Herefordshire Cross Country – Winter Series, Race 3: Ufton Court

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.

Charles Dickens’ famous opening line sprung unexpectedly to mind as I set off for Ufton Court in truly appalling conditions last Sunday morning. Back from Exeter for the weekend, my daughter opted to stay at home and study his work rather than support her old dad at round three of the Herefordshire Winter Cross Country series. I had idly wondered if she might come along and cheer me on, but I didn’t exactly sell it to her. “Of course, it’ll be p***ing with rain, you won’t know anyone there – and you’re not that interested in running are you..?” So she expanded her wisdom, while I indulged in a little more foolishness.

It was the flattest of runs, the most open of runs. The windiest of days, the wettest of days… I could go on paraphrasing Mr D, but I can already hear you groaning. You get the general idea about the terrain and conditions – I’ll take that as read. Amazingly though, in the farmyard that serves as a car park for this event, Barratt Homes’ answer to Bleak House had popped up since the last time we were there. A lovely pad, but a little too exposed for me. Out of the kitchen window the view – on that day at least – was of competitors lining up next to a portaloo inside the vast Dutch barn opposite their home. Nervous tinkles were answered by an angry creaking and rattling as the wind whipped around the corrugated roof above. I found myself examining the definition of the word ‘fun’ again, and wondering if this was it…

Although our turnout for the race (about 20 I think) would have been cause for celebration a few seasons ago, I’ve become a bit spoiled recently and it seemed to me we were a little thin on the ground. We were certainly light on racing snakes up at the sharp end of the field with the likes of Matt Yapp, Jamie Shingler, Rhys Jones and Paul Elliot all absent for one reason or another. Coach Colin was also unavailable for comment, accompanying some younger charges to a county schools event. Similarly in the women’s race we missed Amy Fulford, but Team Gilbert did field two members of their elite squad. You can expect any combination of these four girls to be there or thereabouts whenever they take part, but exactly which human Ferrari will be wheeled out of the garage on race day is a closely guarded secret until they line up at the start. All of them, however, will tell you they are not fit/haven’t been doing much running lately/did a bike ride up ‘The Clee’ the previous day etc etc… before wiping the floor with the likes of me. On this occasion Shannon and Heulwen (who won this race, and the series last year) represented the Bitterley marque.

Mike Blenkinsop attempted to brief us from the side rather than the front of the field in order to make himself heard above the wind. However, he hadn’t accounted for the only force greater than nature itself: the chattering of runners at the start of an event. I honestly wonder if some people breathe through their ears and therefore gain an unfair advantage out on the course: I kid you not – we had more rabbit than Sainsbury’s. I did my best to lip read and came away with the salient points: 1) It’s muddy 2) Don’t tread on the crops 3) Look out for badger sets. This last piece of advice was invaluable, as I saw at least one hole that could easily have been dug out by a rhinoceros. As for the mud, anyone who had just warmed up had first-hand experience: the course is run mainly around the perimeter of various recently drilled crop fields, and given the quantity of rainfall over the preceding week, if we couldn’t be certain of the wind direction, we could guarantee to be carrying an extra few ounces on our shoes by the time we reached the finish line.

When we finally got going, the wind seemed to have abated somewhat, and even the rain held off for almost the duration of the race. In fact, I felt quite sprightly, and this was confirmed later on by my two new friends – Garmin & Strava. I adopted my usual strategy: avoid going nuts at the start, reel in those who did go nuts at the start, and later pick off a few more who don’t know the course – and the hill just before the five mile mark. This was effective up to a point. Tom Powell is working his way back to fitness after a nasty bug, but couldn’t resist putting his foot down over the first couple of miles. I caught him, passed, and fully expected the process to be reversed in short order, but I stayed in front, and in fact pressed home the advantage. Heulwen Gilbert certainly put up a fight when I did the same thing to her, but appeared to fade a little when I mentioned that we had just passed the half way point. Her shoulders slumped, and later she told me the information had hit her hard psychologically. I wondered if she thought this was a tactic on my part – which it certainly wasn’t. It was just that bloke Garmin again – informing me with his customary beep that we’d just covered three miles. I simply passed on the data to a fellow runner. When we arrived at the hill, it was more a case of holding off, than reeling in. Martin Green from Maldwyn Harriers, a relatively new adversary, was amongst a gaggle breathing down my neck, and I had to summon up my full inner mountain goat just to stay ahead.

That last mile is painful in that you can see the finish, and faster runners finishing, but it’s always further away than you think. This year however, there seemed to be more grass underfoot, and therefore more traction. I was able to maintain the gap at the finish and smugly shake hands with a man ten years my senior, congratulating him on his attempt at beating me…which was a little too close to success for comfort.

I cheered on Heulwen, who really had been concentrating more on cycling lately and as a result was not entirely race fit. It seems her main objective this year was to beat her sister Shannon and her relief was almost palpable as she crossed the line. Shannon seemed to accept this robust sibling rivalry with a mature and gracious shrug – but then, at the grand old age of twenty one, she is the senior member of Team Gilbert, and I admire the family’s competitive spirit – even if it is a little scary. Our next lady home, Andrea Ford was impressive once again, as was Sarah Jamieson, recovering from a recent injury. She told me beforehand that she ‘doesn’t do DNF’ and that’s the sort of spirit we can be proud of as a club. In fact, I’m proud of everyone who braved the weather on Sunday, but also conscious of my word count. I’ll just mention that Wendy Booker, inspired by her son Stuart – currently turning in dazzling results for his university running team – completed her first race for the club on Sunday. This was no fun run, no jog round the park. Hard core cross country is what it was. Congratulations Wendy.

You will see from the results that Craig Collier spearheaded Ludlow’s effort, but was a solitary presence in the top twenty. Amazingly, I was second man home, but the gap between us was substantial – a tale of two runners if you will.. However, as I stopped my watch I noted that whilst it wasn’t the best of times, it certainly wasn’t the worst of times either and in fact it was nearly a minute faster than last year’s time. So for me, the intervening 12 months can’t have been all foolishness.

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