Sunday, 12 February 2012

Walking in a Witham Winter Wonderland

THE MERCURY was at minus-one celsius. The cafe in the park was heaving with humanity, its windows streaming with condensation from the hot breath of the hundreds reluctant to return outdoors.
As the clock ticked past 10.30 a.m. the long-awaited thaw seemed no nearer so there was no longer any point huddling with the startled dog-walkers inside. It was time to get out on the snow and get this thing over with. Time to consign another season of the 53-12 North Essex Cross-country League into the history books which tell of races run and conditions conquered.
Yours truly is not here to take part, you understand, for my long bout of 'man flu' has still not disappeared, and I am sticking with my intention of not rushing back prematurely, which would give the pesky symptoms the chance to hang around even longer. That's my story anyway. 
I am wearing around seven layers of clothing and still don't feel particularly warm, which is either a sign of my old age or an indication of just how parky it really is on the southern outskirts of Braintree.
Tiptree Road Runners had hoped this would be a promotion season, but, rather like Chelsea FC, we have fallen off the pace somewhat lately, and it would need a miracle today to beat host club Witham and finish top of what is known as 'Pool B.'  Our only hope would be if the host club picked their best runners to go on marshalling or car-park duty today. And that's about as likely as Suarez giving Evra a big kiss.
Given the awful, brass-monkey conditions, the Tiptree turnout today is remarkably good and there's plenty of red kit in evidence as the cafe spills its contents just minutes before the scheduled start. Choice of clothing is interesting: Some are combatting the cold with tracksters and thermal undershirts, others sport pink woolly hats and gloves, and one or two casually stroll to the line in just vest and shorts. Brigid of Witham is even wearing a 'snood' with the Witham logo on it. Mark B is one of our vest-only brigade, and reveals that his 'vest threshold' is normally 0-degrees Centigrade, so he is slightly horrified when I tell him my car registered minus-1 just before arrival.  Too late to change now.
The large field chugs off slowly at the signal, and we soon discover that the Witham officials have devised a new and fiendishly complicated route around Notley Park, specifically to cope with the unusual conditions. It still involves spending a fair amount of time climbing the notorious hill, however, albeit from different angles than usual.
Surprisingly few runners tumble on the ice, which either means choice of footwear has been good, or maybe extra caution is being applied. I've seen far more spills in 'normal' conditions in these races. Who can forget the race at Hadleigh where a JAFFA runner managed to fall off a hillside and break his leg? At least there will be no complaints today about the depth of the mud.
Somebody (probably an American) once said that cross-country was the only true sport these days, for it has no half-time, no time-outs, and no substitutions. Nothing artificial and no messing about - you just get out there and you do it. Whatever difficulties Mother Nature can come up with, whatever the hazards, you just get on with it.         
With that in mind, it's slightly sad to contemplate that another season has now come to an end (unless of course, you are running the National on Hampstead Heath).  
Our club chairman Malcolm has experienced similar lingering injuries and chestiness to me this winter, and has concluded cross-country racing is probably to blame. He is therefore considering retiring from this side of the sport he says, but I don't really believe him. Like me, I suspect he'll be back next October, attempting to run all six of the 53-12 league races. 'Man flu' permitting, I'll be there too.

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