Updated: Feb 28, 2022
Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. Some beauty is easier to find than others, but it can be found in almost anything, almost anywhere. For some athletes, beauty is a fresh new pair of running shoes, an expensive TT setup, a single track across a alpine ridge. KOTWF athletes are among those that find it in sweat, spit and mud.
If you're not involved in British athletics, you probably don't know Parliament Hill in Hampstead Heath, North London. Sure, you may have walked up it once or twice while walking your dog, or while walking off that big Sunday roast. But unless you've experienced Parliament Hill at its peak, in its prime, you don't really know the bastard.
The hill comes into season in the late winter right around the same time as the English XC Championships, almost as if by coincidence. Just picture thousands - yes, thousands - of runners freezing their bits off at the bottom of a muddy stretch that was once a green grassy field. In a matter of minutes, they will hear a gunshot and will have to rush to the front of the pack for slightly clearer access to the beast - Parliament Hill. What follows is a bog seasoned with the sweat, swears and trapped shoes of the day's contestants. There is no dust, but once the noise settles, the Heath has been properly ploughed.
Reading this, there is a chance you are asking yourself what on earth anyone would find appealing about this. There is no chance of running fast times over that sort of terrain and the effort is hard to measure considering it doesn't resemble anything you've done in training. It's true, if you're a Diamond League fan or a London Marathon afficionado, this festival of suffering might not be the most inspiring. But give us a chance to convince you of its beauty.
You vs the world
"In cross, the strongest person will win, and I like that," says KOTWF triathlon coach India Lee. "It's purely about the race. The clock doesn't come into it at all because so much depends on the course and the weather conditions. You just run really hard and see where that gets you at the end."
Ambassador Arne Dumez agrees. "I race on all surfaces - road, track and mud - and honestly XC is probably my favourite. The only thing you have to worry about is putting that vest in front you, behind you. Nobody is ever going to ask you for your 11.86km PB so your place in the rankings is the only thing that matters, really. It's very refreshing to have this pure competitive energy in a sport that is often dominated by world record attempts for elites and PBs for amateurs."
At the end of the day, a cross race is as much a fight against the course as it is a fight against other competitors. Nothing quite replicates the frustration of finding you're knee-deep in sticky, heavy mud right as you were planning your finishing kick. Or the rage you feel when you get to the one stretch of reliable ground on the course that just happens to sit in a brutal headwind. Sometimes, you just feel like you're working very hard to get absolutely nowhere.
A change of perspective
Because it's such a different experience, athletes often enter XC races with a radically different perspective too. Arne, for example, competes for premier London athletics club, Belgrave Harriers, where he is also co-team manager for the men's road and XC team. He lives for the team element.
"When you race as part of a strong team, you can't really lose, but you can win double," he explains. "There's nothing quite like turning yourself inside out knowing you're scoring valuable points for your team. And if you don't score, it's simply because your team is super strong, which is also a win. I feel like a lot of runners really embrace that 'solitude of the distance runner' cliché but I often find the team elements seriously lacks in road and track events."
For Indie, the mindset shift turns more to the internal pressure she sometimes experiences in her day job. "The races are much shorter so I can push myself in a very different way," she winces. "You just don't have time to overthink anything. More importantly, XC and cyclo-cross are my hobbies which means there is no pressure to perform and I can just enjoy myself."
What doesn't kill you...
The irony of finding peace and refreshment in splattering mud, shouting, swearing and falling is not lost on us. It is the very definition of 'type 2 fun'. And yes, the risk of injury is relatively high when you consider the lumps and bumps that naturally come with non-paved courses. But some of the greats - Steve Cram, Ovett and others - have touted the wonders of XC running. And for good reason!
On the cycling front too, there is no shortage of people who assign the strength of Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel to their highly successful CX careers. To steal an analogy from another great athlete: "it feels like you're locked in a sauna. It's extremely uncomfortable, but the door is locked and there is nothing you can do to open it. You're just going to have to sit there and find a way to make the suffering tolerable."
Ignoring for a second the physical gains from sitting 'in the red' for an hour, the confidence gains from overcoming a tough course and beating the competition are worth the struggle. The road races will feel like a breeze. The track will feel bouncier than ever. And 5km will never feel so short.
Find out more about KOTWF coaching.
Find out more about Indie and Arne.