What an experience! So many emotions have been through my head on this trip, I will do my best to sum it all up in this blog edition.
First up, panic. My car decided to give up the ghost the day before I was due to travel, whilst I was in Southampton. I was thankful of a lift home with the assurance my stricken car would be brought back later that evening. So I came home and packed for the trip. A couple of hours passed and I received a call saying they were on their way to my car, and that it would be back around 10. Great I thought; a bit late but not a serious problem. Gets to half 9 and I haven’t heard anything, unable to call as I was corresponding with a withheld number. So I decide to go to bed, thinking “they know where I live and don’t need to contact me. If they can’t reach me they’ll just put the car on the drive, right?”
Wrong. I woke at half 7 to 4 missed calls at 3 AM, my key on the front mat and a note saying “your car is parked 800m down the road as that’s the only place we could find”, or something like that. Great 👍 Anyway I’m almost ready to go and Mum announces she’s taking her car to go to work and that Dad can give me a lift to the station. All good except Dad doesn’t have a car anymore! So we’re jogging down the road to make the train with an enormous suitcase full of GB kit. Absolute scenes. Having made my train, I’m then soon to discover that there’s a 40 minute delay before getting into London, and so I eventually reached Heathrow with less time to negotiate the airport than my liking. Not a great start for my GB debut!
Thankfully at this point I was now in the safe hands of the team staff, who I’ll add did a fantastic job in ensuring the event went as smooth as possible. That said, I’m not sure there was much they could do when the coach driver reversed into a tree en-route, showering the back row athletes in (thankfully) safety glass! Starting to think no one should travel with me, such luck I’ve had! We eventually arrived at 7:30 and tucked into dinner. After enjoying some time with the team we turned our weary selves in.
Next day we went to the course in the morning. Straight away I knew it would be tough for me. A 1500m large loop with very little to worry athletes with track pedigree; a couple of man made mounds, some logs and a pathetic water jump that did little to offer any real challenge. These are typical conditions for championship XC’s such as this and the world cross, frustrating for myself as it doesn’t play to my strengths. I relish the challenge that mud and hills offer as they require strength rather than speed. They’re about digging in and being mentally tough, and whilst any cross race is hard, the flat, dry ones always favour the athletes who primarily train and race on the red stuff. The race results later evidence that.
There’s nothing I could do to change the conditions (short of going out late at night with a watering can, which probably wouldn’t go down well with security), so I had to just get on with it. I familiarised myself with the course and did a few strides with my friend Mahamed from Southampton (great to finally join him on a GB international!), and spoke to a few familiar faces on the circuit, including Danny from FSM and Gareth from GreatRun among others. As is typical for these sorts of events, the atmosphere was a bit subdued prior to the event, with most athletes getting into the mindset required to race. That said, the team meeting Saturday evening was really enjoyable, and I was proud to receive an award for receiving my first senior GB callup. There was also an inspiring speech by the team captain for the trip, Emelia Gorecka. Her story is a fantastic one: from having not one but two stress fractures last year she’s had to build her way back to fitness with grit and determination, and winning the trials two weeks ago was testimony to that. On top of her inspiring story Emelia was also so encouraging, and really helped me feel like I belonged on the team, which is a really important factor when representing for the first time! After a few admin points and distribution of numbers there wasn’t much left to do but turn in.
Race day was cold, and I mean really cold. Wrong side of freezing and a severe windchill factor. To make matters worse, the pre-race procedure for the race was utterly daft, with a final call to the pre-race quarters 70 minutes before; way before anyone would normally consider warming up. They provided a warm up area in the form of a horse dressage pitch of about 200m diameter but I’ll be honest in saying I really struggled to get myself physically ready for the race. I also had to contend with the pressure of essentially leading the team out, since we lined up in pairs and I was 2nd in the trials so occupied the front row. Knowing who was behind me in the pen I knew I needed to get out fast…
As it happened, I did get out fast. I was fortunate to have good reactions off the line, and was leading the race for a short while! The problems started soon after that though. I would normally relax into the race, control my pace and settle down. That just didn’t happen though; the pace was so relentless. I’d built up the race in my head which is never a good thing. Sure a few nerves are fine, good even as I’ve discussed previously but I’d probably spent the last two days getting through nervous energy and by the time the race came I just felt lethargic. Couple that to more digestive complaints (thought I’d come up with a fix to these!) and a course ill-suited to me and it became clear this wasn’t going to be my race. But I’ve waited 25 years to finally pull on the GB vest and I was going to do the best I could in a bad situation. I dug in and yes, quite a few people went past me but these were Europe’s finest! I eventually finished 38th, 4th GB scorer after Dewi sadly had to pull out with cramp. Not the debut I had hoped for.
I was pretty despondent after the race. I really felt I’d let the team down on that one and it took a long time to come round. But I did, thanks largely to some really nice comments from supporters. Sure I could’ve done better but I think experience is so important when it comes to a race like this. I’ve been matching performances that people like Ben Connor have put in this season but he absolutely excelled out there on Sunday, finishing 6th. Maybe on paper I had that sort of performance in me but he’s on his 4th Euro champs and you definitely learn how to race in these events. Hopefully in time I can produce that sort of result!
The team managers were sympathetic and supportive too, Liz Yelling especially. She’s seen star athletes for GB come here and put in a modest result and gone on to great things, and she was quick to remind me of that. Andy Butchart who finished a cracking 3rd also finished 86th in his first World XC. Gemma Steel who’s won this event before was 27th on her debut. I’m sure failure on one’s debut is far from a rite of passage to success for GB, but it’s comforting to to know that with so many of GB’s big names, they’ve come through the ranks at these champs. Watching the race on BBC catch-up was an absolute pleasure too. When Steve Cram and Hannah England started talking about my “inspiring journey” I couldn’t help but grin, that was incredibly surreal!
Having stopped moping I took a photo with the team medal on (no I didn’t directly contribute to winning it but I was part of the team and can take pride from that) and went out to party with the team. I was told on the evening that I’d been given the nod for Edinburgh XC in Jan which cheered me up no end. I now have the chance to make amends and show them what I could really do! The carnage that was happening back at home with cancelled flights left, right and centre seemed a distant worry so we celebrated into the early hours. It was very much “tomorrow’s problem”…
Anyway, tomorrow came and we indeed had a problem. Our flight was cancelled so we were stuck there for a while. So what did we do? You guessed it, headed out for a run! The team staff did an incredible job getting us all flights and taking the stress out of it, so by 5 in the afternoon we all knew we were getting home. It was actually a really enjoyable day; went for a couple of runs, did some strength work at the gym, ate some good food and went to Bratislava Christmas market in the evening! Plus the extra day just made the occasion a bit more special, especially as we were all now relaxed and chatty after the race. Really will remember this trip and cherish the time I had with some class athletes! It was great that the parents could come too. The Tuesday was largely spent travelling home, which was very much less stressful than the outgoing journey: few delays and no crashes this time!
So all-in-all it wasn’t the result I wanted but a hugely enjoyable and humbling experience to represent GB, especially on such a prestigious stage as the European XC! I have learnt so much from it, and knowing now what is required to succeed in this event, I will go away and come back physically stronger and mentally tougher to deal with whatever world athletes can throw at me! Can’t wait for Great Edinburgh XC where I will endeavour to make a telling contribution and take the fight to Europe and the US. Christmas may be a time for relaxation, but it’s also time to get the hammer down and get the edge over rivals! Till next time.