|Only mad dogs and English runners go out in the midday snow . . .|
You expect transgressions in track sprints, when every fraction of a second is vital, but to get a false start in a 12-kilometre cross-country was a real collector’s item.
BBC commentator Steve Cram had a good old chortle about it, and pondered whether it had ever happened before. His co-commentator Paula Radcliffe had the answer - yes it has. She recalled a race where the runners had covered at least 200 yards of grass before officials managed to call a halt.
Calling them back is the hard part. Poland must have some brave athletics officials. You’d never attempt a recall at the English championships. The huge annual assembly at what we Anglos fondly call ‘The National’ traditionally fans out wide at the start, and the stampede always resembles a Zulu uprising. It would need more than a handful of hi-vis vests to send that lot back where they came from.
Seeing what happened on Sunday’s start-line at Bydgoszcz (I can spell it, but I can’t pronounce it) got me thinking about how cross-country always throws up funny stories and good anecdotes in a way that road or track-racing rarely does. Here’s a few that spring to mind . . . .
*A Tiptree Road Runners clubmate of mine turned up one Sunday keen and hungry at one of the longest and muddiest of Essex events. All was fine until he discovered he’d forgotten his running footwear. Unwilling to let the side down over such a ‘minor’ issue, our hero pinned on his number, proceeded to the start-line and ran the whole thing in ordinary leather day shoes!
*Early in his running career, GB international Peter Elliott ended one cross-country race in the back seat of a police car. He’d been misdirected by a well-meaning marshal and was picked up by traffic cops who spotted him running determinedly along the hard shoulder of the M1!
*In his younger days, the great Dave Bedford was so confident and talented (some would say arrogant!) he was able to win both junior and senior titles at the Southern XC Champs on the same day. But instead of widespread acclaim for this feat, all he got was an angry letter from a fellow runner’s mum, haranguing him for being a bloody show-off!
*The very first organised cross-country championship – staged here in Essex of course – took place in Epping Forest in 1876, but ended in fiasco. No tape or yellow arrows in those days, just a bloke scattering a paper trail. On this occasion he managed to run out of paper long before the end. Fearful of the consequences, he promptly scarpered from the scene with his empty bag. The entire pack of following runners were left stranded and freezing in the forest for hours with no idea where to go. Officials eventually located them and administered brandy (some was rubbed on muscles, some was poured down throats).
*After forgetting to bring his shorts, Harrow runner Chris Finill once had to race in exceptionally muddy conditions in totally unsuitable tracksuit bottoms. It led to a poor performance and Chris lost his temper at the finish-line when a youngster shouted “Go grandad” in his direction. He was just about to give the boy a clip round the ear when an elderly runner slipped ahead of him and gave the boy a hug. It was the boy’s grandfather.
*Frank Tickner (Wells City) may have won the re-scheduled Southern champs on Parliament Hill Fields last month, but he didn’t get much acclaim. Spectators seemed far more interested in the small stray dog which joined the runners for a complete lap of this historic and incredibly muddy course, returning bedraggled but triumphant to loud cheers, only to be collared and whisked away by the Old Bill. Onlookers wondered if the pacy pooch was a member of the Barking club - or maybe Thames Hare and Hounds?
*When researching my book about old-time running hero Alf Shrubb, I came across many a cross-country calamity back in Edwardian days. Didn’t seem to do little Alf any harm though. In fact he got quite nostalgic and poetic when recalling those days: “A cold wind smote our thinly-clad bodies like a whip,” he said of one race. Not the sort of thing you hear from the mouth of your average club runner these days, I'd suggest? Alf remembered one 7-mile cross-country from South Croydon on a wintry weekend when thick fog descended mid-race, leading to some runners being lost out on the heath until 9pm, many hours after darkness fell!
* Hannah McQuarrie, a runner with the wonderfully-named Mornington Chasers club, is a relative newcomer to our sport. Her descriptions of the obscure charms of cross-country are among the best I’ve heard in ages. She reckons it’s a sport that gives us all the chance to give adulthood the middle finger and run through muddy fields with childish glee! She also suggests road-running is the Ken doll of the running world (smooth, flawlessly turned out, well organised, commercial), while cross-country is the drunken uncle (rough round the edges, scruffy, takes you by surprise, and prone to stumbles and falls).