Monday, 4 November 2013

575 acres, 323 runners, 646 mud-caked shoes

As if the water hazard wasn’t enough, I got a thumb in the eye
from Witham runner Claire! Or maybe the camera is telling fibs?

SHORTLY before he expired, Johnny Cash recorded a haunting song about a man who goes around taking names.  A man who decides who to free and who to blame.

Chelmsford’s answer to that man made his annual appearance in Hylands Park last weekend, exercising his strange and dangerous powers over 323 runners who assembled obediently for their Sunday morning punishment in this green corner of the city.

The man’s name is Kevin and, where the 53-12 Cross-Country League is concerned, he shows no mercy. If the 575 acres of Hylands Park has any muddy or flooded bits, he will find them with his inner water diviner and divert his race route through them.  Not past them, but right through the middle of them.

Kevin’s favourite thing is positioning a marshal to block access to a wooden bridge, thus forcing incredulous runners away and into the black morass below.  No, I take that back. His favourite thing is actually forcing runners into steep-sided water-filled ditches for a few dozen yards, allowing them to escape and then directing them back down again.

But the amazing thing is not the way Kevin deliberately makes his friends and rivals suffer, it’s more the way that 323 of us willingly turn out on a sunny Sunday morning to submit to his whims.

Despite knowing in advance that vast amounts of mud and pungent water would be involved, bright colourful shoes and glittering new running kit was in abundance at the start.  Well, this was the beginning of a new season and the sun was out after all. My clubmate Paula was one of several rather optimistically sporting new, bright pink footwear. And the hordes from the Witham club turned up in dazzling new tops, although at least these were largely black – the same colour as the mudpools that  awaited us.

In the mayhem of the start area, the signal to begin racing involved a curious sound, reminiscent of a police siren or a burglar alarm.  Or perhaps Kevin had found a wah-wah pedal, discarded here by a guitarist at the last V-Festival? Made a change from someone shouting "Go"' anyway.

My club Tiptree Road Runners (just 63 members) are now competing in Pool ‘A’ of the league after promotion last winter. Alongside the bigger clubs from Ipswich, Colchester and Chelmsford, we feel a bit like the equivalent of Crystal Palace, cannon fodder arriving wide-eyed in the Premier League. But we believe we have the spirit not to sink out of our depth. Oh yes. No ditch is too deep for this plucky squad. Typical of the Tiptree M.O. was the member who’d been rendered unfit to run by a Norfolk beer festival, but willing to compensate by recording results and taking photos. Not forgetting another member who chalked up a good result despite running with only one eye in working order following surgery.

The sight of Ipswich JAFFA’s international runner Helen Davies floating over the mud with apparent ease was a thing of wonder, and tended to make the rest of us feel clumsy and pedestrian. Some of the myriad photos published on social media afterwards had a similar effect. Those gentle but relentless slopes inside Hylands Park look remarkably benign in photos and, of course, the pictures don’t do justice to the fierce winds either.

646 muddy feet will have needed considerable attention in the shower on Sunday afternoon (apart from Helen’s perhaps). But most of them should be clean and mud-free again by the time we point them towards farmland just outside Harwich on December 1, which is the 53-12 League’s next instalment.  The race director that day won’t be Mudmeister Kevin, but the punishment will no doubt be just as potent.

* Rob Hadgraft’s five published books on running are now available as e-books for Kindle at just £4.99 each, in addition to paperback format.   Use this link:   Rob Hadgraft's running books on Amazon  or, alternatively:    


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