Met League #2 Stevenage
Diary of a cross-country season — part three, 12th Nov 2016
Before every race, there are things that must be done. Lay out the vest, attach the number with safety pins. Clean the shoes, or at least get rid of the worst of last time’s mud. Check the weather, replace the spikes with longer ones if need be (as the season progresses, so the spikes get longer). Small rituals, always the same. But this time there was an additional task. Just a small thing; I pinned a black ribbon to my vest.
Days earlier, in Aldershot, two girls — runners — had been knocked down by a car while on a training run. The tragedy of their deaths only sharpened by both their ages and their talents. Lucy Pygott was 17, she was the England under-20 3000 metre champion. Stacey Burrows was 16, and the under-17 3000 metre champion for Hampshire. Both had run for the successful Aldershot, Farnham & District team at the cross-country relays in Mansfield the Saturday before.
Their deaths have touched a nerve with all of us. They were out running in the evening, taking part in a Tuesday night training session. Just as I was. Just as most of us cross-country runners were, the Tuesday session before a race being a key sharpener. At 7pm in the evening, it was of course dark when they were killed — as it always is on a weekday training session at this time of year. So there we are, night after night, running in the dark. A reflective strip, a brightly coloured top, a head torch perhaps, our only defence against oblivion. But Lucy and Stacey had no means of protecting themselves this time: the driver was drunk. There was nothing they could have done. It might have happened to any of us that were on the start line this Saturday, but tragically it happened to two of our youngest and our best.
At the second Met League fixture in Stevenage, as at races across the country, a minutes’ silence was observed. Black ribbons and armbands were very much in evidence. Watching the under-17 girls giving their all in a tough race, it was heartbreaking to think of the two souls who would — and should — have been doing the same.
Not surprisingly, at the start of the men’s race there was less of the pent up enthusiasm that gave the Claybury fixture such an explosive start. But the tension at the start line was still palpable — it always is. It was raining, but nothing like as heavily as it had been the year before, which offered up a deluge that will go down in legend. In fact, it was that soft, fine misty rain that doesn’t seem to touch you until you’re finally out of it and realise that you’re soaked to the core (my grandmother called it ‘Welsh’ rain, but then she was Welsh, so that’s what she called a lot of things). It certainly wasn’t anything to complain about, and the fact that there wasn’t any wind either, made conditions near perfect.
The course at Stevenage is mostly flat and mostly firm, which makes for a fast race. I went off too quickly, and found the first lap tough going, but once things had settled down I was able to find my rhythm and — rare this — actually felt good during the third and final lap. I had a much better time on the downhills than at the Three Counties race a few weeks before. Feeling more confident this time, having coming into the the race clear of any niggles and with a good few weeks’ training behind me, I felt able to attack the descents, opening up my stride and letting gravity do its work, rather than over-thinking it.
All told, it was a decent if unspectacular effort on my part, and I was pleased to finish tenth V40, in 30.02. My finishing position was 117, a good deal lower than at Claybury, but in actual fact I ran much better today, the lower position partly down to the sizeable number of guest runners from Cambridge University ahead of me — all young and fit and bright and brilliant. As a team we did less well. Injuries to three of our top six scorers meant that I was the third Barnet runner to finish — never a good sign: on current form, I should be sixth at best. Still, we did well enough to finish seventh in Division One, i.e. still out of the relegation zone, so no need to panic.
Next up are two 3CXC races on consecutive weekends. The races come thick and fast now, and it’s a matter of staying fit and healthy. I’m looking for a steady rate of improvement, and some decent racing (rather than simply running) on my part. But after this week of all weeks, it’s enough just to be out there at all.