Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Good old Benfleet bucks the trend!

"Keep going, only another 14 miles to go!"
LAST Sunday morning, at the crack of dawn, a runner I know crept out of bed to set off early for the Benfleet 15-mile race, a popular but tough annual off-road event in Essex beside the Thames estuary. There was snow and ice everywhere, but my friend had been assured this race always goes ahead no matter what. And besides, he’d paid his £15 entry fee and didn’t want to lose face by failing to show just because of dodgy weather.

Feeling anxious, but still up for the challenge, he carefully gathered up his cold-weather running gear, gulped down porridge and coffee, and crept out the front door. Within seconds he’d slipped over and bruised a knee, cracked an elbow and landed unceremoniously on his backside. Looking up, he noticed the car windscreen was frozen solid, the road past his house was a sheet of ice, and the sky was looking menacing.

All his resolve of earlier was gone in an instant. He picked himself up and, with tail between legs, crept back indoors. A picture of misery, he quietly undressed, returned to the bedroom and slipped back under the duvet next to his long-suffering wife.

"It’s shocking out there, honey," he whispered.

"Yes," she replied, "but my idiot husband still went running!"

OK, it’s an old and well-worn joke, but given current prevailing weather conditions, something similar must have happened somewhere on Planet Running last weekend?

Actually, the fact the Benfleet 15 bravely went ahead at all on Sunday was great news for runners in general, particularly the clapped-out old traditionalists like me. However, just 24 hours later, there was bad news when the Southern Cross-Country Championships on Parliament Hill Fields was called off due to the snow – SIX DAYS in advance!

Shocking that such a major historic event – at the spiritual home of cross-country running - should be cancelled at all, let alone almost a week ahead. Was this ‘health and safety’ gone mad? It was reported that the decision came from the people who manage the site (the City of London Corporation) rather than the race officials – and the reasons given were two-fold: The course is “badly rutted” and there are  “snow-related travel problems” involved.

When I started running (many aeons ago), the weather gods could throw whatever they liked at us, but cross-country races would always go ahead regardless.

Roads could become impassable, train services non-existent, all other sporting pursuits brought to their knees. But a British cross-country race always went ahead – there was nothing bad enough to cause a cancellation. NOTHING. Not even the arrival of the end of the world. And even if the world had ended, somebody would have pulled a few strings to get the race staged in a parallel universe.

It was such a badge of honour to defy the weather that an Athletics Weekly reporter, a Scotsman called Colin Shields, even published a book about the sport in 1990 which he called ‘Runs Will take Place Whatever the Weather.’

It was acknowledged back then that the whole point of this sport was for participants to tackle with gusto everything Mother Nature could throw. Difficult terrain, difficult weather and, of course, difficult opponents, were all part of the game. The harder the better. In most runners’ minds, there was no such thing as a cross-country course that was TOO difficult to run (not even the one at Stebbing!) When old Walter Rye introduced the sport to the general populus back in 1868 he never intended it would be a leisurely pursuit.

I suspect things started to change in the 1980s when TV coverage of major races came along. It wouldn’t have made good telly for the runners to head off into the distance, disappearing into woods and valleys away from the cameras. So courses had to be created that went round and round in red-and-white taped circles, with little artificial slopes built in to break the monotony, the field never venturing far from where they started.

Zola Budd came over from South Africa and ran some of our courses barefoot, but that wasn’t enough to deter the ‘health and safety’ brigade, who before long were quoting all manner of peripheral reasons for curbing or cancelling cross-country events.

Although Benfleet was a multi-terrain race and not, strictly speaking, a ‘cross-country’ event, it was good to see it buck this trend and stick two fingers up to the weather. But the Southern XC debacle comes hot on the heels of cancellation of the South of England Indoor (!) Championships at Lee Valley, proving that even with a roof over their heads, other factors are now paramount when staging athletics.

Elsewhere last week, officials did get the McCain Cardiff Cross Challenge moving, even though a high number of county schools championships and road races never happened. Even the ‘Brass Monkey Half Marathon’ near York was called off, which by its very title is surely supposed to go ahead regardless of the cold?

And here’s an amusing footnote to all this: Over in Minnesota, USA, a race was cancelled last week for the second year in a row, because there was NOT ENOUGH snow!  Mind you, dogs and sleds were apparently involved, so perhaps their caution can be forgiven . . .  

Rob Hadgraft’s five published books on running (plus 11 others on football) are now also available as e-books for Kindle at just £4.99 each.   Use this link:   Rob Hadgraft's running books on Amazon  or, alternatively:   www.robhadgraft.com

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