As he surged smoothly over the tussocky crest of the first steep little hill, only four hundred yards after the start, Jim Alexander sensed that, on this day, success would come easily.
Masochistic old-timers might scoff at the conditions but Jim loved cross-country running – of this variety. Modern World Championships tended to be run on similar courses – fast, dry and undulating. As soon as he had stepped off the team bus and surveyed the route, which snaked round the resilient turf of a seaside golf links, Jim had felt a stirring of optimism mingled with the usual tension.
For late January in the South-West of Scotland, the weather was exceptional – mild and sunny with a cool breeze. Proximity to the sea (plus the greenhouse effect?) had kept the snow away. And most miraculous of all – he was fit and ready to defend his County Championship title. Six weeks of serious, satisfying training, uninterrupted by injury or illness; six days of easy jogging; some brisk striding; deep untroubled sleep; a comfortable journey. No wonder he felt so vibrant.
Road-Running was Jim’s forte, and cross-country racing like this could be even better. Unlike tarmac, the grass cushioned the impact of foot on ground and reduced the likelihood of muscle bruising. He had felt alert and controlled during his warm-up. The stretching had been without strain. At the start, without hesitation, he had managed to glide powerfully into his best racing stride.
Of course his confidence was increased by precise knowledge, not only of his own excellent form, but also of the opposition. He had beaten them all before, and had no reason to suppose he could not do so again. Indeed his only slight worry had been Ewan Cameron. Since the latter was a deep mud specialist, Jim felt that on this springy surface victory was almost assured. Furthermore, he had a secret weapon! While cruising around inspecting the course, Jim had laughed aloud when he realised that spikes were unnecessary. He could sneak a slight advantage by wearing racing flats and running at least half a mile (per two mile lap) on the tarmac path which paralleled the route indicated by the marker flags. In a three-lap race, that could be a decisive tactical move, since road running tends to be a little faster than running on grass.
Everything, but everything, went to plan. Five minutes (and one mile) into the race, Jim was dictating the pace. Ewan was tucked in, panting very hard but refusing to give way. The rest were fifty yards to the rear and fading. The last half mile of the lap offered the alternative surface, and Jim put in a fierce burst of speed. This left Ewan, whose spikes on the bumpy turf lacked the traction that Jim enjoyed on the firm path, drifting ten yards behind. Ewan fought his way up to Jim’s shoulder by half way, but this merely delayed the inevitable, because the effort drained his reserves. Inexorably, Jim drew further and further away – a greyhound outpacing a terrier. At the ‘bell’ he was almost a hundred yards in front and the gap continued to grow. The final circuit was virtually a lap of honour. ………………………………………..
KEEP PUSHING – BREATHE DEEPLY, FAST, RHYTHMICALLY – LEAN INTO THE HILL – SHORTEN STRIDE LENGTH – INCREASE CADENCE – LIFT THE KNEES – FLOW DOWN THE OTHER SIDE – LOPE – THEN DRIVE AGAIN – WORK HARD – FLOAT, FLEET-FOOTED – COAST, MORE EFFORTLESSLY THAN EVER BEFORE.
CONCENTRATING – REALITY REMOTE – THOUGHTS JUMBLED – SHOUTS FROM THE SPECTATORS – CAN’T GET LOST – KNOW THE ROUTE THIS TIME – PERFECT UNDERFOOT – NOT LIKE WALLOWING IN USUAL SLUDGE – NOTHING – PUFF – LIKE IT FOR – COOLING – SHOULD BE WARMING – THE BLOOD –SO FOLLOW ME – CAN’T CATCH ME! – WEARIER NOW BUT – LAST PUSH FOR THE LINE – FLAT OUT TO THE TAPE- GLO-O-O-RIOUS MUD!
Light-headed, exultant, his ears ringing with cheers, Jim punched the air and slowed to a jog. He managed to control his breathing – and grinning widely, shook hands with an exhausted Ewan before easing his way out of the crowd for a gentle but joyous warm-down. Cross-Country Running seemed the finest, most delightful sport of all. …………………………………………………………………………
Four weeks later, however, things looked very different. The omens seemed less than favourable. Jim was not comforted by the likelihood that holes in the ground might swallow him up. The Inter-County Championship was a major fixture. Jim’s county was defending the team title. The first nine individuals would represent Scotland in the Inter-Area match versus Wales, Northern Ireland and the Auld Enemy, England. And he felt absolutely dreadful.
