On Sunday I raced in the Dublin Novice Cross Country Championships. The Novice grade means that previous winners cannot race (they can still race the Dublin Senior Cross Country Championships in November). The field of club runners is still very competitive, with plenty of 15/16 minute 5km runners in the mix. Only club runners can race. So it’s a hard fought battle, while at the same time offering up-and-coming XC runners a chance to claim a championship medal. The race route was just over three laps of a 2km course (approx), a total of 6.8km.
There is no need to bother with a stop watch in these races, since courses are not comparable and it is all about beating your opponents on the day. Times mean nothing on a XC course. The pace in these short XC races tends to be full on, especially at the start when guys are jostling for a decent position. The first 400m of the race is basically a sprint, since nobody wants to get stuck in the middle of the pack. I took a couple of sharp elbows off the start, and as a result woke up on Monday with a dead arm. The 2km lap winds around a big field before entering a section of forest with a few hills and sharp corners, then emerging from the forest and winding back to the start/finish line.
I had a few goals for the race. One was to race smart, and hopefully take a medal. The other was to improve on my performance from the previous week’s Rathfarnham 5km, where I got myself boxed in off the start and then sent myself into oxygen debt trying to make up lost ground in the first mile. Having little experience myself in running XC, I had taken some advice from my club mate and XC specialist, Louis McCarthy, about how to approach the race. And I went about following that advice.
So after the initial frenzied surge off the start line, I settled into my own pace and was 16th after the first lap (according to the race official on the start/finish line). I felt strong. So in line with the plan, I started picking off the guys ahead of me. I figured that quite a few of them would be track runners based on their pace off the start, and I recalled that track runners tend to start very fast and then struggle to sustain the pace for the full distance.
I passed 6 guys in the second lap, and found myself in 10th place at the bell (after 2 laps/4.4km). With 2km to go, the plan is really just to run as fast as you can to the finish line without blowing up. I steadily picked up the pace (or maybe I held constant and others slowed down) and I passed four more guys. I could see the 3rd, 4th and 5th place runners just up ahead of me and I was making ground on them, but I was starting to hurt too.
With 500m to go, my club mates in the crowd boisterously alerted me to the fact that one of the guys behind me was really going for it and was about to pass me. Normally you can hear someone coming, but on the soft grass there are no footsteps and hence zero awareness of what is happening behind you. I was already pushing so hard, but I couldn’t fathom being passed at this point. So with 400m to go I managed to find even more in the tank and kicked as hard as I could in attempt to repel the challenge from behind. It seemed to work, because I never saw him.
Meanwhile I was holding ground a couple of steps behind the 5th place guy, and we were going full tilt and closing in on the 4th and 3rd place runners. But at this stage I didn't think we’d catch them. I was giving it absolutely everything. Pain tore through my body and I could feel that my face was all screwed up like Mo Farah in the World Championships (confirmed by Alison post-race). Alison was there on the side-line yelling for me, and my club mates were there in bright green Rathfarnham colours. Great atmosphere. I held my position to finish in 6th, only 10 seconds shy of an individual bronze medal. Also managed to beat a couple of guys who got the better of me in the Rathfarnham 5km, so happy enough despite failure to take a podium spot.