More than 6,000 ran at the English National Cross Country Championships last month and thousands more were just there to watch, work or volunteer.
Whether Olympians, backmarkers, parents, coaches, officials or photographers - for this diverse group, Parliament Hill in London was briefly the centre of the running world. We spoke with four individuals and groups about their motivations and their whole day at the historic event.
Em Bish likes to get her money’s worth when it comes to races. She was out there for more than double the length of time of the winner, Jessica Gibbon, in the senior race. She finished 997th out of 1011th but her attitude and determination sums up the all-inclusive nature of cross-country running.
As someone who has struggled with a series of debilitating conditions throughout her life and had no history of physical activity until recently, she is an inspiration to all of us. Diagnosed with systemic juvenile idiopathic arthritis at the age of two, she was told not to do PE in school. The advice would be different today, it should be added. Her flare-ups grew less frequent as she grew older but other complications linked to the condition came to light. In 2013, she was diagnosed with underactive thyroid and fibromyalgia, which is a post-viral condition leading to widespread muscle pain, and chronic fatigue. Two years later she was housebound due to a disc bulge in her lower vertebrae and was unable to use her right leg properly. An injection and 12 months of physio set her on the road to recovery. After losing three stone in 2016, she was inspired by her husband taking up running to join him at Beeston AC.
“After running 5k, I tried to run further and found that I had capacity to do 10k without dying!” she said. “I never thought that I could call myself a runner, but the more and more I do it, the more confident I become. I always thought runners were shaped in a certain way, but I have had my mind changed through meeting so many different people who have found the joy in running. I may not be the fastest runner — I don't think that I ever will be — but what I don't make up for in speed, I certainly make up for in determination to finish the race and celebrate together with my club!”
As for Saturday, she recalled: “We travelled into London in the morning and had a bit of a morning in London. We arrived to the scene with about 45 minutes to get ready. I didn’t anticipate the queues for the toilet! I got into my spikes then went down to the startline, which was quite nice. I was able to find other Beeston AC people. It was quite a good atmosphere when the gun went off.
“Fibromyalgia is ongoing and I have medication for that. It was a bad pain day on Saturday morning and I was doubting I would get across the start line. It’s widespread muscle pain that I have all the time. It was actually quite tiring to get there but I think, once I was there, the adrenaline kicked in of just seeing everyone and the crowds cheering you on. It was quite tough but I loved it. I love the mud. Last time, at Wollaton Hall, I was eighth from the end and this time I was 14th from the end so I thought I’ve made progress in some respects. I was in it to finish it really.”
Em was delighted with the support on the way around, even though having the under-20 men zooming past her at the end as they completed their first lap was disconcerting.
“It was good as people were reading out my bib number and also I had some Beeston club members in the crowd,” she said.
Altrincham’s Dave Norman is a well known figure on the running circuit. For good reason too as the former Manchester Marathon winner has been an ever-present at the National since 1998. Given it wasn’t held last year, this was his 24th. He explained what keeps him coming back:
“It’s the history of the event. I grew up reading all about it. It’s the atmosphere, for me it’s just a big celebration of club running across the country. I love cross country myself. I love the challenge of it more than anything.”
Dave has placed as high as 12th and, with 159th this year as a vet-40, he continues to run well. This year’s was the first National in which he had stayed in a hotel the night before. He travelled down with Mick Hill from City of Leeds, who was 67th in the senior race.
“I woke up around 8.30am and then had a mid-morning breakfast because I thought we might struggle to get anything else before the race. We stayed in Hemel Hempstead and then we travelled down about 12 but the traffic on the M1 was pretty bad so we didn’t get to the venue until maybe 1.15pm. But coming down the day before did take a lot of the stress away.”
He didn’t need to do a course recce as he is so familiar with the course that holds the National every third year. And there was no doubt about what length of spikes he was going to wear on the always boggy course. He said: “I spent some time in the hotel in the morning watching some videos on social media of people assessing the course and they were all saying the same thing, 15mm, so that was mind made up.”
Dave starts his warm-up 45 minutes beforehand but allows an extra five minutes at the National to get into the starting pen. Once the race is under way, his experience helps further. He said: “I’ve run Parliament Hill enough times to know that, if you don’t get up that hill in a decent enough position, you’re going to get caught in a few of those bottlenecks and that’s what happened to me. At 43, I just can’t get out quick enough. I must have been well outside 200 at the top of the first hill and it’s just a question of negotiating those bottlenecks and queues and making my way through the field as best I could.” When it comes to the cool-down, Dave added:
“I always make sure I get at least a mile in but ideally two miles just slow jogging and getting the race out of my legs as best I can. I know I’m going to still feel it the next day but it’s essential to get something done. We struggled to find anywhere [to eat] so we just had to wait til the services and got some convenience food, which wasn’t ideal but that’s part and parcel of travelling away.”
