By Rory Morrow – Deputy & Sports Editor
Over the weekend, QUB Athletics travelled to London for the BUCS XC (cross country) race; reinstated to the university athletics calendar since 2020. This was undeniably an event and race route that had cross country tattooed all over its body – Ten kilometres trekking through Shrek’s swamp could conceivably have been easier. Queens had four athletes in the women’s short 6k, 9 in the men’s short 8k, a single brave soul in the women’s 8k and six men in the long 10k. In total, a fabulous 21 of QUB colours, ran at BUCS.
These runs really sperate the elite, potential Olympian athletes from the gritty but comparatively slow runners like me. Those at the higher end of results blend speed and stamina together perfectly for the longer distances. Of course, it is the combination of these two separate but still intrinsically linked attributes that creates the best well-rounded athletes. Both are useful but also flawed. Speed, for instance, is imperative yet empties the tank almost immediately. As quickly as you accelerated away, the brakes of screaming calves and rugged breathing are also, inevitably, applied all too soon. Stamina meanwhile is an older necessity and like our underappreciated everyday use of pockets, is essential to any long-distance runner. The willpower to keep moving despite constant finish line hallucinations, to continue chugging that seemingly endless pint, to maintain the chase. Stamina is not just a sporting attribute; it is a life quality.
To the race itself. A surprisingly quiet Friday evening of check-ins, late Nandos and Countdown enabled an early rise on Saturday morning where we maximised, to varying degrees, the hotel breakfast. And what is that golden meal before game time? Is consuming some branded carbs helpful to get in “the zone”? Wayne Rooney’s 2011 complaint of having to “shove pasta down at 9am” fell on unsympathetic ears then whilst heated ketchup debates were had once Antonio Conte got to clearing out the Tottenham cafeteria. Thankfully, we loaded up without such furore and those of us not still asleep took a tube to the course. As soon as we had entered the surrounding fields of the course, grim faces and hollow laughs descended among us. The mud looked and would prove to be a worthy adversary between us and finishing our respective races.
Arguably ankle-deep, incredibly sinkable and sapping to survive, it was one of the most difficult terrains I have ever ran on. As the 10k was last to go, we watched our fellows yank their feet out of perilous positions and experiment, with mixed results, attempts to avoid the worst of it. Others simply accepting their fate charged headlong into the mud like an army of Vikings fearlessly hurling themselves into the boggy brown abyss. Bombarded by advice such as “take the sides” and “jump and pray” was helpful yet also influenced by the irrational, pumped-up adrenaline of a race atmosphere. My main lesson learnt was that if you are to run through a swamp, expect to lose a shoe. Or two.
Pandemonium was also in the staggering spectacle of the starting straight. Bodies crumpled to the floor, legs and limbs quickly transfigured into a human game of snakes and ladders, each stride forward a roll of the dice to stay afoot. Elbows were most certainly, out. Yet amidst all the people, the spectators played a pivotal part. For me, there is no greater buzz in running than in hearing your name encouraged on by friends. Mental fuel is as important as physical skill. Having lost a shoe early on, I was greeted by stunned (but very supportive) stewards as well as crucial vocal craic, among amused faces. As I regurgitated a third lap, hair flopping like a rabbit abruptly hoofed out of a hurricane, spectator cheers were crucial. Even if you can’t see people, it’s always a motivating bonus to hear them. I perked up like a dog’s tail wagging as its owner is spotted in the distance.
An array of saggy socks, strained throats and traumatised legs, hidden by tracksuits, were the visually striking parts of photos. Chocolate orange victors, aka the first home for QUB, were skipper Catriona Edington, Stephen Lunn (who has since framed the wrapper as trophy), the determined Solyane Michaut and Benen Ryan (bandana guru) in the 6k, 8k and 10k races respectively. The world is in a murky condition right now. Not all endeavours will be so competitive, indeed Sunday’s colour run in Ormeau Park to raise money for cancer research, will be a light-hearted, happy-vibes, inclusively modern kind of running event. We need these as much as the rest. Having flourished in literal murk at BUCS, university athletics (helped by today’s announcement of the IUAA XC in March), is pulling itself out of the Covid coffin and back into face-painted, foody and comradery spirits. Like Dumbledore’s phoenix Fawkes, it is continuing to rise, gloriously, from the ashes.