Cradled by scarp, vale and stubble fields we stand, shivering. A legion of failed footballers, Steve Cram wannabes and skinny boys. Waiting for the gun. Too cold for fear, too numb for words, too young to produce sufficient amounts of insulating body hair. We huddle together, a dune of bare elbows, knees and shoulders.
When’s the fucker going to fire that gun? I can’t feel my fingers and I’ll need a hot bath to recover my balls … fire the fucking gun! We’re all thinking this but no one says it, our lips are long since dumb with cold.
Finally it goes off, echoes through the valley, birds flee their branches, the crowd – smug in their coats –clap and cheer. And we storm through the first few hundred metres, plotting our way through mud and puddles and cow shit. It’s important to get to the front of the field so you can navigate your way through the turds, scattered like land mines across the countryside. It’s one thing reaching the finish line looking like a chocolate yeti, another entirely to have to clean shit off your running spikes.
Soon we settle down, find our rhythm, our place in the field. The leaders stretch away, the backs of their heads shrinking into pinpricks on the horizon. Bastards. They’ll be in the shower by the time I finish.
But I keep going. Because cross country running is a metaphor for life. There are winners and losers and there’s shit to avoid and shit that can’t be avoided – the shit that we all end up standing in. You just can’t stop. You have to keep going because at the crest of every hill there might be fairer ground and there has to be less shit up there, right?
And finally the finishing line comes into sight. I can’t run any further – led in the legs, lungs long since turned to ash – but I still manage to sprint the last section. Still manage to beat the boy in front, because it’s much better to be 32nd than 33rd and because, in those fleeting moments, that last push for the finish doesn’t represent mediocrity, it’s sheer heroism.
I ran off-road today. Through mud and up hills and over walls and past sheep. It made me think about cross country running. I started to remember all of those trips we made across Scotland, Fife Athletic Club’s under-fifteen boys team. We ran through a lot of fields together. For a while I forgot about those days, with their early mornings and frost and Vaseline smeared on your legs so you wouldn’t feel the cold (that’ll be right). But now I remember them with a renewed sense of pride and I find myself wondering … how the fuck did we do it?