How I found my cross country groove

After two bad cross country runs and a less than satisfactory handicap, Salina Christmas finally improves her time at Parliament Hill, possibly the most hilly and challenging of all the courses she has done so far. So what went right?

A week after a poor performance at Stevenage last week, I improved – to my surprise – at possibly one of the most unpleasant cross country courses in town, the Parliament Hill at Hampstead Heath, London.

My running time was faster than that of Claybury, Essex, and Stevenage, Hertfordshire. Admittedly, it was still a slow 31:40s, according to my Garmin. But given than I did 33:10s at Claybury, and over 36 mins at Stevenage, this was an improvement. Also, I stopped my timer about 10 seconds after I staggered past the finishing line.

I was that shattered.

The start of the Parliament Hill cross country. A hill. Photo © Salina Christmas
The start of the Parliament Hill cross country. A hill. Photo © Salina Christmas

The Parliament Hill event was organised by the South of England Athletic Association (SEAA), separate from the Metropolitan League series of cross country championships.

After having compared the dashboards of my runs at Claybury and Parliament Hill, I understood, to a degree, how I could run faster at the latter.

True grit: The men during the second lap of the 10k course on Parliament Hill. Photo © Salina Christmas
True grit: The men during the second lap of the 10k course on Parliament Hill. Photo © Salina Christmas

The first time is the worst

Claybury has only one 13% hill to negotiate. You’re looking at many walls and a lot of suffering in this visualisation of my lack of fitness. Chart © Strava

Claybury has only one hill for us to tackle. The hill is of about 13% incline. Although steep, the hill is small. Of course, it broke some of us by the second lap. I saw the strongest of our men looking very uncomfortable running up it. I did 33:10s at Claybury, and suffered my very first cross country campaign terribly. Physically and mentally. I did ok, but not great. In a 5k road race, I could do 5k in 25 mins. Not for a 6k cross country, at my calibre.

If you feel feverish, don’t ever attempt to run cross country

A flatter course with no hills. But a fever almost did me in on the Stevenage course. Chart © Strava
A flatter course with no hills. And the flatline doesn’t tell a lie. I had the most painful run ever on a flat course. A fever almost did me in. Don’t do this if you are ill. Chart © Strava

I did about 36:54s on Stevenage. It is a flat course and comfortable to run on, with the exception of the stretch of muddy and hard grounds in the woods. I was ill, and shaking with fever before the run – mistaken by some of the runners as “nerves”. Really, I was in a bad way and should have pulled out. But I ran, and you guessed it, I didn’t do well. I was also recovering from an ITB problem. Although the course was less challenging than that of Claybury, my performance was appalling. I just grew worse that evening, and spent the Sunday nursing my fever.

Steep, big hills: Your legs’ best friends

Parliament Hill is by far the most hilly of the three courses mentioned. However, I do better when it is very hilly. Chart © Strava
Parliament Hill is by far the most hilly of the three courses mentioned. However, the terrain forces me to grind uphill, jump around, sprint downwards, and ultimately, making me go faster. Gravity is your best friend. Chart © Strava

After a therapy session with one of the Serpentine coaches, who told me not to run in between races, I decided to chill out during the weekdays and abstain from club runs to rest my legs. By the time I arrived for the Parliament Hill run, I still had some leftover cold. However, I was well rested (or so I thought).

Compared with Claybury, Parliament Hill has a 13% hill at the start, and several more hills of 3% to 8% incline throughout the course. This is your novice’s nightmare course. The start really freaked us out. We were guided to the start line, only to be faced with one mother of a hill. We gaped upwards, looked to each other, wished everyone good luck – and legged it.

To my surprise, due to the sufficient recovery time over the week, I could overtake those who normally I’d allow to overtake me. Ironically, the very hills that hurt my calves so much were also the very hills that allowed me to sprint fast downhill. I was light, steady on my feet, and for many years, had spent my time in the dojang not to fall during taekwondo sessions. I had lost count the number of times spent landing on one foot or both – and not on my face – after tackling someone’s ear, chest or the top of his head. I never would have thought that would one day be useful in a cross country.

So the hilly terrain of Parliament Hill worked to my advantage. I think I finally found my cross country groove here. However, the hilly terrains were not without repercussions. Next time, I’ll make sure I don’t drink anything before a race. Hills are brutal on your bladder. I kid you not.

Next stop: Ally Pally

At the finishing line, a marshall asked if I was alright. I shook my head and sat on one of the chairs provided there. A lady from another running club remarked that “you Serpentine sprinted very fast downhill”. I said: “We’re sprinters, but not quite cross county runners”. Another marshall asked if this was my first ever race on the course. I said yes. “You did well,” he said, ” We had to take off about 50 U13 kids off the race. It’s a hard course”.

No kidding.

I look forward to getting acquainted with Alexandra Palace at the next round of the Metropolitan League race. Will I come at the top of the league then? No. But hey, this is only “training”.

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