Monday, 24 February 2014

Doing the soft-shoe shuffle

THE cross-country season is over for another winter. My battered and soggy shoes, twice their normal weight due to clinging mud, are awaiting a final appointment with an unforgiving wire-brush.

Normally said shoes could now expect an eight-month holiday before being called upon again - and the chance to dry out properly at last. 

But the sad news this February is that I have to tell them I’m letting them go. They’ve run their last gloopy field-edge. Splashed though their final ditch. Climbed their final rain-lashed hillock.

The only journey left is the one to that celestial cross-country course in the sky. They’ve served me well over several years, but the right sole is now parting company with its upper, and that gaping hole will only get bigger. 

Trouble is, they are still very comfortable to wear and their laces remain bright and bushy-tailed (a lovely shade of orange, in fact). But it’s not enough to save them. Replacements have already been purchased, and now wait patiently in the boot of the car for season 2014-15 to start.

At least the departing shoes are being retired on a high note. For the first time in 25 years of running cross-country league meetings, I’ve managed to complete a full set in a single season. All six of the 53-12 League races (staged in a region south of Ipswich and north of Chelmsford) have been done, every one a toughie in this winter of record-breaking wetness.

A quarter of a century has certainly whizzed by, for I remember clearly sampling the delights of this regional league for the first time back in 1989. In those days I ran for Ipswich JAFFA and we took part in races at Halstead and Tiptree as ‘guests’ before signing up properly the following season. 

In those days the competition was known as the Today’s Runner League, having been initiated by the magazine of that name, and kept this identity until 2000. Then along came sports retailers Harper’s Intersport to lend their name, and things continued to thrive despite a fire ripping through the Tudor building which housed the local Harper’s shop in Colchester, meaning it had to be demolished. For a while it became the Sweatshop League, and then current incumbents 53-12, led by director and runner Ed Page, took over as sponsors in 2005.

This week I asked a few old stagers if they had any idea how many races there had been since it all started in the 1980s. I've been reliably informed the very first one was at Colchester (Abbey Fields) in November 1986. Eight years later the same venue played host to the league's 50th race. By this time I'd moved house several times and was now running in the colours of Tiptree Road Runners. As there has been around six races per season ever since, I assume we are currently hovering around the 170 mark.  
My 'Old Grey Training Log' tells me I’ve managed to run 84 of them, but I suspect there's a good number of people who can claim to have gone beyond the 100 mark. Take Brian Rogers, for example. Now here's a man who once gave the great Peter Elliott a run for his money (I saw it with my own eyes on a track in Lanzarote!). Ipswich stalwart Brian has clocked up 116 league races (not counting a couple of DNFs) and his range of finishing positions goes from 2nd to 100th. There must be similar stories from the other clubs too.

The races are always sociable, enjoyable affairs, with a higher proportion of female participation than in the traditional Saturday league events, and beginners are welcomed.

Similar 8k courses have been used throughout the past 25-years-plus, and a similar number of us turn out year after year, so that means progress and fitness is easy to monitor. I think I must have peaked early, because it’s been downhill nearly all the way for me. I finished in the top 30 in my first half-dozen appearances, but these days am lucky to get into the first 130!

There have been calls recently for cross-country to be included in future Winter Olympics to give the sport a much-needed boost. But judging by recent race turnouts it’s doing pretty well anyway:  the National Champs were held at the weekend in Nottingham and attracted a total of 10,000 athletes and spectators into Wollaton Park.

In the spirit of this blog, instead of naming the winners I’d like to congratulate the two heroes who filled the LAST positions in the  men’s and women’s races - both of whom trailed home at least four minutes after the rest of the huge fields. I hope the marshals on the finish line did them the courtesy of not clearing up and vanishing before they came in!

Take a bow Andrew Morgan of Dartford (1657th of 1657 senior men) and Ruby Ooi of Stourbridge (708th out of 708 senior women). Andrew and Ruby are both in their sixties and race regularly, undaunted by usually finishing at the wrong end of the results list.
They are the type who don’t ask or expect much, so the least they deserve is a cheer from other runners kind enough to stay behind. Long may that sense of comradeship continue. 

(Twitter:  @RobHadgraft)