Tuesday, November 24, 2009

How I won the cross country cup

I wasn't the fastest sprinter in my year at school. That title was the undisputed property of Hobart. I think his first name was Mick or Micky, but in the 1960s in England schoolmasters addressed the boys by their surnames and, for the most part, that was what we used between ourselves.

Hobart was a very tall boy for whom the adjective “gangling” could have been especially invented. For most of the time he gangled amiably about the school. But on the athletics track he stood out, both for pace and style. I have never seen anyone else run like Hobart; elbows haphazardly windmilling in all directions and hands flapping. My hands have to be either bunched in a fist or fingers straight out as if to deliver a karate blow. I have tried running with relaxed wrists and I just can't do it. But the Hobart head was still on his shoulders, eyes fixed on the finishing line as his long legs powered forwards.

In the cohort of 120 boys I wasn't second to Hobart or even third, but I was distinctly ahead of the bunch.

However, in the school athletics records, if they still exist, the name Heritage B.D.R. will be found not under sprinting but in the 4th Form cross-country section. This is quite remarkable because I was as hopeless a distance runner as I was good over 100 yards. I would start out at the front but after 200 yards I would be lagging and after 300 left behind with the other no-hopers.

The school cross-country course started in a nearby park. We had to run across a downward sloping sward, cross two bridges and then follow an anti-clockwise loop before re-crossing the canal bridge. Properly the course then involved splashing through the River Colne, which was quite shallow enough for the manoeuvre, but since Authority was not watching we trudgers at the back of the field kept our feet dry before climbing the slope to the park gates. One afternoon Rowe chose to see what running through the river was like, tripped and fell full length into the water. He was wearing white gym kit, which, when wet, clung to the body and became almost transparent. Rowe, always an exhibitionist, jogged back to school dripping and wearing a delighted smile.

Certain naughty boys, and here I am thinking of Fantes, Hicks and Scott, ran to the start of the loop and then sat in the bushes to wait. Their signal that it was time to reappear and go back to school was Heritage and the other back-markers sweating their way back across the bridges. Relaxed and fresh, Fantes & Co would run past me asking why I did not do the same.

The loop part of the course threaded its way along paths through uneven, scrubby woodland where someone had cleared enough trees to lay out a golf course. Fantes et al would sometimes occupy their unofficial leisure watching the infrequent midweek golfers. One unusual hole required a chip from the tee onto a green hidden at the bottom of a deep gully and invisible to the golfer. It was here that Hicks once took advantage of the peculiar terrain to gather up a pair's balls and put them both in the cup without being seen. He reported that the unmerited holes-in-one generated a lot of surprise but suspicion rather than elation.

It was Scott who told me that I was in the house cross-country team. “I was in the team and you were reserve but I've told them I've got a bad leg so you're running.” I didn't even know there was an inter-house competition coming up, but the notice board confirmed the news, with Scott's name already crossed out and a line through “Reserve” next to mine.

I never thought to ask how the team was selected. It must have been a mistake. However, I was far too honest to invent an injury like the mendacious Scott so I turned up at the starting line. Of the others who normally kept me company each week only Lawley had also been drafted into the big race. We looked glumly at each other in the certain knowledge that humiliation awaited us.

It was fully as awful as we expected. The rest of the field was already out of sight when we got to the first bridge. Round the loop we went, winter-frosted leaves crunching under our feet. In view of the seriousness of the occasion we determinedly refused to slow to a walk, although our jogging was a shuffle barely faster than the golfers striding up the fairways.

To make the time pass we discussed a recent physics practical, made almost farcical by equipment apparently purchased when the school was founded 400 years previously. Double, one of the brainy boys, had nevertheless managed to obtain a perfect graph. Kirkness, another brain, had actually obtained results that were quite impossible and the extrovert Dayman had broken his antique spring. Hattersley had been so bewildered that he had gone round the class asking to copy other boys' work

Shoulder to shoulder Lawley and I struggled on. Special occasion or not, we declined to get shoes full of Colne water so we used the bridge and set ourselves towards the finishing line. As we toiled up a slope that seemed to have grown steeper during the afternoon we became aware of a knot of figures at the finish. Normally boys who had completed their run went straight back to school to shower and change. Today the rest of the field was waiting and, we dimly perceived, they were shouting at us.

The words were indistinct but I suspected abuse.

Perfectly in step the last two runners puffed towards the line. With about 100 yards to go I asked, “Shall we race?” Let the record show that I waited until Lawley answered, “Yes” before I started to accelerate. It was a slow motion dash accompanied by what I could now determine were yells of encouragement.

Whatever my incompetence as a distance runner, there were few could out-sprint me in a fair contest and we were both equally exhausted. Not that it was easy. Lawley was right on my shoulder as we crossed the line and almost fell into an excited throng around a master holding a clipboard.

For a few marvellous moments I was a hero. Our houses had been tied for first place until we arrived and the fact that I crossed the line ahead of Lawley, no matter how narrowly, had secured the title for Travellers House.

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