Cross country – the Marmite of athletics



  1. a mark, object, or figure formed by two short intersecting lines or pieces (+ or ×).”place a cross against the preferred choice”
  2. an upright post with a transverse bar, as used in antiquity for crucifixion.
  3. (abbrev) Cross Country : As much fun as one can have with their clothes on in the mud

So what did lead to the Great Biscuit Massacre of 2019 ? Well it all goes back to a decision I made mid-week, had been tossed around in my head for a good few weeks before making the decision. That decision was, I was going to run cross country this year. Something I hadn’t done for about 35 years.

I am currently training fairly hard at the moment. In comparison to the past 10 years, I am training EXTREMELY hard at the moment, but then that really isn’t difficult. Why am I training, well that really is the crux of Project 50. In August 2020 I intend to be standing on the start line of the 100m for the Over 50 Male category at the National Masters. However I am not just there to make up the numbers, as an athlete I want to win, but as a very good second best I want to be competitive, I want to give it everything, leave it all out on the track. In order to do that, I have to be fit and although I have dropped a lot of weight, my fitness still lags way behind where it used to be. There is a concept of ‘training to train’ where you have to prepare yourself for the rigors of a full-on training session. I am probably one step further back from that called ‘getting-fit to be able to train to train’.

In May of 2019 I was coaching a group of athletes. We train on a 300m track and I decided to run around the track with some of the athletes. I got about 150m before having to make my excuses and dropped out. If I couldn’t even make 200m at a jog, then I really wasn’t going to be able to train to sprint. I needed to go back to basics and build my fitness from the very foundations. I am very good at designing programmes for athletes, getting them to run good 5K times, or half marathons etc but nothing I really had in my arsenal was right for me. I knew I had to start slow and that there was probably going to be more walking than running, but even with that I didn’t know what was best to do. It is at times like this you need to consult with expert advice, so off I went to my laptop and typed in ‘’.

I decided on a ‘couch to 10K’ programme, as much that I had a race in mind I want to complete and I needed to cover the full 10K. I came across a really nice programme that said would ease me into it over a 14 week period. The first week was a 5 minute warm up followed by 6 repetitions of run 1 min and walk 1.5 min and then the entire session ended up with a 5 min cool-down walk. That first day took me 25 minutes and I covered 2.47km. To run for 1 minute almost did me in – I was far from my 2006 Cork Marathon shape. I did that session three times that week. Each time I completed the run part as planned, and by the end of the week I was feeling like a God, I had completed a weeks training (because for me that is what it was), and I was going places.

The next few weeks built on that base, with the runs getting longer and the walks getting shorter and very quickly I started to feel like I could run again. Week 4 was 6 intervals of run for 2.5 minutes, walk for 30s – again, tough but manageable. On week 7 I was still taking walk breaks but the sessions were longer. Seven repeats of run for 4 minutes and walk for 30s. On week eight two very significant things happened. Firstly the sessions were without walk breaks. The three sessions during the week were run 25 minutes, run 28 minutes and then on the 3rd day, run 30 minutes. I nailed each and every one, finishing each with a 30s all out sprint. Secondly, juvenile training resumed and I ran with the kids for their two warm up laps. I think had tears in my eyes when I finished the second lap, not from the effort but from the joy of being able to run without fear of dropping down dead.

Runs on my programme became longer, even if there were walk breaks – 4 runs of 10 minutes with a 1 minute walk. Three runs of 15 minutes etc. All of them completed according to plan. I am not saying it was easy, there were many times where I could have walked or gone home, but I managed to push through those feelings and reach the target.

Now that I noticed I had a bit of fitness and could run without stopping I decided I needed to test the fitness, and what better way than a race. initially I had planned to enter a 5K road race, but that didn’t work out for various reasons. Then I saw an advert: Castlegar Open Cross Country, races for all the family. I have run a lot of road races over the years, but I haven’t run a cross country race since I was at school, 35 years ago. What were the options in the race – senior mens 6K race ??? I don’t fecking think so ! At the bottom of the flyer though was a final race – 2K open race, from 9 to 99 (or something similar). OK, where do I sign up ? Didn’t need to sign up, just turn up on the day. Hmmm, could be a problem, easy to find an excuse not to do it. I know, get someone else to do it with me and then they will guilt me into it if I have doubts. Only had to mention ‘race’ to Liam and he was in. So we were set, Saturday at midday we were heading to a muddy field to run around in circles.

A funny story when we got to check in. I registered for my race, handed over the cash in exchange for a number with integrated timing chip and then they looked at Liam. ‘Senior Race is it ?’ the nice lady behind the desk asked. ‘Errr, he’s only 13’ I replied. They looked Liam up and down, scanning his 6 foot 2 frame before they came to the conclusion ‘he will be able for it – senior race !!’. So Liam was now going to run with the big boys of cross country which included international and national ranking athletes alike. Alongside them were a veritable Who’s Who of the Galway club running circuit. Liam went out on his 6K run, very much holding his own. He is something of an anomaly – a champion shot-putter but also able to run an 18 minute 5K, his level of athleticism is something to be admired. Liam crossed the line, collapsed and looked ill. I had 2K to do, and I knew I was highly likely to end up in the same state.

My turn to race. I lined up behind quite a mixed bunch – young kids, good quality teen runners, a senior or two. I felt a bit out of place. I didn’t get time to think about it too much before the gun went. I moved, the pack moved way faster than me, and very quickly I found myself right at the back and had to check I wasn’t actually running in reverse. The course was a 500metre-ish loop followed by 1500m of more open running. A few people had mentioned hills, but I didn’t see any. I covered the first 500m in about 2min 15 – not bad, but I could feel the unease already in my running form. Coming out of the 500m loop I started to overtake other athletes, well I overtake a few 6 year olds anyway which made me feel like Coe to their Ovett. At 600m they passed me out again, I never took the places back. Liam started to jog by the side of me. He was in pain as he had rubbed a serious blister on his foot, but he stuck by the side of me, encouraged me around every bend, over every hay bale got me to focus on the running. Quick looks at my watch told me I was past half way – just 1km to go. Liam then spoiled it by saying that the loop was probably closer to 2.2km than 2km. Those 200m were going to be the killer, I knew it.

With just over 300m to go the course turned off the playing fields and into a childrens playground. It was at that point that I ground to a complete halt. Here were the hills, and I had to get up them – without ropes. They were steep, they hurt but I dug in and got up them, walking not running. Down the other side, then there was another one and then another and then another. This was torture. I got up the last hill but my legs weren’t working anymore, I had to carry on walking along the crest of the hill and down the other side. Back into the field, finish line in sight. I got my jog back on and headed towards the line, managing to ‘sprint’ the last 20 metres. Cross the line, hands on knees gasping for any air that I can get in before requiring a little lie down. Less than 5 minutes later and I am good to go, back on my feet and now with the elation of doing the race. I had competed in my first race for nearly 10 years, and it was a cross country, and a pretty tough one at that.

Am I ready to start training, you bet I am, lets get this done.

21st September 2019, I raced cross country and came dead last (although I am claiming I won my age category) but I don’t give a shit, this really was as much fun as can be had with your clothes on in the mud.

John O’Connor captures the moment when I turned back into an athlete