As I slipped and slided my way down the muddy, grassy trail into La Fouly aid station in the drizzling rain and foggy grey clouds at CCC in the Alps this past summer many things could have been on my mind; what to eat at the aid station, how far ahead the next woman was, what the profile of the next portion of the course was like. Instead, I was thinking, wow – this is awesome! This is just like school cross country! So yes, almost 20 years and many miles, later I was thinking back to running around flat farmers’ fields in Norfolk, England where I grew up. Mr. Wildmun would be up at the front and Mrs. Cayley at the back ensuring that no stragglers were left behind, as we only had about 50 minutes in our PE class to get the two or so mile cross-country route completed.
Every six weeks in winter we would run the cross-country course in PE class. For most, I think, it was at best tolerated and for others it was dreaded, for some smart ones the sick note was created as to why little Johnny really could not run around for two miles and needed to stay inside. I, however, loved it. Even so, it was always a slight puzzle to me as to why cross country was a winter sport, just when it started to get cold and rainy and the days got shorter to the point that on some days it never seemed to get totally light at all, we were sent off to run around muddy, sloppy fields. But then maybe that’s the point; running in the mud and rain is far more fun than running in the dry.
And what else would you wear for cross country other than your field-hockey kit? At the start of every school term we had kit inspection in PE class to ensure we had the obligatory white cotton polo shirt, navy blue gym knickers and pleated skirt, white knee length socks (and no, they had zero compression) and hockey boots. In this get up, whatever the weather, off we would trudge around the edge of farmers’ fields for our two or so miles. It could be freezing cold or hailing, but that was what you wore; it wasn’t fancy and it wasn’t flash and no brand logos were allowed (Heaven forbid a Nike swoosh!), but it was what we all wore and it wasn’t expensive. The only personal adaptation was the length of the skirt; of course the shorter the better, and the knee length socks were so bulky they probably weighed about twice as much as our skirts, especially when drenched in mud.
I say two or so miles as I’m not quite sure how far the route was, but take me back to Diss in Norfolk tomorrow and I’ll run that route blindfolded. I know I never got under 20 minutes, I think I was usually 21-something, but the exact time has faded from my memory although the images of chasing the other boys and girls to try beat them to the finish line at the gate that went onto the school playing field has not. I wasn’t fast, but I wanted to run as fast as I could and even once made it to the regional cross-country race. I think I came about fiftieth. Out of 56. There was a big hill on that course, and, well, in Diss you can see it for about 20 miles in any direction. A speed bump is classed is a hill.
Then summer would roll around so cross-country season would end and next up on the PE agenda was athletics. Again, my skill might have been moderate, but my enthusiasm was 110%. Most lunch times I would head over to the track, no fancy rubberized track, just a spray-painted track on the grass where the hockey fields had been in the winter. One of the PE teachers would have always opened up the shed in the middle of the track and with no supervision we were free to take what we needed – a stopwatch for the track or a rake for the long jump pit – and off we would go. I’d run an 800-meter and that’d be me. No coaching, no drills, no schedule, just basic facilities and teachers willing to do the little things to help, be it ensuring the facilities could be accessed or driving us to after school races with other local schools. I have no idea what I wore on my feet, but it certainly wasn’t racing spikes.
But most importantly of all, it gave us an opportunity to learn that physical activity was fun and it gave us a basic experience to build on. When I wanted to train for a race, well, I knew my two-mile cross-country route and so off I could go and run that on my own of an evening, and I guess I had the confidence to know that I could run two miles. I had the experiences of fun, after-school minivan rides with a teacher and a bunch of classmates to neighboring schools, which were a positive experience. Of course we were encouraged to do well, but that wasn’t a priority, the priority was taking part and doing as well as we could. I have hazy recollections of what my 800-meter time was, but I have no idea how old I was when I was running that time or whether I improved much, there just wasn’t that sort of focus or that sort of pressure.
So where has this led me to today? Well, I know in many ways it laid the foundation for being the ultrarunner that I am now. I learned that running is fun, that it requires dedication and that it is about pushing yourself as much as it is about competing against others. Although I’m not totally against competition within school sports, I do feel that making physical activity fun for kids should be the priority, for without that how can we ever expect young adults to want to continue once they have left the structures of school? When I was at school, PE was only compulsory to age 16, but I never gave it up as I’d developed a habit, I’d learned skills and, well, I think I was already well on my way to a rather healthy addiction. In many ways I cringe when I hear about more structured high school track teams with coaches and matching kit and training schedules; although that can be great for many and, of course, is probably more likely to breed future Olympians, I’m all for the more basic, grass-roots approach that hopefully results in more kids leaving school feeling that running is fun and something that they will continue as a lifelong habit.
Oh, and one final note; thank you to all the PE teachers at Diss High School from 1991 to 1996, I still remember every one of you by name and you did an awesome job – I’m still running today.