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Cross Country 2023/24 – Susan Kennedy

The season started on October 14th 2023 at the notorious Chiltern League, Bedford fixture – the Equestrian Centre with the popular water jump feature. We had a good number of runners, 10 men and 7 women and the day was sunny despite a very rainy morning. The joy of running and watching the race at the water jump is unsurpassed and did not disappoint. I was particularly enchanted by a small boy watching near me who was desperate for someone to fall in – only to be totally baffled as he watched Bill O’Connor run past – he shouted out to his Mum “looks, its Father Christmas!” Perhaps it was the red and white stripes that really made him look like the genuine article.

The fixtures for Chiltern League are Bedford, then Milton Keynes, Luton, Watford (for the first time in many years) and finally, last Saturday at Horspath, outside Oxford. We had a peak number of runners at Watford – 18 men and 7 women (thanks to Sofia & Ziggy for making a special effort to boost the Women’s Team numbers) which turned out to be the driest event by far and a lot of path surfaces so the trail shoes, spike length WhatsApp chat was exponential! Another dry day too for running.

The final fixture at Horspath was predicted to be fairly dry after a longish period of no rain, but the Cross Country gods are good, and the week leading up to the race was wet, wet, wet. Really wet. The re-designed course that gave the Women a slightly shorter hill, twice, was exceptionally muddy.

The bottom field by the start/ finish was literally a quagmire – for once the women raced after the men - and as we watched the men complete their first lap we were faintly alarmed by the exhaustion on their faces, and the general slow pace of even some of the fastest runners. This was going to be challenging – and full of mud filled puddles it turned out!

Roma, one of our newer members, part of the Newsletter team and cross country convert, baked some delicious red & white colour themed macaroons to celebrate the end of another cross country season. It’s worth noting the connection between runners improvements and cross country – (see Dustin Daniel recent pb at parkrun) the strength you gain at cross country is notable not just physically with your core and ankle strength but mentally its brilliant. It’s one of Maurice Quirke’s secret marathon training essentials, he hardly misses a fixture, equally the improvements of Sam Sutherland, John Brosnan & Mark Greig over the years comes with cross country giving them a very firm basis (irony intended) for their training. The Dustin, Reuben, Luke trio we welcomed this year has been brilliant to watch alongside Brian Smyth, a regular too.

In the team Div 2 results the Men were 2nd, Silver Medallists in the Veteran & Senior Men categories. In the Men’s Medals – Jake, (Andrew Jackson) has Gold in the Vet 60 – Jake is a long time Cross Country runner and dedicated to the team. Bill O’Connor – lovingly known as Lord William of East Finchley - is the Gold Medal winner in the Vet 70 category, all part of his training for London Marathon #43.

In the Women’s we were 6th Team overall and Sophie Barnard’s show of strength and hard core is rewarded as she, once again, has a Silver medal in the D2 Vet 45 – 54 (even more impressive as she is 53 – she won’t mind me telling you that…) And the incredible back to form of Emma Sutherland post baby Indy has been hugely accelerated by her commitment to cross country – she is even beginning to enjoy the hills and certainly is motoring up them like never before.

Outside of Chiltern League we had the South of England Cross Country relays, North London Champs, Liddiard (biggest turnout by far – 11 women & 21 men as well as 23 Juniors!) London Champs at Parliament Hill, Middlesex Champs at the very muddy Horsenden Hill course and the Southerns at Beckenham in Kent. Just the Nationals left – taking place in Shropshire on 24th February – we have four men entered!

This makes for a total of 12 possible cross country events in the season – a lot of time for busy people and families at a weekend – but it’s okay to do some, you don’t need to do them all – you can stick to Chiltern League and help the team do well, enjoy the camaraderie of travelling to the fixtures, wrestling with a giant red tent, comparing notes about the course and sipping hot tea from a flask – or you can stay local, do the ones not far away like, Parliament Hill, Horsenden Hill, Hackney.

Whether you do one or twelve events you will be making yourself stronger, you will be building on your stamina and mental strength which helps your running, particularly endurance running, marathons etc but to be honest any running, chasing a pb at Summer League – the hard core it takes to run cross country will stand you in good stead. It’s also the perfect chance to get to know other Queens Park Harriers better, have a laugh and support each other like no other events. If you have never tried make sure you have a go next season – here are some words from some of the stalwarts and the new cross country runners from this season – don’t just take it from me – a cross country super fan – take it from them!

“I’m in my 50s and my children are older and I found myself with a chance to do something for me. What shall I do with my new Me-time, an exhibition? A lunch? No! What I find to do with this time is hurtle around a muddy field, jumping water and getting stuck in bogs with lots of other women like me! And it makes me feel strong and alive and part of something. And I love it. I love the whole day, wearing the hoops, being part of a team, the chat, the race, the de brief, the cake and walking into my house covered in mud asking my teenagers how they spent their day.” Lucy Birrell

“I love cross country for the team spirit – everyone is so supportive and encouraging. The muddier courses have been so much fun and it’s really helped with my endurance too.”

Roma Denetto

“I’ve loved this cross country season. A perfect mix of muddy hills and even muddier fields. Plenty of tea and biscuits, (too many biscuits actually after Oxford!) And very happy journeys getting to know other Harriers – so many fascinating stories – what an amazing collection of people.” Sophie Barnard

“Since a long XC hiatus due to injuries/pandemics/babies I have been amazed at how much of a difference it has made to my running already. Running up hills has been feeling so much easier recently and I can only put this down to doing most of the XC races this season! Plus running through ridiculous mud is weirdly fun and satisfying… who knew?!” President Emma Sutherland

“These are 4 things I love about Cross Country:

1. The interaction with nature while running: The lower stack height shoes and muddy terrain and water features make you feel more connected with nature while enjoying a sport you love.

2. The ‘stampede’ mass starts on the larger events are a unique experience.

3. Once you switch back to road racing you feel the gains of the hard work from XC and appreciate the constant ‘energy return’ from the road, or rather the lack of energy loss experienced in muddy terrains.

4. The interactions with fellow club runners and other clubs runners that are trying to perform their best both individually and as a team. You share a memorable day out that goes beyond just a race.” Ruben Carvajal

“In cross country for a brief moment you’re a human in the wild, running with the pack. There is no doubt it’s tough at times but the challenge is never boring; running is my happy, so bring on the mud, the hills, the wet and cold. Once you’re in, instinct takes over. But honestly my favourite part is racing as a team, not many disciplines where we can score together, I am always happy to see a Harrier on my wing.” Dustin Daniel

“We just missed out on promotion this year. Let's not dwell on that. Let's start getting organised now for next year. Let's make firm commitments to take part and provide transport. I will commit now that even if I am injured, I will always have 3-4 places available in my old banger if you can put up with my appalling driving and non-existent sense of direction.”Jake (Andrew Jackson)

The final word is from George Hicks a second-season cross country runner and ever present gazebo helper (thanks George). He says “Build running strength, meet others in the club and see some beautiful countryside, what's not to love?” another one who has lost his heart to the mud.


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