An Irishman's Diary

 

Cross-country running used to be an Olympic event, I had reason to remind myself recently, but it was dropped after 1924 in Paris, when it got a bad name.

The main problem on that occasion was the race coinciding with a heat wave. There may have been other factors too, such as competitors’ failure to hydrate properly. Either way, although the route was only 10,000 metres, it became, as the Irish Times Paris correspondent reported, a “course of tribulation”.

The first man home was “Flying Finn”, Paavo Nurmi, and he at least was in good shape. In fact, a second Finn and an American completed the medal positions safely. These were followed by an Englishman who, although “wearied almost unto death”, also crossed the line with a working pulse.

It was only after that, apparently, that the race began to resemble “a scene from the Grand Guignol”. First there was a “red-breeched Spaniard” who, emerging from the tunnel into the stadium “suddenly sprang into the air and then collapsed [as if] struck by a bullet”.

The man was promptly carried behind the stand, where “strychnine” was injected to restore his heart beat. Back on track, meanwhile, a second English runner emerged from the tunnel and, exhausted, started running the wrong way. When somebody tried to rotate him, he too collapsed.

Then came a Frenchman who was within 50 metres of the line when he stopped. The approach of another Finn persuaded him to restart, only to stop again and stagger off. But the Finn was even nearer the finish – “six yards” – when he too faltered.

“Prompted by some kind of frenzy”, he turned around and began retracing his steps.

Those were among the minority who reached the stadium, mind you. Outside, it was like a war zone. The course was “dotted with the bodies of fallen competitors”. Ambulances were “busy removing them”. As an Olympic fixture, the race itself was soon removed too.

Of course, heatwave aside, the mistake they made in 1924 was having the event in the wrong Olympics. Ideally, you don’t want snow or ice for cross-country, either. But, as I know, being a recent convert, it is essentially a winter sport.

I had to keep reminding myself of this last Friday night, while studying the weather forecasts for Saturday. Met Éireann predicted an Arctic front spreading from the east overnight, sweeping New Year’s resolutions involving early morning outdoor activity into the Atlantic by evening. In summary, the forecast was, “stay in bed”.

Even as I screwed spikes into my new runners, I was also checking to see if the organisers had done the sane thing yet and cancelled. When the e-mail still hadn’t arrived by Saturday, I set out for the race feeling like Captain Oates.

But weather forecasts are like use-by dates. Sometimes you need to trust your own senses and hope for the best. So it was that, braced for polar conditions, I arrived at the venue, smelled the air, and realised that, far from freezing, it was a relatively balmy 2.5 degrees. In short, conditions were ideal for cross-country. The risk of sunstroke was minimal. The muck was warm once you were in. Yet the overall experience was sufficient to be called “bracing” afterwards, over hot tea.

This is one of the things I enjoy about the sport. It offers many of the advantages of other “country pursuits”, but without having to kill things. There is even the sense of chasing something (lost youth in my case), hence the many running clubs called “Harriers”.

Another thing I like are the convoluted courses: pleasantly disorienting, not to the extent that you risk retracing your steps, like the man in Paris. But enough that you can cod yourself as to where you are at any time. Self-delusion is an important part of my running strategy.

This is why I also enjoy hearing the last-lap bell from a neighbouring field. Again this can convince you you’re nearer the leaders than experience would suggest. You may temporarily have forgotten that there is a another field between you and the one with the bell. But it’s the false encouragement that matters.

There is something cheerful, anyway, about a bell ringing across fields in winter. And I should know. I was listening to it for ages on Saturday before finally passing it myself. But the race was an uplifting experience even so. And although there was an ambulance on duty at the finish as usual, happily, the strychnine wasn’t necessary.

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