The National XC Champs – Alton Towers – 19/2/11

The two old-timers with more races under their belts than hot dinners [but not breakfasts in Kev’s case]Kevin Barnes and Steve Herington approached the gates of Alton Towers with all the joie de vivre of schoolkids about to get the full value from their two for the price of one entry fee. They had smiled knowingly at the sight of a powdering of snow on the hills outside Uttoxeter; they had as good as sneered at signs of the previous night’s rainfall and an imperceptible drizzle in the air; and the constant wail of ambulance sirens from the direction of the course had merely heightened their urgency to park up and unleash their coiled legs……until, that is, their eyes beheld the tented area on the fringes of the course. For here was not a blade of grass, only mud of the most cloying and liquid kind, mud besides which that of the Muddy Woody would have gone home and called itself desert. To cross this area in order to access the toilets was likely to involve more accretions of filth than staying put and soiling oneself …
When we came to look at the course itself, fully appreciating that several more races were to be run before the Senior Men’s event, we saw mud, much more mud and standing pools of water and hills pockmarked with ankle-deep footholds, all under a pall of mist. We then heard that, for safety reasons, courses were being changed, race-times delayed. We watched young Jon, his vest so spattered with mud that it looked Courier-red, run a fine, controlled race for 76th [about halfway up] in the Junior Men’s race, an age-group in which he has another year and then, after a lengthy wait and a blessed announcement that our race had been shortened from 12 to 10 kilometers, we entered our pens with about the same enthusiasm as sheep might have done looking across a field devoid of grass.
We went a-slippin and a-slidin, using the barging skills honed after years in the Hereford League but it felt as though we were moving, when we were moving, in slow motion, perhaps because it was slow motion. As dusk fell on the Towers, we at last crossed the line, our tendons tweaked and stretched in directions they’d never been in before. Trying to remove the mud-covered, black band holding the chip round my ankle, I fiddled about for some minutes before realising I was tugging at some loose skin and the band was actually on the other leg.
Out of more than 1300 runners, Steve finished 958th and Kev 1087th, Herefordshire’s only representatives in a race that was first run in 1876 in Epping Forest, that was held twice in Hereford pre-war [I missed those two] and next year will be at Parliament Hill, London, the modern mecca of cross country.
As we drove out of the park, the tented area was all but dismantled. What remained was an expanse of what looked like plough or the long-time rootling territory of swine. So, was the course the muddiest ever? The debate will continue, some nominating the Parliament Hill of Goater’s run-away victory in 1981, others – and I would be among them- citing Milton Keynes 1985, if only because the mud there was yellower and more gurgly.

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