For a start, he had been injured. The week after his County race, bursting with over-confidence, he had run too far, too fast, and strained an Achilles tendon. Reluctant to rest, he had trudged on grimly, suffering increasing pain. Inevitably, he had been forced to take five days off to treat the affliction. Stretching, strengthening and that vital athletic aid, the packet of frozen peas, had repaired the damage. Cautiously he experimented, finding the tendon tender but serviceable. Then he succumbed to the prevalent ‘flu bug!
Another six days of sweating, snuffling, sneezing, coughing and complaining, drinking gallons of water, consuming umpteen grams of Vitamin C – and Jim was ready to start again, only one week before the Inter-Counties. Had his stamina been affected? Was he fit to compete? These questions were about to be answered but Jim wished the examination had been postponed.
To make matters worse, torrential rain had lashed the countryside for a fortnight. The course designer, judging by his creation, was a sadist. The route looked awesome. Road Racers (like Jim) regarded it with repulsion. Track ‘Fairies’ felt faint. And Mud ‘Puddlers’ purred with pleasure and sharpened their long ‘claws’.
A muddy field on top of a potential ski-slope was the chosen site for the start. After four hundred yards of precipitous descent, the flags veered sharply to the left. The track narrowed before plunging into half a mile of tree-lined corridor, where only jet-propelled karate experts would find overtaking a simple matter. A series of alarming switchbacks ensued, and the sadist had subtly included a number of right-angled turns before a ‘killer hill’ and the obligatory ploughed field. Then, for the delectation of the crowd, An arduous steadily rising drag of a finishing straight. Three laps of chocolate-tinted ecstasy, totalling seven and a half miles. An alien landscape liberally lubricated with millions of melted Mars Bars. At least there weren’t any steeplechase barriers to negotiate.
Jim sighed with desperate resignation to his fate as he inspected the ground conditions. These seemed to be an attractive mixture of marsh, swamp and quagmire. The phrase ‘missing, presumed drowned’ occurred to him. Nevertheless he went through the pre-race routine, trying to create some heat in his wind-chilled body by plodding stickily round the course. Unfortunately he cooled down again during the lengthy queue for the inadequate toilet facilities. With five minutes to go, he shoved on his spikes (only medium length, alas), stripped off and tried a few perfunctory strides. What a surprise – the start was delayed by ten minutes as ‘jobsworth’ officials explored the formal niceties of the rule book, while runners cursed and hopped up and down, nursing their burgeoning chilblains. An icy drizzle began to seep from heavy-laden clouds.
Tenth was the position in which Jim had finished the previous year (on another ‘soft’ circuit) and consequently he had missed out on the representative team by a single place. He had hoped to make it this year or perish in the attempt. The latter seemed more likely. However, when the gun fired, he launched himself into a manic attempt to fulfil his faltering ambition.
Struggling to sprint on a treacherous unstable surface, Jim lurched uncertainly down the slope. Disaster was avoided, just, when he managed to hurdle an unfortunate rival who had tripped and sprawled headlong prior to perforation by sympathetic but preoccupied runners. Soaked, mud-splattered and punctured, the poor fellow lay there in shock, like a discarded tea-bag.
Reckless leaders with longer spikes than Jim slalomed round the left-hander into the forest tunnel, leaving him trapped, slithering and helpless. He was unable to pass slower competitors who were throttling back for a breather after an optimistic “Hello, Mum!” start. Frustrated, he was caught in the traffic jam until emerging into the open at the three-quarters of a mile mark. Then he zoomed furiously up the first of the hills, and proceeded to overtake madly. Amazingly, these tactics, brave yet burning fuel extravagantly, seemed at first to be correct. By two miles, Jim had climbed up into the first ten and desperately tried to cling on.
Suddenly success began to slide away as Jim did likewise, losing control on the slick churned-up morass, as he made a futile attempt to turn right at speed. Face-first into the mud he tumbled, to lie spread-eagled in the bog for a moment, before scrambling up and dashing off in pursuit of elusive glory. Fifteenth.
As he wheezed up the north face of the steepest climb on the course, Jim began to flag. His rivals seemed to be growing stronger. Forcing his way doggedly through the viscous clay of the ploughed field, he was dismayed to note Ewan Cameron passing him, cruising light-footed over the surface and moving steadily towards the leading group. “I beat that guy out of sight a month ago!” Jim thought disconsolately as he trailed fifty yards behind Ewan at the end of the first lap. Still two circuits to go! Seventeenth.
