That time I represented my county

So, a few hours after representing Cambridgeshire for the first time at the Inter Regionals Cross Country event in Loughborough, I think my disappointment at my performance has finally settled enough for me to get my thoughts written down.

Holy mother forking shirtballs that was hard.

I knew stepping up to this level was going to be tough. I knew I would probably be near the back. I knew the terrain would be unlike anything I’ve ever done before. I knew, I knew, I knew. And yet I didn’t.

After a little over a 2-hour drive with my clubmate (and constant source of inspiration) Gemma, who would be running in the under 17s girls’ race, and her mum Sue, also an Ely Runner who is one of the most committed representatives (and cheerleaders!) for the club I know, we turned up about 90 minutes before my race and located the Cambridgeshire flag so that we could get our numbers. This was when the first disappointment struck – 2 of the women weren’t coming, which meant we didn’t have have enough senior women running to field a scoring team. We needed 6, but we only had 4. In some ways it felt like the pressure was off, but in another, I was so disappointed not to be able to score for my county. I had said to Gemma in the car that the worst thing that could happen was if someone bailed, as I was then travelling 80-odd miles each way, to do a race that was so far out of my comfort zone that it was practically a dot on the horizon, and for it not to make a difference.

But after chatting with my teammates Kayleigh, Elisabeth and Sarah, we all agreed that we could at least enjoy it and treat it as a training run. And I genuinely planned to do the former. Honestly. I really, truly wanted to.

But I hated nearly every second of it.

The course was unlike anything I had ever experienced. Half the course was deep, boggy mud that gripped onto my ankles like a drowning man grabbing at a buoy, sucking at my shoes and succeeding in taking one off a couple of miles from the end (I wasn’t the only victim of this judging by the abandoned spikes littering the course), losing me valuable time as I battled to shove it back on. The gaps we had between the boggiest sections offered little in the way of respite, and knowing that I had to do two laps meant that I wanted to quit time and time again, certain I couldn’t possibly make my legs fight through that mire again.  And I barely could. I lost count of the number of times I had to stop to walk up the inclines, the fight to keep tears back as I felt like I was letting myself and the county down by losing the mental battle cross country represents.

The worst part was when my watch buzzed the 6 mile mark and I realised that the run was going to be significantly more than the 10km it was meant to be. This is when the need for the RunEqual campaign really hit home. It’s hard enough to qualify at 5.8km for a 10km race but for a 11.25km race? That’s nearly double. At least if we had qualified at 10km that extra 1.25km may not have been so daunting (although how British Athletics over-measured by that much I’ll never know). Come on Cambridgeshire – how can you expect to field a strong senior women team if the discrepancy between what we’re doing at a local level and the county level is so huge? THIS is why we need to be equalising our distances.

I did at least manage to finish strong, but that’s what desperation to end a nightmare will do to you. After a successful Frostbite XC at Huntingdon last week I had honestly thought I might be able to do something special, but instead I crossed the line in 56:41, 205th runner out of a field of 254, managing an average pace of around 8.07 per mile. I was devastated.

BUT – this isn’t all doom and gloom. It takes a chat with your best friends/sister/partner to give things a bit of context. Firstly – I’ve never run 10km (or 11.25km!) of cross country before. I’m a 5km road runner through and through. Also, I was only 4 minutes behind Kayleigh and 2 minutes behind Sarah, both senior women while I’m (ahem) a veteran. And I didn’t quit. Despite EVERYTHING in my body telling me to, I made it to the finish. Not everyone did. I think the thing I’m most gutted about is the fact I had to stop and walk numerous times. I lost the mental battle, and I need to work out what I can do to stop that from happening again.

I may never compete for Cambridgeshire again. Let’s face it – the older I get the less likely I am to be considered. So I’m disappointed that possibly the one time I don that blue vest the result is not what I wanted or what I believe I’m capable of. But at least I was there, and at least I have that vest and a story to tell. And perhaps more importantly, a few lessons learned.

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Why we should all be Running Equal

Women being able to officially compete in longer distances is a surprisingly recent development. At the 1928 Olympics some women who competed in the 800m collapsed at the finish line (a not uncommon sight today), and the New York Times said that “even this distance makes too great a call on feminine strength”. It led to women not being allowed to compete at distances longer than 200m in the Olympics for the next 32 years.

Unbelievably, it then wasn’t until 1972 that women were allowed to “officially” run the Boston Marathon, after trailblazers like Bobbi Gibb and Kathrine Switzer were breaking the (ridiculous) rules by running without registering or entering using only their initials so that the male organisers wouldn’t realise they were female and start worrying about uteruses littering the course. The women’s marathon wasn’t introduced into the Olympics until 1984.

