How did it get to be that time of year again? It seems like it was only yesterday that I was eagerly anticipating the European cross country in Belgrade. Now, twelve months on, and the stabbing cold and deep snow of a ski resort in Bulgaria awaits. Last year, I finished a distant 26th, well behind the leaders and below the standard at which I had hoped to compete. This year though, the dreaming of a medal has returned.
Less than ten weeks ago I was unable to jog never mind compete. I was being destroyed in sessions and I was being dropped consistently in every rep. But at the end of every session, as I was doubled over, coughing up my lungs, there was my coach. ‘Good job. It’ll come. Be patient.’ I’m glad at least one of us had faith. It is said that coaching a fit athlete is not difficult. It is only whenever you encounter hurdles, be that injury or a poor performance that the coaching really begins. Sometimes, it takes that voice in your ear just to remind you that there is no need to panic. I’ve been fit before and, if I train right, I’ll get fit again. And so, as jogs turned into runs, and runs into sessions, it was only inevitable that at some stage I would again need to throw my hat into the ring and race.
Before the Irish cross country trials, I was strangely calm. The pre-race nerves that normally kick in were nowhere to be found. I had convinced myself that I was still recovering from injury. Getting to the startline itself was a big enough result. I had placed no expectation on myself and neither had my coach. His instructions were to sit in for as long as I could. I always find it somewhat cheeky sitting on other runners. To me, winning a race, having kicked past someone who has been at the front for 9.9k, makes the victory feel hollow. It is a style of racing that I have never really enjoyed, although, as everyone knows, it normally produces the best results. And so I sat. There were the usual early attacks by other runners but the gap never grew large enough to get worried. And coming into the final lap, when it was down to Mick Clohissey and Mark Hanrahan and myself, I still felt confident. I had already far exceeded my expectations and, with the top three guaranteed selection for the European Cross, I had bought myself a further three weeks in which to get fitter. Having raced Mark and Mick several times before, I knew that I was not strong enough to be able to pull away from them both. So I sat and sat, and then sat a bit more. And thankfully, coming into the final turn, I managed to get a few metres and hold on for an unexpected win. After several months of various scans, injections and physio appointments, broken only by sparse days of training, it was nice to finally race again. It was even more enjoyable to win.
The day after the trials I flew back to London, ready for some more hard training, in the build up to this Sunday’s race. And for once, things have gone well. There has been no injury pain and no days missed. With everyone I know having appeared to have simultaneously contracted a cold, I have been overdosing on vitamin C and continuously wearing a scarf. Thankfully, my paranoia must have worked so far, as I have not even had a snuffle. I am so much stronger than what I was three weeks ago. My last hard session was two days ago in Bushy Park. On a horrible, dark, wet and windy evening, for once I had no company, no one to share the workload with. The plan was for two miles in ten minutes. A generous ninety second break followed by four one mile reps. The plan had been to hit 4.55, 4.42, 4.55, 4.38. I stood at the end of the two miles in ten minutes, soaked to the skin and freezing. Breaking a five minute mile seemed unlikely never mind under 4.40. The first mile felt like I was going all out. It took all my energy to hit 4.55. This was definitely a night for mental training, in addition to the physical benefits. Fifteen minutes later, I stood exhausted but happy. The last three miles were 4.39, 4.37, 4.35. Not superfast times by any means but it was the confidence boost I needed. I am fit, no doubt about it, I am definitely fit. I am starting to believe that I am fit enough to win this Sunday, now it is all about having the correct race. The European Cross Country is a notoriously hard race from gun to tape and the snow creates a new challenge. But after missing Zurich and not being able to run for weeks on end, there is no place I would rather be come Sunday. Whatever happens, I know I fly back to London next week ready for Christmas, which for others might mean partying. For me and my training group, Christmas, however, means a different thing. It means it is time to start training hard and running fast. The indoors are just around the corner.
The senior men’s race is at 11.58 Northern Irish time this Sunday and (as far as I know) is live on RTE and BBC red button for anyone interested.