From one newbie to another: A first timer’s cross country experience

I’ve always been up for a challenge and I actively seek to enjoy running in a variety of ways from marathons, to triathlons, to obstacle races but cross country has always been something of a mystery to me. I never did it at school and I’ve never been part of a running club that has participated in cross country events so it’s something that bypassed me completely- until recently.
In the last couple of months I joined a triathlon club. I’ve been enjoying the swim sessions, but swimming isn’t the most social of experiences (cue lots of awkward small talk whilst in even smaller garments squeezed into tiny breaks whilst you try not to cough up all the pool water you accidentally swallowed during your last set). So I promised myself I would try to participate in some of the upcoming events, which included cross country.
At first I told myself I had no interest in getting shin deep in mud whilst trying not to turn an ankle on a tree root. But the opportunity to compete in the London Championships at the iconic Parliament Hill, for the bargain price of £6 was too enticing and soon I had paid my England Athletics Membership, purchased a running vest for my club and was suddenly googling ‘spiky shoes’ and ‘slowest ever cross country finishing time’. It was time to be brave.
See this is the reason cross country can be quite elusive, you need to have an England Athletics membership and be registered with a club that is taking part. For me this had been a huge previous barrier, I hadn’t had chance to go watch an event (as I wasn’t aware you could just turn up and watch or what the schedule was) to get a feel of what was expected and I wasn’t part of a club for 2.5 years when I moved to London. It was all a complete unknown, which is pretty scary. If you do ever get the opportunity to go and watch, seize it because it’s such a great atmosphere.
The other thing I found confusing was knowing what shoes to wear. I heard people talk about spikes, but I wasn’t sure if track spikes and cross country spikes were the same thing- apparently on the whole most shoes can be used for both although you would want to change the length of the pins. And that’s another thing I didn’t even know: that the shoes themselves were called spikes and the actual spiky bits were called pins AND they come in a range of lengths. This was a recipe for disaster. I’ve never felt so under prepared or out of my depth before (despite my best efforts to do some google research).
So in a slightly too big vest, a borrowed pair of shoes (thanks Sarah) and a general sense of ‘what on earth am I doing’ I found myself stood on the start line at Parliament Hill one chilly November afternoon. The timings ran punctually and at 1:15pm on the dot the gun went and off went hundreds of women battling the mud and hills all in the name of fun (and competition).
The start was uphill (just what you want to get warm) followed by a slushy downhill stretch. The remainder of the course consisted of two undulating laps with a nice flat sprint to the finish. In total it was 6k which felt challenging yet achievable. At times I felt like bambi on ice as I skimmed my way through the mud. I found the downhills quite scary as I’m not a fan of slipping and sliding everywhere (in fact I don’t like running up hills either so I’m not sure why I convinced myself this was a good idea) and it felt like everyone was thundering past me. But that’s completely ok. Whilst cross country is competitive for some, for many it’s a chance to compete and have fun with their club. I took my time on the downhills, I even walked at one point as I was feeling a bit nervous and that is totally ok, I wasn’t the only one doing this and I wanted my first experience to be as positive as possible. From speaking to others it’s important to relax as much as you can and just go with it. Falls and slips are part and parcel of cross country. For this reason I chose to wear gloves to offer my hands some extra protection should I make an unplanned descent. One thing that did go through my mind, and perhaps sums the whole experience up pretty well is, forget everything you know about running and just charge on.
The uphills can be tough but they’re over quickly and I decided to use the flats to build speed and confidence. It’s also important to keep your concentration as there are lots of tree roots thrown in for good measure, so make sure you’re picking your feet up even when you’re tired.
When it comes to clothing I opted for shorts (it’s easier to clean mud off skin than out of leggings) and my club vest which is compulsory. As I mentioned above I wore gloves to offer some protection should I fall. I had a trusty pair of spikes with 9mm pins. However, for next time I’ve ordered 12mm pins for some extra grip and piece of mind, although to be honest I fared ok in my slightly blunt 9mm ones. I did notice some people in trail shoes so I guess this is an option if you want to have a go and decide if you like it before you invest. Decathlon also do some excellent general purpose spikes which are reasonably priced. I noticed a lot of people wearing these, however after having a brief look in store you would need to purchase some longer pins (which you can do on amazon).
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I didn’t find it horrifically muddy, But I think I got off lightly so don’t be lulled into a false sense of security. I noticed some people taping their shoes on (around the arch and laces) but I didn’t do this and Thankfully didn’t lose either of my shoes. The one mistake I did make was attaching the timing chip to my ankle too tightly-ouch!
At this event there were showers and changing facilities, I’m not sure if this is standard. I would recommend bringing some warm clothes that you don’t mind getting muddy for afterwards. EVERYTHING will get muddy.
Overall it isn’t as scary as you think it’s going to be. Some people thunder off and complete the course in next to no time, whilst others take it at their own pace. It’s certainly not as ‘elite’ as I expected- I had made the assumption that as it was running clubs it would be super competitive and everyone would be incredibly fast, but that simply isn’t the case. It’s a very welcoming atmosphere with a diverse range of abilities. It was far from a sparkling performance on my behalf but I had fun and I’ve signed up to my next one already!

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