By now visibility was obscured by heavy swirling snowfall and the race became a nightmarish procession of demented vest-clad wraiths, with steam rising like ectoplasm from their lean forms. They stumbled in slow-motion through a barren Icelandic notion of hell. Having glissaded nervously down the sheer drop, Jim was relieved to reach the haven of the tree-lined avenue. Fatigue gnawed at his aching limbs as he realised numbly that he had no chance now of selection for Scotland. Another time perhaps, on a totally different surface. Yet he strove to maintain his effort, to slog on regardless. At least his county could retain the team title, he reckoned. Ewan and two others were in front of him; and the first six home would score. Eighteenth.
Crash! Another belly-flop onto squelchy mire, at one of those damn corners. What made it worse was the fact that he had anticipated, and tried to avoid, such a slip. Under the slush, the ground was surprisingly hard. The jarring winded him badly. He felt like a boxer left gasping by a body blow. Grinding uphill once more, Jim felt bone-weary. Dimly he glimpsed an ex-international runner, now over forty years old and therefore a’veteran’ splashing eagerly past him and surging powerfully through the glutinous muck of a farmer’s field. The old so-and-so seemed to be enjoying himself, Jim mused sourly. Last lap. Nineteenth.
CAN’T BELIEVE LOSING TO A VETERAN – AND EWAN – HORSES FOR COURSES – COMPLETELY KNACKERED – THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON’T THEY?
SKID DOWN THE SNOW CLIFF – SLUSH IS SAFER THAN MUD – FOUNDER IN A DEEPER STRETCH – SUPERGLUE – CAN HARDLY SEE – STILL NOT THE ONLY ONE CRACKING UP – SURELY ONE OF THE LEADERS OVER THERE – COLLAPSED AGAINST A TREE – JUST STARING AT THE SNOW – OTHERS WALKING – ACTUALLY PASSING SOME – OTHER OVERTAKING – NOT THAT IT MATTERS MUCH.
GRUELLING GRADIENTS – SAGGING DOWN AGAIN – CAREFUL – ROUND THE BEND – TOO TRUE – GRUNTING UP THE KILLER – SPIKES WON’T GRIP – FALLING UPHILL NOW – INTO THE ICY MARSH – WHAT NEXT? – SIDESLIP – ACHILLES WRENCHED – BODY DROOPING – DRAINED – LUMBERING THROUGH HEAVY SLUDGE – LAST TIME – NOT SO GLORIOUS MUD – WALLOWING ALL RIGHT – HIPPOS WOULD LOVE IT – NEARLY CRAWLING ALONG – INTO THE STRAIGHT – KEEP IT STEADY – OH NO! NOT NIGEL! – RAISE A CANTER – ELBOWING TUSSLE – STRIVE FOR THE FINISH LINE – WILTING – MADE IT!
Utterly spent, Jim hauled himself into the funnel, leaning heavily on ice-encrusted ropes. He plodded slowly past the recorder in twenty-third position. Glimpsing Ewan chatting to a county team-mate, Jim wandered over.
“Good one, boy,” he muttered, “Where’d you finish?”
“Sixth!” Ewan exclaimed happily, “Made the Scottish Select!”
“Lucky sod. Still, we must have won the team title.”
“Afraid not, Jim. Didn’t you see Ian and Alex spectating? Dropped out with a lap to go.”
Incredulous and suddenly very angry, Jim reeled away. All that effort for nothing! Despite his own problems, HE had managed to complete the course! How dare those two lose him the team prize – he’d tell them EXACTLY what he thought of them!
Wearily he collected his sodden tracksuit and headed for the showers. Inevitably a long queue had formed outside. The guy that had won the race was well down it. No privileges even for champions. Already, word was being passed that the water was going cold.
Glumly, Jim eyed his fellow so-called athletes. Haggard and hollow-eyed, they slouched, stamped or shivered in clammy running gear, their legs smeared by clotted mud and with slimy liquid oozing from their shoes. Some were gazing around vacantly; others talking obsessively about their own personal adventures.
Involuntarily, Jim started to laugh out loud. He knew that he must look the same as the others – dishevelled, filthy, ludicrous. The whole event was a farce! The joys of truly amateur sport! He could even feel sorry for the drop-outs, realising that they would be depressed for days because they had let the side down. At least he had finished.
Thank goodness, it was the end of his cross-country season. Triumph or disaster, as Rudyard Kipling had perhaps implied, should be met with modesty or calm resilience. Never mind – a couple of days off and he knew he would be glad to start training again. Things could only get better. Perhaps he’d aim for the Isle of Man Easter Road Running Festival – excellent real ale and a chance to get some revenge on Ewan and the others.
Shaking his head, and still chuckling hysterically, Jim made visible tracks in the direction of a wash-basin. Open-mouthed and bewildered, the shower queue watched his departure.
“What’s he got to laugh about?”
“Mud on the brain, if you ask me!”