Uphills, downhills and cowbells

When I was 7, I had a favourite toy car. Playing with it in the house or garden was fun but nothing like the thrill I got from letting it find its way down St Ann’s Hill in Thorpe. My Mum and Dad would drive me and my sister there and after scrambling up the slope, I’d release the purple racing car and watch as it hurtled down the slope, bouncing over lumps and being buffeted by debris down to the bottom. To do it again I’d have to go all the way back up but it was worth it for that feeling of exhilaration as I sprinted down after the car.

Several decades later and I feel much the same about trail running. The latest Surrey Championship cross-country race for Division 3 and 4 men, in which Fulham Running Club competes, was held in Oxshott. The heath there is blessed with some delightful wooded paths and one or two steep inclines. Despite the heavy recent rain, the course was fairly dry and to some extent didn’t feel like a proper cross-country race. But when there’s single-track trails to be enjoyed, I for one wasn’t about to complain.

As with the previous outing at Epsom, the men’s team numbered an impressive 19 runners. Even better, we had most of the ladies’ team and a few other FRC diehards on hand to provide support, more of which later. (Earlier in the day, the ladies’ team had performed superbly to finish 4th in their own race.) A far cry from the downpour before Epsom, this was a beautiful, crisp winter’s day with sunshine to be seen between the evergreen-covered hills.

There was a buzz of excitement and a feeling of positivity as we changed into our race gear, while Cap’n Andy chastised various people for daring to wear anything under their black and white vest. He wasn’t even wearing socks and you get the feeling that if it was up to him, it would be vests and spikes only, and lord help the eyes of the spectators. Anyway, once I’d seen Max sporting his trademark football boots, I knew we were in for another great day of battling performances - not least because the ground really wasn’t soft enough for that.

Warm-ups done and top layers discarded, 260 or so runners made their way to the start, bounced up and down for a few minutes before the starting gun went off and we were away. I can’t speak for the front of the pack but from where I was, most of the first lap was a lesson in patience as runners found their pace and tried not to get in each other’s way on the occasional single-track trails. The first real test came just half a mile in with a short but steep hill. Luckily, we already had a cowbell-touting Fulham supporter in the form of Faye who was encouraging Fulham runners in particular to get up and over as quickly as possible.

Less than a mile later, after a few more twists and turns, ups and downs, was another Fulham supporter zone, this time with Emily, Rose, Myriam and Carolyn shouting for the team as we swept past. The best thing about this was that you could hear their cowbell as you approached up the previous hill - and it’s amazing how much difference the noise makes to your spirits. Further down the course was Amy and then Charlie and Judith, variously cheering, taking photos and ringing a bell, as we neared the end of the loop.

With one down and two to go, I felt like I’d paced myself well. Heartbreak Hill wasn’t any easier the second time around but I was finding my rhythm and enjoying the rise and fall of the woodland trails. Almost exactly halfway round this second lap I must have lost concentration for an instant as I hit a tree root and felt my left ankle turn outwards in an all-too familiar way. I stayed upright and kept going but slowed down as I assessed how much damage I’d done. After half a mile of tentative trotting and grimacing (sorry supporters!), I concluded it wasn’t getting any worse and pushed on as fast as my mind and body would let me.

The hill was by now a lung-busting mountain while my excess holiday weight and unconditioned legs were now in evidence as I tottered around the course trying not to get overtaken. I was fortunate in as much as being one of the slower runners, all of FRC’s points had already been secured by the time I hit the finishing straight. Not only that, but I got the benefit of the encouragement of the finished Fulham runners who were lining the final yards of the course.

Photo by Charles Craven

Photo by Charles Craven

As had been the case at Epsom, the men’s team took first place with all top 10 Fulham men finishing in the top 30. A special mention must go to Bob Lynam, our V65 representative. Both Max and John commented that it had taken them a while to catch him up - particularly impressive because Bob had already done parkrun earlier in the day. Although maybe if he hadn’t, they wouldn’t have caught him at all!

Running heroics aside, the story of the day was our incredible support who were told they were too noisy (as if that’s possible!), compared to a Nordic skiing crowd, and generally amazed and encouraged the runners with the wall of sound as we climbed those hills. Cap’n Andy summed it up thus: “That was FRC's Super Saturday. We have exceeded our goal: build a great team environment. The great results are a bonus.”

From a personal perspective, I’d had a brilliant afternoon. Sure, the old chassis had taken a bit of a battering, but that’s half of fun of taking the brakes off and letting loose on the downhills. Roll on the next round...