The assistant referee
Anne Brimage has been officiating at athletics and running events for more than 40 years and, at the National this year, she was assistant referee.
She travelled from the Wirral the day before and stayed in a hotel. Recalling a long, tiring day, she said:
“I was there about ten to nine. One of us (she or the referee) will walk the course to make sure it’s okay. You need to make sure there’s no health and safety issues. Holes that might need filling in or tree bits that might need moving. I pick up a radio. Then it’s a day on your feet walking backwards and forwards.”
She alternates responsibility for the races with the referee, such is the tight schedule, with races overlapping.
“We need to be at the start to check how the start goes and see if there’s any issues and then you move to the finish to see that coming through,” she said. “If someone raises an issue you’ve got to have some idea of what they’re talking about. Unless it’s out on the course so you don’t see what’s going on. You’re there to check there’s no issues, pushing, shoving. You’re basically there to make decisions. They have to be wearing club vests and that’s an issue. Clubs tend to change their vests and then not everyone is wearing the new vest.”
This year’s National was relatively problem-free. An example of the decisions she has to make was regarding a claim from an athlete that they finished one place higher than they were given, based on the YouTube stream. However, it turned out the chip agreed with the officials’ manual recording and the camera wasn’t in line with the finish.
Anne added: “People lose their chips (beforehand) or forget to put it on and then they come to you and say ‘I finished behind this person, can you put me in the results?’ The answer is ‘no chip, no time’, because you can’t guarantee where they’ve finished. Unless they’re in the top 10 or 25 because we do record the top 25 and there is a video recorder running.” Her last race was the under-20 men’s the penultimate one of the day so she was able to make an early getaway. “The referee will write a report that evening or next day. He will have spoken to everyone to find out how all the areas went on and if they had any issues, speak to first aid to get casualty numbers for the report.”
As most realise, officials aren’t paid and Anne says it costs her to be there despite receiving fuel expenses. However, she wasn’t complaining and explained her motivation:
“There’s a nice camaraderie between the officials. Without the officials, the races wouldn’t go ahead. It means the athletes get the chance to run.”
However, she fears more problems in future due to a lack of officials, having heard of some cross-country races recently having had to have been cancelled. She said:
“A lot of the officials are old. I’m one of the younger ones and I’m 67. You’ve got officials in their 80s and they can’t go on forever.”
The travelling club
Few will have travelled further to be at Parliament Hill than a group of nine from Leven Valley AC Running Club. They made the five-hour journey the day before and stayed over in a hotel. Without doing so, their under-17 competitor, Jess Bailey, would have struggled to have made it in time for the first race of the day at 11am.
It was well worth it, as Jess added to her victory at the Northern Championships with a clear win here. Their Georgia Bell was seventh in the under-15 race and her sister, Lucy, was 79th in the under-13s. Also running were Will McNally and John Williamson (52nd and 282nd respectively in the under-15 race). Elizabeth McNally and and David McNally were 368th and 568th in their respective senior races. For Jess’s father, James, the long journey is always worthwhile.
“I think it’s important that people come out and support these events particularly after Covid when we were so disappointed it all got knocked on the head,” he said. “So we’re happy to travel, particularly to an event like this. Athletics and running is not going to make you famous and mega-rich but it is going to create really good memories.”
Jess explained her pre-race preparation:
“I don’t have a set anything. I do everything differently each time to a degree. Breakfast is normally porridge and sometimes a banana. The warm-up is a bit more strict in that we do a 20-minute jog and then drills and then strides, but for each race you’re on the start line earlier or later, so you’ve just got to adapt. I start about an hour to 55 minutes before. The only thing I get stressed about is the timing and missing the race so I allow lots of time so I’m relaxed.”
Once in the starting pen, she finds she can relax a little more. She said: “I do enjoy it because I like the adrenaline and there’s only three races a year where you get this many people on the line but there was a lot of pushing and shoving. The start was very busy, there were a lot of people up in the front pack. I expected that but not to that extent. There were quite a lot of people I didn’t recognise but after a while they started dropping off.”
After stretching away to win by 11 seconds, Jess’s warm-down consisted of running around supporting the others in her club.
“I like being the photographer so I just film stuff and go around the course trying to get better at that,” she said.
A runner’s race day isn’t complete without the all-important refuelling and Jess said:
“We don’t have a set post-race meal but I do look forward to it and I do love a good doughnut after a race.”