With Halloween well and truly over, the festivities of Christmas are already kicking into gear which can mean only one thing. The cross country season is upon us. With darkness in the sky and frost on the ground, training is more of a chore than a fun way to spend the day. As if the piercing wind was not warning enough, with each breath comes a cloud of personal fog to remind you that you should not be enjoying this. And yet we continue to do it, year after year. For cross country is what creates strength, mentally and physically. And cross country races is where the strongest always wins. There is no easy way to get around it and no shortcuts to be had. This is where the training starts in order to fulfil the summer plans for next year.
This weekend is the Irish trials for the European Cross Country Championships, a must-do fixture in every Irish runner’s calendar. This is the day when everyone lays their cards on the table and there is no holding back. You find out who is in shape and training seriously and who has enjoyed their Halloween break that little bit too much. You hear rumblings amongst friends of certain people who are flying in training or about others who are injured. Once you get to the race however, everyone looks fit and fast and everyone looks ready to win. Last year I won at a relative canter, a just reward for the heavy block of training I had done in the lead up. I doubt it will be so easy this year.
For some reason the date still sticks in my head: the 6th of October. That was the day I moved from being on the injury list to being a runner again. It was not the smashing of a session or a hard long run that proved it to me. No, the plan for the day was nothing more than simply running two miles in under fifteen minutes, a relatively pedestrian pace. From being able to run five minute miles with hardly raising my heart rate in August, I finished the two miles exhausted, sprawled on the ground in 15.06. I had clearly fallen further than what I thought and enjoyed one too many takeaways. I was, however, painfree for the first time in months. After running every other day for two weeks, the fitness was coming back frustratingly slowly. However, by the end of October I was up to running ten miles in close to a steady sixty minutes and it was time to introduce sessions again.
For two weeks I struggled, well and truly struggled. The combination of the fitness of my training partners and the seemingly double lung removal that I must have had whilst injured, meant that for every rep of every session I was being dropped within fifty metres. In one particular grass session (3 sets of 5/3/2 minutes) I was losing hundreds of metres in each rep. It is demoralising and you do start to question whether the fitness you had will ever come back. You just have to trust in yourself and believe that with the training you will get stronger. I stuck through those sessions to the end, pushing as hard as my unfit body would allow. And just like that, everything started falling into place. The running was becoming smoother and the times were dropping quicker than I imagined. Two weeks ago, I entered a local cross country race where some of the best runners in the UK were competing. It was to be a test of where I was and my coach had given me instructions that he wanted me to finish at least within a minute of the winner. Again, it was a struggle and tough effort but I managed to come second, four seconds behind the winner. A great placing given that I had only been running for four weeks. And from there my confidence has rocketed and training has steadily improved. Last week, I did another grass session (5 sets of 3/2/1 minutes) with the same training partners. Instead of being dropped this time I was pushing the pace, eager to get fitter and faster. I am nowhere near as fit as I was three months ago but I am fit and each day I am getting stronger. Whether I will be fit enough to retain my title this Sunday remains to be seen, but at least I will be there and I will, hopefully, be ready to contend. And that is what excites me.