But it’s 2020, so this has all been consigned to the history books right? With people like Jasmin Paris winning the 268 mile Spine Race, there’s no way women would be running lesser distances than their male counterparts. We know our uteruses can cope (the plucky little blighters).

And on the whole, this is the case. Just not in the Cross-Country sphere. In XC, women are generally running shorter distances than men. Case in point at the recent Cambs AA XC Championships, where women run around 5.8km, and the men run 10km. This is even less than the National recommended standard of 8km for women (which is bad enough). But for those women who then get called up to run for the county at the Inter Regionals, they will find the distances equalised, and be expected to run 10km when they’ve qualified at only a little over half the required distance.

The IAAF have equalised the distances run in the World Cross-Country Championships, and Scottish Athletics have done the same for their national championships. So what gives for the English counties? My friend and clubmate Charlotte has been giving her all to the RunEqual movement for some time, including writing open letters to gather signatures from local clubs, and some of the reasons she’s been given by Cambs AA for not equalising the distances have been gobsmacking. They have tried to argue that the timetable won’t allow for the change (whilst ignoring the idea that everyone could perhaps be equalised to 8km – the time saved on the men’s race would allow for the extra time needed for the women’s) or that a longer distance race would mean fewer entries and would increase costs to participants.

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But what I saw in the lead up to the Cambs AA (where Charlotte was threatened with disqualification if she went through with her plan to peacefully run the men’s distance in protest with myself and some clubmates) and what happened at the County Championships race really showed how bad the attitudes of these associations can be. Charlotte had received confirmation ahead of the Championships that it had been agreed that from 2021, work would be done to ensure women are given the opportunity to run the same distance as men, should they wish. It felt like a huge step forward and we were looking forward to racing with this news in mind and our RunEqual ribbons pinned to our tops. But the attitude on the day did not give this impression at all.

It turned out that Cambs AA had done little to communicate to local running clubs that there was an intention to look at equalising the distances. So it was quite a surprise to the majority of the senior women who, as they lined up for the start of the race, heard one of the officials start telling them that at the end of the run, they would all be given a token to put in a pot to decide whether to keep running at 5.8km or step up to 10km. The tone of this announcement was very much along the lines of “you may be aware that the women’s race is going to be increased”, like it was a decision that had already been made thanks to a small number of “meddling women”. There was zero mention of equality.

Sad little voting pot

This goes massively against the RunEqual movement in so many ways. Firstly, it’s not necessarily about women running longer. It’s about either opening up both distances to both genders or choosing an equal distance. Maybe men run a little less. Maybe women run a little more. Maybe women run quite a bit more. On a fundamental level an open conversation needs to be had to see which option is the best for all concerned. Secondly, if there is going to be a vote, it should be opened up to all athletes, not just women. And thirdly, if you ask a bunch of women who have just given their everything on a tough, muddy XC race if they would like to run further, of course a lot of them in that moment will say no – they’re knackered and very few people would relish the idea of running further the second they’ve just busted a gut sprinting for a finish line.

And the icing on this misogynistic cake? The moment when the official, speaking about increasing the women’s race to 10km, uttered the immortal words:

“But you don’t want to do that, do you ladies?”

FFS.

What does this sort of attitude tell our young female athletes? It’s bad enough that the senior male race is ALWAYS before the women’s race and treated as the main event. And it’s bad enough that the officials on the day forgot to give out or even announce the winners for the 2nd and 3rd place veteran women’s teams, and again treated me like a “meddling woman” when I asked about it. Both Norfolk and Suffolk counties have managed to equalise their distances, so we know it can be done. But sadly, many of the Athletics Associations are boys’ clubs, run by people who are set in their ways and have never been made to feel lesser because of their gender.

And it goes beyond counties too. The attitudes of the English Cross Country Association representatives on Facebook are fist-gnawingly bad on this matter. Speaking of the recent Home Countries International in Stirling they snarkily said that “the Senior Men ran a little shorter than most are used to, running 8K as the Senior Women also did” rather than perhaps just stating that the seniors ran the same distance. They then began to attack anyone who spoke of the RunEqual movement, with one choice comment saying “we would prefer that you did not use our posts to further your cause, which generally is a minority view, judging by all the research that has been undertaken.” All the research? Please, let’s see it. Because until 2 weeks ago I certainly hadn’t been asked my opinion on the matter, and the only reason my opinion was asked on the day is because Charlotte pushed for it. If this is the attitude coming from the national association, can we really expect things to change on a county level?

