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English National Cross Country Championships @ Parliament Hill.

WOW!!! What can you say about such an extraordinary day, being part of something so massive it was even on the TV! To know you're running in a race that includes people that represent our country, the atmosphere was incredible. And.... we managed to muster enough to field a team result in both the men's and the ladies races which is a great turnout.

We entered into the trip with new running buddy club Lordshill Road Runners who organized a coach to take us to London and back so we could all relax on the way and do the only grown up thing & have some booze on the way back (and almost break the loo door on the coach but that's another matter). We were piling on the coach as all the Southampton parkrunners were heading past on their way to the start, we didn't manage to recruit anymore bodies onto the coach though.

Now I am aware that anything cross country related will be muddy, and I often mention this at great length, and the weather always being better for the men. But nothing and I mean NOTHING could have prepared us for this kind of muddy. This was mud on a biblical scale, it was so wet you wouldn't have been surprised to a round a corner and find Noah's Ark drying out as the floods had only just receded. And none, absolutely none of the photographers or film crews were anywhere near the muddy bits so when we bang on about mud we look like we are making it up! Just to prove on the mud front below is my official photo after I stacked it in the mud, just to prove a point.

We made it to the tent area which was also caked in more sloppy, sticky, trip you over mud and erected TRC HQ tent. Then with our shoes, socks and gaps between our toes soaking up yet more of the brown stuff we took stock of the event. Have you ever been to Parliament Hill? The view from the top is stunning all the way across the City of London, you can see for miles. Unless you're short and stood in the mud and are sinking slowly as you take in the view.

The English Nationals date back to 1876 and it is still the biggest cross country race in Britain, which comes with the big atmosphere and even bigger crowds as well as the thousands of runners. There were 7967 finishers on the day, with many a DNF on course the actual number of runners was far higher. I've never seen so many broken runners, running of course to just stop, sit down, ask for a medic or in one case be prolifically sick! There are 10 races through the day across age groups for male and female runners and all participants have their name and club recorded in a printed program for a nice souvenir. Reportedly 40 trees were blown down the weekend before the races so maybe we should be thankful for the mud, and this would explain the bouncy section that appeared to have fresh woodchip on it. With it being such a massive event there was always something to watch and souvenir tops and hoodies to buy so everyone everywhere can know you're a runner and you ran this. (I will probably be wearing mine next time you see me, it may or may not have been washed).

Event number 8 @13:35 was the Senior Women's championship which was an 8k route taking in 1 medium lap and 1 large lap of the course with the first 4 of each club to score for the team. Event number 10 @ 15:00 was the Senior Men's championship which was a 12k route of 1 medium lap and 2 large laps of the course with the first 6 of each club to score for the team.

Both races started in the same place, at the bottom of a long uphill drag, this start is spectacular to behold from the top of the hill. Runners line up along a very long start line. Unlike a road race where the start area is small and everyone jostles for space this start line was a good field width enabling the women's race to only be 3 or 4 people deep in some places. The starter gets everyone to move to the line at the same time before firing the starting pistol and the race is off. From watching the start of the men's race I can tell you this really is a spectacle to behold as a solid line of runners starts moving towards you at speed, and where that line is so wide the number of runners looks bigger. As the runners move up the hill towards you the sound becomes deafening as thousands of feet hit the floor and charging forwards. Anyone who hasn't yet watched the videos of the start of the facebook page you should do this!

So! we started uphill, a long uphill drag and it was a strength sapper by the time we made it to the top, however all the main crowds are at the top as was the athletes village so lots of cheering kept the momentum going. For me as I gleefully sprang thorough this section the race was about to give me my first kicking, as once you've done the hill you swing round to the right and face what I can only deem the bog of eternal despair and lost shoes. (there were runners stopped in this section minus 1 shoe desperately looking for the other) This was the mud we had not seen or known to prepare for. Every time you put a foot down the mud was up to shin level or higher, it took everything to stay upright. Except I had apparently left my everything at home so immediately fell face forward into the mud ....doh! In true runners are awesome form within a second I felt hands under my arms and was pulled to my feet and pushed onwards, I have no idea who helped me up and no chance to say thank you. But Thank You nameless lovely lady for picking me up. I did get to pay the act of kindness forward when in lap 2 a runner in front of me in the same spot fell so I got to lift her up and send her on her way. I personally then spent the next portion of the race wondering how to find my hands which were at this point two big lumps of mud that no amount of shaking would release from their mud cocoon. After a while I settled for the age old wipe it on your bum and go for the 'I may have pooped myself look'. Bear in mind this is all in just the first mile of the race!

The course was best described as technical and undulating .... or in laymen's terms bloody difficult to navigate and hilly. Where the course was all (or once in distant memory was) grass it was all churned up to bog level mud making taking any corners a risky business. Somehow even the second large uphill section managed to be like a swimming pool, how? surely it should have run down to the bottom? Gravity defying mud! I did not sign up for this! There were twists, there were turns, there was one dry patch! No joke, just the 1 where there was an abundance of woodchip on the ground which made the ground really bouncy. Bouncy would be great if you hadn't just spent the previous 2 miles getting your body into grip the ground for dear life mode, so bouncy totally messed with your head. At the top of one muddy climb there was also a water section with no option to go round. It was a good place to remove some previously collected mud though, I rather enjoyed the water section. The majority of the course detail I think I have now blocked from memory. Coming in for the finishing lap the course designers played their ace card, a massive downhill to get that speed up before rounding the corner onto a flat out sprint for the finish, fantastic end.

I can say I massively underestimated this course and suffered accordingly for it. The constantly changing terrain under foot, switchbacks and hills are what made this course so epic, it was designed to be hard and push runners to their limits, it was designed for champions to be made and it delivered. Would I do it again? In a heartbeat even if I was informed it was going to be an even bigger mud fest. This should definitely be on everyone's to do list even just once in their life!

The event moves around in a 3 year cycle between London, Leeds and Nottingham with next being in Leeds. LRR were already thinking out loud about block booking hotel rooms and coaches for next year so watch this space! A special shout out should also go to our fantastic coach driver who either has previous experience or did some good research prior to taking us. As we arrived back at the coach in what should have been our clean shoes now very much covered in mud he stood at the coach door with a bemused smile and a roll of plastic bags. Everyone dutifully removed shoes and socks prior to boarding and kept the mud contained to outside the coach.


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