Ufton Court – Race Three, Herefordshire Cross Country Winter League – 7th December

UftonLast Sunday, for the first time, I was actually required to do something in my capacity as unofficial assistant deputy vice-captain of the cross country team. With John Lyden indisposed, I arrived at the venue – a windswept, squelching farm yard,  armed with a very official looking plastic file full of spread sheets and numbers 1 hour before the start, as is my rather unnecessary custom. My expectations were not high. A number of our quicker runners, including Craig Collier and John had given their apologies, and judging by the weather conditions I wondered if we’d be able to scrape together a team.

I needn’t have worried. Within five minutes of my arrival a woman (I didn’t catch her name) approached me, explaining that her niece’s boyfriend (I think), on leave from the army, would like to take part. “He often wins these type of things..” she mentioned, casually. Even if she was being a little over confident on his behalf, we like a positive attitude, and once I saw the bloke I was quickly convinced that I should waste no time at all in getting him to sign on the dotted Ludlow. There are some people you can just look at and know they’re quick. He turned out to be one Andrew Salt – and more of him later. Then out of the corner of one eye I saw Tom Powell (gradually recovering from injury but even so, no slouch) and to my surprise, the aforementioned Craig Collier. As sports enthusiasts, you may have some insight into the complex dietary regimes of elite athletes and it seems Craig’s is no less scientific. He hadn’t been intending to run, he informed me, as he’d been at a do the night before fully intending to get bladdered. As it turned out he’d had so much to eat, there was only room to fit one pint in, and he was therefore at peak race fitness, raring to go.

The frenetic build up to the race continued: in quick succession I was collared by Todd Langley-Tanner, (another young whippet) who had lost his number and once more by the same lady who had brokered Andrew Salt’s membership – this time with the news that Jamie Shingler had arrived with a generous four and a half minutes to spare, in which to warm up, have a jimmy riddle, find his club vest, and line up for the start. Could I get him a number please?

So as we assembled, shivering in the traditional XC weather, the Ludlow men’s A team in waiting consisted of four chaps that you might call tigers – Langley-Tanner (though still a junior) Salt, Shingler & Collier – an impressive line-up. It’s not unusual, due to low numbers, for me to form part of the Ludlow A team in this league (though I’m more akin to a lame Zebra by comparison) so this all looked pretty encouraging. What’s more, for the women’s team, in addition to regular stalwarts Jo Sharp, Maggie Morris and Sarah Williams, the Gilbert girls – Heulwen and Eilish were already jockeying for position up against the tape.  Not that they’re competitive or anything.

Parish notices and race instructions out of the way we duly got going, and as ever I was startled by the pace of many competitors at the gun. I’ve learned to keep my head though, and wait for that early enthusiasm to take its toll on those I feel I ought to be able to beat. There was no point at all in trying to keep tabs on our tigers, as within about half a mile they were a spec on the horizon. Craig tells me that Andrew went off like a man possessed, and although he flagged a bit towards the end, a top ten finish (eighth in fact) is something most of us can only dream of.  They’re tough these army boys.

I just kept my eye on the more realistic (if optimistic) targets – Eilish’s pony tail, bobbing up and down, and Paul Elliot’s head – generally about a foot above everyone else’s. Somewhere in that mix was Tom – comparatively unfit – and I wasn’t about to let the opportunity to beat him pass me by (it doesn’t arise that often). So I plugged away. It’s a nice course: mainly round the perimeter of farmland with gentle undulations or no gradient at all, but it wasn’t half muddy, and often it was a challenge to maintain the forward rather than sideways motion. In the rarefied atmosphere up at the front, no doubt athletes are afforded a little more traction, but in the lower half of the field it was not unlike running the wrong way along a buttered conveyor belt. And add to that the howling wind of course.. Slowly but surely the pony tail got larger though, and eventually I’d reeled Eilish in – setting my sights next on Tom, who I pulled alongside at about half distance. He doesn’t give places away easily (good on him), but eventually I got the upper hand and put a small amount of space between us.

I was ready for the five mile mark – as I took part in this race last year – but clearly some people were not. At the gate to a wooded area there is the brief opportunity (where I was, anyway – in about 50th position) to glimpse the leaders (including Todd and Andrew) charging down the other side of the hill we were about to climb, on their way to the finish. Then we were faced with a little taster of what competitors will have to deal with at Presteigne in February (in my humble opinion, easily the hardest in this series). It was a (admittedly) short, sharp shock. One of those hills that can make a grown man cry. Or maybe I’m just a big baby. I was able to run it though (going up hills being one of my strengths), in so doing picking off about five people who had given up the unequal struggle and were walking. The downhill stretch was a relief, although I’m always conscious of the cursed fell runners who throw caution, and themselves to the wind as soon as they reach any summit.

For the final loop we returned to the familiar soggy farmland, and up a gentle climb to the line. Gentle though it was, the conditions made it something of a panicky scramble rather than a sprint, and whilst I was tired, it wasn’t the usual end of race feeling – or ‘tunnel chunder’ as I’ve heard it described, when, having deprived your muscles of oxygen for 150 meters, you experience the overwhelming urge to cough up your own oesophagus. Too much detail? Sorry.

It’s always a pleasure to catch up with the tigers at the finish line, by which, of course I mean find out how they got on, rather than actually catch up with them, and clearly these guys had done the club proud. You only need to look at the results. The chef Gordon Ramsay – not a man who dishes out complements like sweeties – is sometimes heard to mutter through gritted teeth (if, say, a commis chef has ripped his heart out whilst producing perfection on a plate) “Well done. Bloody well done” and I’d like to pay the same tribute to Todd, our first man home (Junior he may be, but anyone who can run that fast is a man as far as I’m concerned) Andrew, Jamie, Craig, and in particular Heulwen, who breezed in to win the ladies race for the second time in a row.

Let’s not forget the mere mortals though – Paul Elliot was never a realistic target for the Pavster, but I just like to kid myself. A solid race as ever from him. And likewise, I’d be deluded if I thought that once injury and illness are a distant memory, Tom and Eilish won’t be two minutes ahead of me rather than behind. Sarah Williams, ever more competitive, was our third lady, with Jo Sharp and Maggie Morris displaying the same dogged determination they always do.

One final word. Dave Haynes took part in his debut race for Ludlow Runners as a V70. I only hope I have that much energy and spirit when I’m his age.

Go Ludlow.

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