I’m not sure how things will look at the 2021 Cambs AA XC Championships, but I will continue to support Charlotte in everything she does to make change happen. She has already offered to lead a working group on the matter to no avail. And if that change doesn’t come, perhaps we’ll both be running the men’s distance in 2021 anyway, proudly wearing our RunEqual ribbons. It’s not quite on the same scale as Bobbi Gibb and Kathrine Switzer, but this is our Boston marathon.

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Sprinting to put my token in the 10k pot

The Glorious Pain of Parliament Hill

I don’t consider myself a cross-country runner. I’ve always been more at ease on the road, more sure-footed when I don’t have to worry about rabbit holes, grasping thorny hedges and routes mangled by tractor tyres (a sure fire way to get me turning the air blue on a run). Each time I’ve done the Ely Runners Christmas run I’ve stacked it with considerable flair, and have found the terrain really bloody tough.

So why, dear reader, did I agree to sign up to run the National Cross Country Championships at Parliament Hill? Because I am a blithering idiot who gets swept up in the enthusiasm of others. Plus the blighters got me at a weak point. At the start of the year I knew that the Cambridge Half Marathon was going to be a no go – getting back up to 13 miles was just too much pressure to put on me and my foot. But a 5 mile trot around Hampstead Heath? Well that sounded just peachy.

I knew I was in trouble when I told my sister that I had signed up to the race and she laughed. When I told my coach he looked genuinely concerned. Naturally neither of these reactions filled me with confidence. And then in the days leading up to the run I stupidly clicked on links people were sending me of videos of the race, which basically showed a never-ending swell of runners taking what seemed like FOREVER to power up the boggiest incline you ever laid eyes on. In the end, I forced myself to buy my train ticket to London 5 days in advance as I knew I’d be far less likely to bail if I’d already spent £20 to get there.

This video will give you some idea of the scrum you get at the start of the race

After a rather convoluted train journey to London on Saturday 24th February (thanks to engineering works on the line that added nearly half an hour to our journey) we ended up reaching the event a little later than we had planned. Add to this the hunt for the registration tent, the need to change into trail shoes (don’t even get me started on the runners who asked me if I had spikes – of course I flipping didn’t. I couldn’t have been more clueless about this race), and the queues for the toilets, and Celine, Beth and I found ourselves with 3 minutes to get to the start, whilst frantically trying to pin our numbers on. Huge thanks to the fellow runners who helped us as we fumbled with our safety pins whilst simultaneously telling us over and over that we were going to miss the start. Talk about giving with one hand and taking with the other.

Whilst Beth powered to the start (the girl is an epic cross country machine), Celine and I made it with seconds to spare, and I was still tucking my shoelaces in as the klaxon went. I had been advised by various sources to wrap duck tape around my shoes, but there was no way I would have had time for that. As it happens people are split on whether taping shoes is a help or a hindrance, but I was extremely nervous that I was going to lose a trainer as we set off up the hill right at the back of the pack.

And so I started what was without doubt the most bonkers run of my life. That first hill NEVER seems to end, and being at the back makes things even worse as you try and dodge the crowds and their pointy elbows (more than 1100 runners took part in the senior women’s event). But that hill isn’t even the worst bit, because then you enter the boggiest pits you’ve ever seen, interspersed with a gajillion inclines of varying degrees. By the end of the race my Garmin had clocked more than 60 flights of stairs. It’s a full blown mudbath and apparently it wasn’t even all that bad this year. The course is so unutterably bonkers that you just have to go with it and pray that your trainers don’t get sucked into the real life bog of eternal stench*.

At around mile 4 I really thought that I was going to keel over and earn myself a free mud facial. I told myself that I would never, EVER do this again and when I hit the final decline and saw the finish line in sight I seemed to summon all of my inner demons and powered to the finish.

And then the weirdest thing happened. After we had all completed the race Celine asked me if I would do it again. And I said yes without even skipping a beat. Despite how much my legs burned, and how exhausted I felt from the extra muddy weight on my feet and the effort of having to lift my knees higher than I normally would, I had actually seriously bloody enjoyed it. Part of it may have been the sheer joy of running again, and the fact that the weather couldn’t have been better (would I have been so chipper a week later running whilst being battered by the Beast from the East?), but I just loved the challenge. It felt like I had been part of something really special, and next time the run takes place in Parliament Hill I’ll be sure to tie my shoelaces a little tighter, get to the start in plenty of time and maybe wiggle a little closer to the front. Because the competitive arse in me is steaming that I got 40:03, just 4 seconds off getting a time starting with a 3.

And in case you’re wondering, no. I still haven’t cleaned my trainers.

* If you don’t get this reference, go and watch Labyrinth and educate yourself immediately.

My December 2016 Round Up – Three Very Different Races!

