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 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 http://egansaltitudeadventures.blogspot.ie/2015/12/the-art-of-cross-country.html in December 2015, but it's probably more relevant here than on a blog about altitude training.