Monday, 19 November 2012

Big Bird is Watching You!

Rose and Dawn flee from the gaze of the Notley Park kestrel.  

“IF you’re going to take up cross-country running, it helps if you start with a small country.”

I was reminded of that old joke during a gruelling race on Sunday. And it struck me that Monaco would be a good one – for there’s a country that’s barely the size of New York's Central Park and at one point is only 382 yards wide!

Yes, cross-country is a sport that inspires gallows humour. And no wonder. My weekend race – a league fixture at Notley Country Park in Essex - may have been staged in near-perfect weather, but the organisers cruelly threw in hills that would have made Sir Ranulph Fiennes go pale.

The event was only five miles long, but no fewer than THREE times were we forced to trudge upwards to the famous ‘Kestrel of the South’ statue which is perched atop the highest bit of land for miles around. Yes, it’s a kestrel not a mockingbird, even though it did appear to be mocking the weary athletes that circled it from below.

The big bird recently celebrated its fourth birthday, having arrived to replace the one nicked in mysterious circumstances one night back in 2007.

Made of concrete, aluminium and steel, awkward in shape, and weighing three-quarters of a tonne, it is still a complete mystery how the thieves managed to carry the statue away from such a prominent spot without being seen. If you are going to steal something in these parts, you could hardly pick a more conspicuous spot in the entire county of Essex than here, high above the busy A120 trunk road.

The theft occurred not long after a cross-country race in the park below, and I have a theory that maybe a couple of runners organised the theft, coming back under cover of darkness to take revenge on a creature that had taunted them as they suffered below earlier. Whoever did the dirty deed must have been pretty fit to shift something that big, and must also have had a bloody big space waiting on their mantelpiece too.

The biggest mystery of all is exactly how the bird was manoeuvred out of the park.  A member of Braintree’s finest Old Bill said it had been pulled off its base and dragged along the tracks below. But they could offer no explanation over how or where it was taken from the point the tracks ended.  

Perhaps the thieves buried it?  Or maybe it suddenly morphed into a real bird and flew to freedom?

Whatever the explanation, an exact replica was installed (with stronger fixings) one year later, courtesy of Braintree council. They acted quickly because they knew how much we runners would miss it!

After trudging upwards up to greet the kestrel for a third time on Sunday, I suspect many of our field of 261 runners would have felt more like flicking a ‘v’ than  admiring the craftsmanship on show. If they could have summoned the energy that is.

Speaking of energy, I think I wasted some on Sunday, even before the race got underway. For there was a moment of panic in the corner of the changing rooms occupied by Tiptree Road Runners. It was caused by what is sometimes referred to as a ‘wardrobe malfunction’.

No, nothing as thrilling as Janet Jackson and a stray nipple. This was in fact a disintegrating shoelace on my left Reebok shoe.  They’re good-looking laces; big, bold, brash and bright orange, but they’re no bloody good when they break are they?  Especially five minutes before kick-off.

History recalls that Usain Bolt cracked the Olympic record with a flapping shoelace, and in the New York Marathon one year a Kenyan had the laces on his Nikes come untied three times. Twice he stopped to re-tie, but on the third occasion just kept running and left it to flap dangerously. He consequently missed a course record and huge cash bonus by 11 seconds.

Aussie marathon legend Rob de Castella recalls an important cross-country when a badly-tied shoe became stuck in the gloop and disappeared. His reaction was sheer anger:  “I really got aggressive with myself and then found myself starting to pass a lot of runners. As it turned out, I improved something like 20 places. But I never did get the shoe back."

Prior to Sunday’s, I can’t recall another footwear crisis of my own since a village fun-run in Constable Country way back 20 years ago. I remember stopping mid-race to re-tie and very nearly losing a hard-earned leading position as a result. As if being in the lead wasn’t pressure enough, having to decide whether or not to stop for a lace really tests your composure, that’s for sure.

Of course, these days I don’t get a sniff of a leading position any more – and with it not mattering quite so much, the pesky laces behave themselves perfectly. Apart from on Sunday.

Nowadays I tend to go for double and triple-knotting and have done ever since that fun-run crisis of 1992. The obvious down side of this is that removing shoes after a race becomes a project in itself. Especially if mud and cold fingers are involved.

It’s been calculated by an Australian mathematician that if a running shoe has two rows of six eyelets, there are 43,200 different ways to tie it up. Well that’s as maybe, but I reckon it’s high time somebody introduced cross-country shoes with Velcro fastenings . . . .

* Check out Rob Hadgraft’s books (published by Desert Island Books) at

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