First of all, apologies for the 2017 silence so far. I’ve got plenty of posts waiting to be written, but other priorities (including training for the half marathon ironically!) have left little time for blogging. But I’ve been determined to get one post done for January, so at this moment I have 62 minutes left to go…

In the lead up to Christmas 2016 (how long ago does that feel now?) I was involved in three very different races, the first of which was the Arthur Rank Hospice Festive 5k in Ely on November 20th. This event is such a blast and sells out every year. It goes around the main city centre of Ely, ending with a blighter of a climb through Cherry Hill Park (thanks for lurking there Mr Photographer) and finishing on the market square.

This was the third year running that I’ve done this race. On my first attempt I somehow managed to be first woman in a time of 22:04 (it was really wet which I think kept the speedsters at home) and in 2015 the fastest woman smashed it in 19:45 (I did 20:37). As for 2016, it had been a long year, and I just didn’t fancy a hard run. I wanted to have fun, and this is an event known for runners in fancy dress (there’s a prize each year for best dressed) and luckily for me, Running Buddy Extraordinaire Pete decided he just wanted a laugh as well, after a hard racing year where he smashed pretty much all of his PBs.

So, we did what any sane people would do and dressed up. As Christmas trees. Complete with fairy lights. I was up to my eyeballs with a cold as well, and as my battery pack for my lights lodged itself in a really unhelpful position down the back of my shorts, I knew I was in for an uncomfortable run. The stitch hit in pretty quickly as I found myself unable to get my breathing into a decent rhythm, and Pete basically had to talk me through the damp 3 miles as I whinged my way round Ely. We finished in 22:41, and once I got home I found out that by some miracle I had been the fastest woman again. Arthur Rank accidentally gave the prize to another woman who crossed the line first but had actually been 4 seconds slower than me across the course, but to their credit they apologised for the mistake, sent me a prize in the post and told me that they are going to have plans in place to make sure it doesn’t happen again next year.

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Two soggy Christmas trees

This race is probably the loveliest one of the year. The support from the folk of Ely is awesome, the marshals are the BEST at cheering you on and it’s just such fun. Plus it’s all for a brilliant cause. Keep an eye on their website – they’re adding to their running events calendar all the time.

Then on the 18th December, I found myself on a coach at about 8am, ready to be driven out into the countryside just so I could run home again.

Sometimes I think past Lauren would be so flipping confused.

I had signed up for the Ely Runners Christmas run again, a social, untimed, cross country run. Last year I did the 7.5 mile leg and this year I signed up for 12.5 miles (the next option being 18.5). As per usual Pete was along for the ride, and complete with festive headgear, we set off from Woodditton at 9am, and precisely 60 seconds later our trainers were caked with mud and three times as heavy. Awesome.

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The first 7.5 miles actually went better than expected. We were prepared for the very rural route after last year, we sang along to Christmas tunes that Pete played on his phone (thankfully we were pretty much running alone), and I got about 6 miles in before tripping and doing an epic combat role stopped only by my face (thankfully the fall looked more impressive than it was). It was ironically when we stopped at the first refuel station that I started to struggle. We just stopped for a little too long (mostly gawping at Stephen’s impressive cut on his leg which put my scratches to shame) and it turns out that eating something mid-run really doesn’t work for me. So we ended up run/walking the last 5 miles, partly due to not knowing where we were going and the terrain, but mostly due to my running out of steam.

I really enjoyed the run, even though our glorious sprint finish was scuppered by the terrain resembling the bog of eternal stench. I’m definitely going to do it again next year, and who knows? Maybe I’ll attempt the full 18 miles!

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The Bog of Eternal Stench. If you didn’t know this, FOR SHAME.

The last race wasn’t one that I ran. Instead, I was marshalling. Every year the Ely Runners host the NYE10k, and every year it sells out within about 24 hours. I didn’t know where I would be for NYE, so I didn’t sign up. But to be honest, this was a handy excuse. Because the truth is, I kind of hate the route. It’s exposed and a bit dull, (read: tough) and we have to run it for our 10k handicap. Once a year is enough for me.

It was so much fun to be able to enjoy the race from the other side (although my step count suggested that running it would have been the easier option). Watching our Race Director Charlotte run the whole thing like an epically well oiled machine was incredible, and cheering the runners over the finish line was an absolute blast. Everyone seemed to have had such a great time, and there is something special about ending your year with a race. And having an excuse to wear an awesome wig was the icing on the cake (even if it was a bit small for my weirdly massive head).

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So those were the races I ended a very odd 2016 on. And wouldn’t you know it? I’ve blogged in January with 6 minutes to spare. Hang on 2017 – my blog and I are coming for you.