Every January some of the World’s greatest distance runners descend on my home terrain for the BUPA Great Edinburgh International Cross Country in Holyrood park, one of the highest regarded cross country races outside of the World Champs. Indeed, in 2008 Edinburgh hosted the World Championships on this very course and the great Kenenisa Bekele triumphed despite losing his shoe in the muddy stampede for the first corner. The great thing about the International race is that for the last six years it has also incorporated the Scottish Inter-District Championships, so most years I’ve got to pull on my black East of Scotland Vest and toe the same line as my heroes.
The first time I raced the focus was on not getting lapped on the 6 lap course and I made it, just. Since then I’ve progressed a bit and I am closer to the front of the race than the back. It’s still a strange race though, with all the excitement of the TV cameras and superstars giving an adrenaline rush at the start, but after about half a lap it settles down to a normal Scottish cross country race with the usual familiar faces. The course is not much fun either, with the first half on flat playing fields with only occasional embankments – or hay bales this year – to break the rhythm before the first of three steep climbs up Haggis Knowe once the longer laps start.
This year the pre-Christmas snow meant that all the races in December were cancelled so I was missing a bit of race sharpness in the early stages. The pace from the gun is usually insane as the leading elites sprint for position and the rest of us get dragged along, and this year was no exception. We covered the first kilometre, across snow covered grass, in under 3 minutes, and I was at the back of the pack hanging on for dear life! Good racing tactics would clearly be to go out steady and move through later on but that is much easier to say than do. I had to trust that I was fitter than the others, and they would suffer more than me later on. Sure enough, by the third of the three short laps I started to feel strong again and able to start passing people.
When we reached the first of the three climbs up Haggis Knowe I saw the captain of HBT waving our club flag at the side of the track course and I heard him shout “This is your terrain!” and I knew exactly what he meant. Not only was this the hill which should favour me as a orienteer and hill runner, but the path we were on leads to Hunters Bog, probably the greatest bit of bog in the world, and makes up the first 100m of our club race, the Bog Trot. At this point I was leading a pack of runners including a couple of GB U20s and some of my East teammates while there was a group of three West team runners about 30m ahead. I don’t know if it was the snow, the hill or the prospect of encountering Hunters Bog, but half way up one of the Westies stepped off the course with his hand in the air. I still wasn’t feeling particularly good, but this was a reassuring moment – I wasn’t the only one suffering. Over the next lap the two Westies split up, with Andrew Douglas pulling away while Callum Hawkins dropped back towards us, eventually settling in behind me.
On the second climb Callum tried to get ahead of me but his attack didn’t last long, as I relaxed up the hill and rolled down the other side to hear the bell at the start of the final lap. Meanwhile at the front Mo Farah had put in a decisive surge to leave Galen Rupp and the rest of us behind – but I wouldn’t know much about that until I was back on the sofa watching the recording in the evening!
Looking back, most of the last lap was a bit of a blur. I was aware that Andrew was well clear of us but I wasn’t particularly thinking about how I was going to hold off the guys breathing down my neck – just keep running hard was the plan, I think. We got to the hill in much the same positions as we left it a lap previously, but this time there were far fewer spectators as most had moved to get a view of the finish. Half way up Callum made his move and tried to cut my line off. This was the wake up call I needed and I charged back in front of him and literally sprinted the rest of the climb – gone was the cyclical tap tap tap rhythm of the hill runner, I was more like a sprinter exploding from the blocks, leaping up the hill. There is a downside to such an aggressive climb: the burn you get when you try to run fast downhill afterwards. Fortunately I got away with it and I was aware that I’d got a gap to the pack behind me – I just needed to keep the speed up down the hill to maintain it. The 200m to go banner was just after the start of the descent and at this point I realised Andrew wasn’t as far ahead as I’d thought.
Surely not? I can’t catch him? He’s been ahead since lap 1. But he’s definitely getting closer! As long as he doesn’t look round, or hear the Trotters cheering me on. We cross the road, less than 100m to go. There are footsteps behind me too but there is nothing I can do about them. 50m to go and I pull up to Andrew’s back, he still doesn’t realise I’m coming. Past him and going quicker, there’s no way he can react. Last steps, keep pushing, and across the line! General chaos ensues as the chasing pack pile in behind me but there is Ginger Jackson, chief blazer for Scottish Cross Country, telling me I’ve taken bronze in the Inter District Competition. Result! My first national level individual medal on the flat.
|All photos with thanks to Tessa Hill.|