It starts on the bus ride to the course. The butterflies in the stomach, the heart beating just that tiny bit faster than normal. The nervous tension is palpable in the surrounding air; no one is talking. The sound of some local radio station is the only thing breaking the silence. All of a sudden you arrive at your destination, a grassy park in the centre of the city.
Instantly, the cold air freezes you to the bone, despite the fact that you’re still wearing numerous layers. You want to start your warm up immediately but with the men’s race being the last of the day, you have an hour or two to wait. You make your way to the changing room, essentially a big tent in the middle of a field. You find a spare space to lie down and rest the legs. The physios and team management are doing their best to keep everyone relaxed and calm but it doesn’t work. The junior athletes start to trickle back into the tent after their races. Their noses red, their bodies shivering in the cold. Is that what I’m going to look like in an hour’s time? And so it’s time to start warming up.
You begin to visualise the start in your head for the hundredth time. You begin to notice twinges in your legs that you’ve never noticed before. You start to question whether you’re ready, whether you’re good enough. Part of you just wants to get back onto the warmth of the bus. But as quick as you have those thoughts, you’re already dismissing them. What if today is my day? I know I’m strong and healthy. I know I’ve done the training. Why can’t I win today? Yes, I’m ready; let’s do this.
You’re standing at the front of the pen. ‘On your marks, gentlemen’. How did it get to be this time already? One last deep breath to try and slow the heart rate. And suddenly you’re off. The first 200m is a sprint, everyone with the same plan of being near the front for that first turn. You lean into the corner, jostling for position with those around you. The first two 500m laps go by in a blur of mud. You ease out into the first of the many long laps and just as you start getting into the race proper, the dreaded thoughts every runner thinks have already popped into your mind…Jeez this is hard…and I’ve still got 27minutes of running to go.
That, my friends, is the European cross country. Sitting here, with five days to go before the race in Belgrade, I’m already getting nervous.
In terms of racing, November has been a mixed bag. I kicked off my cross country season with a comfortable win in a local race in London (Surrey league). Following such a solid victory, my confidence was extremely high heading into the next cross country race, in Soria, Spain. However, everything which could go wrong in a weekend away racing did go wrong. I struggled to get going from the start and finished 12th, some 80 seconds behind the winner. However, it was exactly the stimulus I needed going forward. Sometimes as a runner, you plateau in training, you feel amazing and you need that terrible race and dip in form before you can make the next step. I feel that Soria was the dip in form that I required. The Irish cross country championships were the following week and I wanted to be certain not to make the same mistakes again. My family had decided to come down to Dublin to watch the race and so I was determined that this was a race I wanted to win.
Qualification for the European Cross race was the primary aim though and so a top three placing was essential. Without knowing who was in good shape, the plan was to sit in for a few laps and give the other leading athletes the respect that they deserve. At the halfway point, in a leading group of eight or so, I felt strong and comfortable. I was chatting to one of my training partners the week before and he said that the key when making a break is to go fast enough that you make everyone else hurt. Otherwise it’s just wasted energy on your part. With that at the forefront of my mind, I decided to throw in a quicker 400m and see who was willing to go with me. Thankfully, I managed to get a gap and could ease back for a relatively comfortable victory. That’s what hard training, consistency and patience gets you. Regardless of what happens in Serbia this Sunday, I am exactly where I want to be in the month of December. I am a stronger, more rounded athlete than ever before and the winter has been near perfect so far. The key now, as all athletes know, is to ensure a smooth transition onto the track.
I think it’s only right that I finish with a message of good luck to all those competing this Sunday. The Irish teams are shaping up well and hopefully we will come away with a few medals. I’m excited and nervous about what we might achieve, especially with Fionnuala going for three in a row. The hard work has all been done, now it’s time to start believing! Tune in on BBC or RTE this Sunday from 1200 until 1400, with the senior men’s race kicking off at 1309 to be exact.