Monday, 5 November 2012

Squelching on a Sunday

It can get a bit windy in Harwich . . . .  

THE havoc wreaked 3,500 miles away by Hurricane Sandy led to Sunday’s New York Marathon being cancelled - but here in East Anglia a spot of nasty weather failed to stop our Sunday morning fun-on-the-run.

Emerging from my front door at some unearthly hour, I observed violent skies that looked unrelenting – and barely 200 metres from my doorstep our local park was flooded again. With the fate of the NYC Marathon having been all over the TV news, I began to wonder if the ‘health and safety’ option might kick in over here.  But thankfully the Harwich Runners club is made of stern stuff.  It takes more than driving rain, bitterly cold winds and ankle-deep mud to prevent their 53-12 N.Essex Cross-Country League fixture taking place.   

Fast forward two hours and - huddled together on bleak, exposed farmland just outside the port of Harwich - more than 200 hardy locals pulled on studded cross-country shoes, cast their eyes upwards and laughed defiantly in the face of the weather gods.

However inhospitable the venue, the course and the weather, the hardest part of cross-country can sometimes be getting yourself to the start-line, not the actual completion of the race. With this in mind, I tip my (metaphorical) hat to those who were making their cross-country debuts at Harwich on Sunday.  If you come back for more after that lot, you’ve definitely passed initiation with flying colours and can consider yourself promoted to the ranks of ‘real runners’!

It was the first time the weather turned against organisers of this annual event, so credit to them for not being cowed into submission. They’d already warned us beforehand that waterlogged fields would severely restrict parking and create a mighty long walk to the start, and that changing and pre-race preparation would be in a draughty barn definitely not designed to accommodate 200-plus jostling runners.  It was a miracle anyone turned up at all really!

Your Clapped-Out Runner arrived relatively early to avoid the booby-prize parking spots, and was rewarded with a farmyard position amid rusty, redundant machinery which lurked menacingly as far as the eye could see. The rain slanted down incessantly as, on the far grey horizon, little knots of hunched runners and their sportsbags trekked across exposed fields towards the start. Welcome to the sharp end of GB athletics. No hospitality marquee and plush VIP start-area here.

Friend and foe alike, representing the 13 competing clubs, gathered inside the barn HQ, tripping over each other as they fretted and experimented with clothing combinations aimed at defying the cold and rain. Gloves, hats, base-layer tops, long socks, neckerchiefs and more flew through the air as people kept busy, perhaps to postpone that awful moment when they finally had to return outdoors.

The run itself was set off with a minimum of ceremony, but a maximum of splashing and squealing noises. But the eight squelchy kilometres proved the ‘easy’ bit. When it comes to bad conditions it’s the waiting around for the start, and the recovery period afterwards that kills you, not the activity itself.

Harwich organiser-in-chief Peter G admitted he’d always feared that one day it would rain on their parade and highlight the exposed location and shortage of shelter.  But a creditable tally of 146 men, 73 women, plus juniors, toughed it out, and equally impressive were the marshals who manned their posts with great dedication.

The inquests after a run like this can be amusing. People mull over in meticulous detail how they’d worn too much, too little or the wrong type of clothing; had taken the wrong route past the giant puddles; had eaten the wrong things pre-race; had been tripped, cut-up and elbowed. This moaning and groaning is evidently all a front, for deep down many are glowing with self-congratulation at not only surviving the ordeal, but doing better than expected.

My Tiptree teammate Craig had a blinder - 31st on his cross-country debut - as did Tina, whose 32nd place in the women’s race was offset by the loss of feeling she reported in all ten of her toes. Wendy told us her controversial decision to run in waterproof jacket and woolly hat was vindicated by being the only finisher not to suffer exposure. Chairman Malcolm, not fully fit, watched the carnage from the sidelines, but instead of being pleased to avoid the misery, he announced a plan to return next week at Colchester’s Hilly Fields (another Shangri-La where the sun always shines and it’s never cold or wet!). 

The race may have looked like hell-on-legs, but running’s a strange game and most survivors seemed somewhat exhilarated by the end. Recovering in the melee next to my lot were Ipswich JAFFA runners, including Kelly, who glugged down “The best cup of tea I've ever, ever had in my whole life”.  Nearby, the experienced Gavin confirmed it had been one of the muddiest and wettest races he’d ever done. The appropriately-named Marina was quick to agree.

And there was Andrew, who reckoned the reason he’d forgotten to bring a towel was because he hadn’t run cross-country since 1973. Marcus was so traumatised by it all he managed to lose his car keys, while clubmate Esther left her shoes behind. Debutant Hannah announced she was so cold her hands had stopped working, while JAFFA old-stager Clive reckoned in his day cross-country had always been like this (presumably meaning the conditions rather than malfunctioning hands).

Typifying the spirit of the day was Colchester Harriers’ Debbie Cattermole, who slipped and took a spectacularly heavy fall but bravely carried on, eventually finishing just outside her team’s scorers in seventh spot.   

Poor old organiser Peter G perhaps had it worst of all, though. His scoresheets got so soaked it delayed publication of the full results. But that would prove the least of his troubles.  As people trekked homewards, he told his fellow-helpers to depart and get dry as he would do the last bit of clearing up himself. Unfortunately this meant nobody was around to assist when his car got firmly stuck in the mud. Having to then call colleagues back from their firesides was, he said sarcastically, “The perfect end to the perfect day!”

At precisely 2054 hours on Sunday (nearly ten hours after the race finished) Peter solemnly declared he was about to form a close alliance with a bottle of wine. He’s not been seen since.

Since Sunday I’ve heard rumours about a handful of local runners who thought they could avoid the misery at Harwich by taking the ‘safer’ option of a road race elsewhere in the region. I have to report that their cunning plan misfired. Two of them selected the Billericay 10k, but while sheltering in their car from the driving rain, managed to miss the start completely. Once they finally gave chase to the rest of the pack, they were confronted by oceans of ankle-deep floodwater.  

Meanwhile Ipswichian runner Mon headed up to the Bungay 20k. For his troubles he developed a strange condition he described thus: “My arms began flinching of their own accord”. As far as running ailments go, that's definitely a new one on me . . . .  

* Check out Rob Hadgraft's 16 sports history books (five on running), published by Desert Island Books, at:


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