Open warfare on muddy battlefield will hold no fears for Britton


ON ATHLETICS:I’ve just packed five layers of cotton thermals to wear under my street clothes around Budapest this weekend, and pulled out the high performance ski jacket for the first time this winter.

It’s already well below zero in Szentendre, the venue for tomorrow’s European Cross Country, the course itself is muddy and remote, and I am not taking any chances.

It’s been described as “proper cross county”, and you know what that means: runners ankle deep in the soft watery ground; hands and faces numbed from the bitter sting of the icy cold; half-naked bodies shivering and hungry; sometimes even blood dripping from a leg wound, which mixes into a bright red stain on the dark mud.

Indeed proper cross country often comes across like open warfare on the muddy battlefield, and the comparison is justified. Although trust me, the best place to be on a day like this is in the thick of it, not watching from the trenches.

Anyone who understands anything about cross country will tell you that once that starter’s gun is fired, once you’re up and running, all conditions quickly drift from sight and mind, the sole focus becoming the endurance quest of putting one foot in front of the other as quickly as possible – a bit like those trying to survive on the Western Front.

It’s what Noel Carroll meant when he said there is no such thing as bad weather, only weak runners – and it’s true, as long as you can muster the enthusiasm to get out the front door, or out of the trenches. And it’s partly to do with this love/hate thing, a constant in distance running, and also the float/sting, the thrill/kill, and of course the agony/ecstasy.

John Treacy always said the most effortless victory of his career was on the long muddy stretches of Limerick Racecourse, in 1979, when he defended – under immense pressure – his World Cross Country title.

And in her classic autobiography, Running For My Life, Catherina McKiernan talks about her breakthrough cross country race, at the All-Ireland Championships in Dungarvan, in 1988: “I took one look at the course,” she says, “and knew this would be easy” – perfectly understandable given she’d spent most of her youth running the harsh, muddy hills around Cavan.

“And the best way to describe the race is to say I ran away with it. I led from the gun, and no one else got a look in.”

McKiernan, by the way, was also running barefoot that day, long before that became fashionable again. Four years later, at the 1992 World Cross Country in Boston, she won the first of four successive silver medals, on a brutally tough course around Franklin Park, and the only discomfort she felt the entire race was her hands going cold.

The smile on Sonia O’Sullivan’s face when she completed a World Cross Country double in 1998 suggested another perfectly comfortable run, although it was tough enough that day too, in Marrakesh.

In fact I could still see the mud encrusted on her winning race spikes, when they went on display last month, as part of a special IAAF Centenary Exhibit, in Barcelona.

Alan Sillitoe always understood this, his Borstal boy, Colin Smith, realising that loneliness is freedom in disguise, and so too did Charles Hamilton Sorley.

In the winter of 1913, in his last year at Marlborough College, Sorley took to cross country running in the open fields around Wiltshire, and was so inspired by the motion that he wrote several poems about it. One of my favourites, The Song of the Ungirt Runners, always comes to mind when running in the rain and icy winds at this time of year:

We swing ungirded hips, And lightened are our eyes, The rain is on our lips, We do not run for prize . . .

. . . we run because we like it Through the broad bright land.’

Sorley much preferred to run against the elements, which he felt brought him even closer to nature, and wrote about this too in another poem entitled - Rain.

When the rain is coming down, And all Court is still and bare, And the leaves fall wrinkled, brown, Through the kindly winter air, And in tattered flannels I ‘Sweat’ beneath a tearful sky.

For Sorley, perhaps, cross country running became a spiritual pursuit as much as a physical one.

Within two years of leaving school, he found himself on the Western Front, having volunteered for military service, after Britain declared war on Germany. He was as energetic in the trenches as he’d been in the fields around Marlborough, and quickly rose from the rank of lieutenant to captain.

Then, aged just 20, he was shot in the head by a sniper at the Battle of Loos, on October 13th, 1915.

His last poem was recovered from his kit after his death, and included the lines: When you see millions of the mouthless dead, Across your dreams in pale battalions go.

It’s an innate and wonderful trait to be able to run against the elements, and the one thing you won’t hear from Fionnuala Britton about the challenge of defending her European title is any complaint about the course, or the conditions. Because no matter how muddy or cold it gets, when you’re an original of the species, when you run through the broad bright land because you love it, it’s all just poetry in motion.

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