After starting the cross country season with a bang, Hannah Irwin blogs about one of our sport’s most honest disciplines. 

For me, cross country season is a true test of bodily strength. When there’s hills, thick mud, and driving rain to run through, you can’t hide away from any weaknesses you may have. It is the purest form of running, there is no glamour, no PB times to get, oh, and no toilet roll!

Not always fun and games. 

I’ve had times in the past where I’ve practically walked an entire cross country race because my body was too weak to be able to run it. I remember my dad standing there shouting encouragement at me the entire way, telling me I could do it, but we both knew I couldn’t.

I’d let him down because although he could see how weak and tired I was on the outside, he couldn’t see that I was even weaker on the inside. I didn’t have the strength to even try to run the race, I was exhausted from the start gun. Whilst my physical strength clearly wasn’t there, it wasn’t until I ran a cross country race that I realised the reality of my situation. I was far from the ‘strong’ athlete I needed to be to run, let alone for cross country. 

Reality check in the mud

For this reasons, cross country can be an extremely brutal reality check. Whilst there are the challenges of the mud and hills, the greatest challenge can be posed by yourself. I love cross country, but you can’t hide behind it. Although I was going to other races and not quite running the times I wanted, it wasn’t until I was faced will the added challenges cross country poses, that it was impossible for me to get away from the situation I had put my body in. 

This may seem harsh and torturous, but it was a good thing! Yes, it was torture running cross country with a weak body, but I needed to face the struggle of cross country to be confronted with the reality of my situation. The only way I was able to see the need for change was by shocking myself with how hard cross country had suddenly become. It used to feel nicely tough, but it had become physically impossible. 

After a few races struggling through the mud, I became too scared and intimidated to enter any cross country race, let alone the almighty Cross Challenge Series. To me, being able to run in the series seemed worlds away from the one I was living in.

I believed I wasn’t good enough to run in it. Whilst this isn’t true, and anyone can run in the Cross Challenge, as an individual I was too embarrassed and traumatised by the weak body I had to do it. 

All in the past 

Now, this is all in the past. My past will never leave me, but I don’t want it to because I am a million times stronger for those difficult times. However, this year I have no longer been feeling weak and I wanted to push myself outside of my comfort zone. If I want to run faster, I need to run again people a lot faster than me, so, I entered the Milton Keynes Cross Challenge to kickstart my cross country season.

I went into the race nervous but also excited, as there was no pressure and I had no expectations of myself other than to enjoy it. My aim for the race was a top 20 finish, but realistically I had no idea where I stood in the field. I felt slightly out of my comfort zone due to the shorter course length, but I was ready to give my all and enjoy the mud and rain, and that I did. 

Throughout the race I had no idea of my positioning except in my head I knew I wanted to keep picking off the people in front of me. It wasn’t until I came into the finish line that I realised I finished 5th!! I was absolutely ecstatic, and as my boyfriend will tell you, that meant I didn’t stop talking for the rest of the day!! Although, I talk a lot the majority of the time! A top 10 finish wasn’t even in my sights, so to finish 5th was more than I ever expected. 

Happiness and health

This truly showed to me that two of the most important things in life are happiness and health. When I lived in an unhealthy and consequently unhappy body, I was struggling within the first 100m of a cross country race because I wasn’t strong enough to get through the thick mud.

However, today I live in a happier and healthier body, and that means I can enjoy cross country because I have the strength and power to stand up to it. I no longer mentally give up before even starting the race, I’m in it till the end. 

Ultimately, you can’t hide behind cross country. If your body is weak, you will soon realise. I learnt the hard way. 

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