As noted in my pre-race post, I had a number of goals coming into my third run around Saltwood. In ascending order they were: finish top ten, finish in a course PR, beat my brother across the finish line.
With course conditions just about optimal for a winter cross-country race in England my expectations were high as I toed the start line for the 34th running of the Boxing Day Run. Aside from one or two patches of sloppy mud, my pre-race warm up (which involved a couple of trial fence jumps for the second of five hazards that had to be negotiated) revealed firm underfoot going. Considering the conditions, I opted to wear my newly acquired, rubber-spiked cross-country flats.
From the off at the village green, I went out at a strong but conservative pace, tucking into about 11th or 12th place. I knew full well that at least 50% of those in front of me were caught up in an adrenaline-fueled frenzy that would last no longer than a mile, and sure enough I began picking a few of them off as I settled into a rhythm across the school playing fields. As I had pre-run this first section of the course, I knew it would be important to get to the first hazard ahead of any type of pack to avoid losing time at a bottleneck, so I pushed hard to get in front of two guys on the slight downhill from the playing fields to the one-person-wide footbridge, which leads to the second hazard and the first gate.
With my two trial jumps over the fence to the side of the gate, I was confident of being able to take it in stride, and was relieved when my hand plant on the top of the fence was solid enough for me to clear it with ease. Immediately following the fence jump is the steepest section of the course across a field to a stile (two planks of wood offset to allow people using public footpaths to climb over farmers' fences). I heard some very heavy breathing behind me half way up the hill, and put in an extra effort to ensure that I wasn't passed before the third and fourth hazard. I got over the stile fairly efficiently, ran up the 10 or 12 steps to a swing gate, and proceeded up the rest of the hill to the Big Field. It was here that I was passed for the first and only time during the race, and to my dismay the boy passing me could have been no more than 15 years old. Anyway, he looked way stronger than me so I let him go in the vain hope that his young age would bring him back to me later in the race.
Once up on the Big Field, runners are afforded a visual of those in front and a chance to count off your position while also seeing who you might be able to pick off before the finish. I set my sights on fifth and sixth: a guy who was clearly hurting and a lanky runner wearing the colours of Folkestone Running Club. I caught the guy in sixth with relative ease and by the 90 degree turn on the field I was slowly making ground on the long-striding Folkestone runner as we headed to the last hazard. By the swing gate, and the wooded section of the course, I had maybe ten meters to make up on fifth (which had now become my goal finish place). Taking a quick look back, I could see that I was putting significant distance on those behind, so felt confident that if I could pick off the guy in front I would finish top five.
Feeling in my element under cover of trees and on nice double-track trail I pushed hard on the downhill, making up a few meters. After the wooded descent, there is a fairly steep pitch up to the final uphill pull. I could see my lanky foe struggling on this section and knew he was done, so I put in a big effort and easily made up the ground pushing into fifth place before summiting for the descent to the finish. I felt absolutely great on the uphill, and was going as fast as my legs would carry me (rather than my lungs), which was a very good feeling and a sign that I am in very good aerobic condition right now.
The run down the last section of footpath felt controlled, and a quick look back as I hit the road back into the village confirmed that I had a lock on fifth. With nobody else in sight in front, I concentrated on keeping form and pushing as hard as I could into the finish. I was elated to see a low 17 minute time on the clock in the final few meters, and punched the stop button on my watch at 17:19, a 1:31 PR!
My brother Matt finished in his own course PR of 20:03 (beating my time from last year), and Jim came in for another PR at around the half hour mark. My 7-year-old cousin Thomas ran across the finish line in an impressive 35 minutes and was followed by his mum and younger brother William a few minutes later. Another fun Boxing Day Run.