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Phil Graves recalls his cross-country running stories and prepares for a winter of sprinting through mud.

It seems it’s the time of year to go and get muddy! Last month I wrote about cyclo-cross and this time I want to talk about that other great winter off-road pursuit: cross-country running. Most of the running we do in Yorkshire is cross-country. Its part of the athletic culture up here, I think mainly because our local councils haven’t grasped the idea of paved footways yet. Our local race series, the West Yorkshire League, is one of the best in the world and you’ll often find Alistair and Jonny Brownlee, Tom Bishop and a host of other top triathletes and runners vying for victory.

I still think Alistair’s best ever result, even better Olympic Gold, was his win at the 2006 English Schools Cross-Country Championships. To beat a host of quality schoolboy runners on a course that didn’t suit him was an immense achievement! I was in the same race (a long way back) and I doubt anyone expected him to win.

Those weekends away at the English Schools Cross-Country Championships were always great. Every March we would get on a coach, miss a bit of school on a Friday (never a bad thing) and head south to run around a big, flat showground with 400 other kids. I’d love to tell you we were tearaways and got up to so much mischief but I was a boring child (and am now an even more boring adult). The most adventurous thing we did was stay up till 4am to watch the Melbourne Formula 1 Grand Prix. We caught up on the missed sleep on the coach journey home the next day.

Big races, such as the Schools Champs, were always the polar opposite of our North Yorkshire Champs. These would often involve running around a ploughed field, or the York Racecourse with its two ‘hills’, to try and make the route something other than a run around some football pitches.

To even get to North Yorkshire Champs you had to do well at the York Schools Champs (or your local district championships). For us, the Schools Champs was the big one. Always held in December, it was the race where the footballers turned up thinking they could take on everyone and win. So naturally they were upset when the geeky kids who trained at the local athletic club made them look stupid. The footballers would struggle in the mud with their heavy boots while the runners, in their lightweight spikes, flew over it.

Everyone from school would come out to watch the York Schools Champs so if you did well, or even won your age category, you became a hero. And you’d have that status for at least a day, before the footballers and basketballers eclipsed your achievement and you were once again forgotten.

As kids, that was our winter schedule: the Yorkshire Champs interspersed with other open cross-country races, which, for us, were always great days out.

It’s pretty clear that if you do want to compete over the winter, cross-country races offer the easiest, cheapest and probably most practical way to get some racing miles. So why not pin a number on and see how you fare? The great thing about racing in a cross-country league is that, if your training is going well, you can see your results gradually get better. The last time I spent a winter racing the West Yorkshire series I got better at every event. It filled me with so much confidence going into the triathlon season that I ended up winning Ironman UK, which doesn’t just happen by chance! But, for me, the most satisfying thing about cross-country racing is peeling the dried-on mud from your legs on the way home

This article was originally published in Triathlon Plus magazine. Save time and money by having every issue delivered to your door or digital device by subscribing to the print edition or buying digitally through Zinio or Apple Newsstand.

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