied and dropped me, and then, in the final metres, I came past her one final time. No words were spoken when we crossed the line. We simply turned to each other, shook hands and laughed. We’d both scraped into the top 60!

Like any other form of art, not every race is going to be a masterpiece. You make a big deal of the good runs, mentally recreating them on an almost daily basis, and remind yourself that the bad results don’t matter. And on the bad days, as well as the good, you’re allowed to laugh.

Occasionally people ask me why I still do it. For me it’s simple. My Mona Lisa may have been created nearly fifteen years ago, but there are still goals to achieve. And I’d like to think that, like da Vinci, I have more than one great painting in me.

And I’ve never raced in Wicklow. I’d like to race in Wicklow!


A small bit of artistic license has been used in writing this piece. My mum’s car only broke down on two occasions, there may have been a small bit of green in Cavan before we started, and though I’ve pulled quite a bit of grass and mud from the plughole, I’ve never actually blocked the sink.

And occasionally, just occasionally, you know you’ve ran well, not by how far over you’re bent or how long it takes to catch your breath, but by how easy it felt; because truly great artwork appears to be created effortlessly.

I first published this piece on in December 2015, but it's probably more relevant here than on a blog about altitude training.

Thursday, 22 December 2016

Sexed-up, watered-down events isn't what the regular athletics fan wants

There’s been much debate in recent times about the coverage of athletics and what can be done, with the sport becoming ever more tainted by doping revelations, to attract and maintain the fans that will ultimately keep the track and field show on the road.

At the moment there’s a Rift Valley-sized gulf between the let’s-see-how-many-under-informed-past-athletes-looking-for-something-to-do-with-the-rest-of-their-lives-we-can-manage-to-fit-on-one-panel-giving-their-opinions-on-Justin-Gatlin-and-Russia approach that broadcasters blindly employ (and which may well work with the sometimes follower filling a gap between football and rugby coverage on a Sunday afternoon), and what the real fans desire. Patronised and marginalised by the bereft lack of knowledge of commentators, the same clich├ęs being rolled out at every opportunity, and the uncomfortable shuffling of pundits when asked to pass comment on anything other than their specialist event, many regular athletics fans prefer to watch TV coverage with the volume muted and spend the punditry/interview sections (otherwise known as potential prime field event time) playing along with the latest Twitter challenge set by @smokymozzarella and her fellow ‘athleticos’ (#madeupmarathonfacts and #chocolateathletes are personal favourites).

The powers that be are constantly tampering with the sport, looking at ways to make it more attractive, adding new, more innovative events, talking about making it sexier, holding international matches which at the end of the day hold no weight whatsoever, and longing for it to be more like rugby or football.

Athletics doesn’t need to be tampered with or sexed-up to make it watchable.  If 5 days of cricket is watchable, then surely 25 laps of the track, lasting less than 30 minutes, often undecided before the final 400m, shouldn’t be that difficult to sell. And one of its main selling points, surely, it that it isn't rugby or football.

The solution is actually quite simply.  Instead of depending on past stars depending on their ‘inside’ knowledge from 10 or 20 or 30 or 40 years ago to provide irrelevant, predictable background noise to the unfolding drama, simply employ commentators with an in-depth knowledge of the sport, who are willing to do some research since the last event they covered (which is hopefully more recent than the last Olympics, four years ago), who are willing to learn the name of at least one non-white female steeplechaser, and who are, how shall I put this, actually willing to commentate.

This blog, conveniently, provides one final excuse to share my favourite 4 minutes of athletics footage from 2016 – yes I’m talking about Phil Healy, Cathal Dennehy et al., and THAT video. And I say 4 minutes because, while the final lap of that Irish University (IUAA) Championship 4x400m relay final is undoubtedly noteworthy in isolation, it is the entire race, and commentary, which perfectly encapsulates everything that is good about the sport (and particularly special about the 4-lap relay), and shows us what athletics commentary could be.

Many of the contenders to the fore at the various points in that now famous race get a mention, along with some anecdote or another or, when no fact or corny pun is immediately available, a light-hearted pondering of the question at the forefront of every paty-going athlete’s mind: heels or flats later? All this adds colour and anticipation to the biggest sporting crescendo of the year, and demonstrates that Cathal and Ronan either had a decent knowledge of the athletes competing, or had actually bothered to acquire a start list.

The commentary, like Phil Healey’s run, was raw, and while the lads benefited from the informal, nothing-to-lose nature of live streaming, such a moment would have been missed by Foster who would, no doubt, have been busily reminiscing about the great Kip Kieno, or by Hutchings fanaticising over Emma Coburn (future Olympic opposition of Healy’s Depths of Hell co-star Michelle Finn - don’t worry he’d have found a way to include his favourite steeplechaser).

And, should the need to fill 10 minutes of airtime discussing annoying cross country obstacles have arisen, Dennehy or Duggan would, I hope, have known the difference between a bale of hay and a bale of straw.

No, the sport itself does not need to be sexed up. Afterall, if golden-tanned, broad-shouldered men launching their spears to the opposite end of the oval, or tall leggy blonds provocatively shaking sand from their knicker-shorts doesn’t do it for you, then there’s no hope. Athletics is, already, the sexiest sport of them all, performed by some of the finest physical specimens the human race has to offer.

Maybe, just maybe, it’s the commentary that needs refreshing.

And so, I appeal to those responsible for bringing athletics coverage to a wider audience: take a leap of faith. Employ someone - with our without an Olympic medal or world record of their own - who has some real, actual knowledge of the athletes competing and who still possesses the drive and passion to learn about the new and emerging stars. Someone who knows that there is more to the sport than Usain Bolt and his untouchability and Mo Farah and that gimmick Mo-bot. Someone who, while willing to acknowledge that Justin Gatlin and the Russians don’t have a monopoly on doping offences, still believes that athletics, with its broad variety and narrow gender gap, is the greatest sport on earth. Someone who has something to tell me, a regular fan of the sport, that I didn’t already know.

Someone who doesn't witter on about 'back in our day.'