If you’re a regular runner, how often do you get an opportunity to compete with the best athletes in the country? To toe the same startline, and to set off on the same gun?

It doesn’t happen in many sports, but the English Cross Country Association National Championships is one such event.

I had been promising myself for years I’d go along and compete, but it’s a scary thing isn’t it? I mean, the BEST club runners in the country, and then me? But that’s the beauty of cross country, it’s a level playing field and it’s open to anybody who is a member of a registered running club. No qualifying times or events, simply register, turn up and run.

Most people I mention cross country to shudder as I unwittingly awaken old buried memories of freezing cold school runs enforced by stern PE teachers. I was one of the few who was never exposed to cross country at school, so after I founded a running club in Lincolnshire, and it appeared that we could enter a cross country league, we did just that as it sounded fun!

My first experience of cross country was the harsh biting cold, as two men and three ladies (not even a full team) huddled together in shorts and club vest, before lining up at the bottom of a hill (hill starts are a favourite of race organisers) and slipping through mud for the best part of half an hour. Race distances and courses all vary, especially in the local leagues, but usually all feature cold and mud, or cold and water. And hills, don’t forget the hills.

Having recently relocated from Lincolnshire to Greater Manchester, and subsequently changed clubs, I haven’t had the energy, let alone the time, to get involved in any cross country events this season, so it was a nice surprise to open a Christmas card from my husband to discover a note that he had entered us both into the Nationals this weekend. I’ve spent the past two months really excited about them, whilst also simultaneously panicking that I don’t own a pair of spikes.

It turned out that it’s been a dry few weeks, so turning up at the bottom of Parliament Hill yesterday, and seeing all the club flags flying, I put my feet and my trust into my Salomon Speedcross 4s (they performed surprisingly well).

It’s a superbly organised event. Having only experienced county level cross country previously, Lincolnshire is renowned for not sticking to event timings (one member recently missed his race because they decided to start early!) and sending out programmes and course maps scribbled onto pieces of paper, but the Nationals are a finely oiled machine. We found our cross country captain easily, pinned our numbers on, bought a £3 programme, and lined up at the start, which started bang on time (take note, Lincolnshire).

With 1100 other ladies toeing the start line, it was a surreal experience as we all silently contemplated the long uphill start.

Then the gun.

And we were off. A long uphill. Heavy breathing. The course narrows. We hit the first patch of mud. Elbows. The sound of spikes clicking as we cross paths. The views at the top. Slipping down the hill as we turn a corner. Back uphill. And onwards. And down. And up. And round.

The course was tough, and relentlessly undulating, which is the kind of terrain I find difficult. I’m used to training on big hills, where you can spend maybe one to three miles climbing uphill. The hills here were small but steep and muddy, and you want to power up them because you’re following the pack. You don’t want to show any weakness. Not that I was competing in the real sense of the word, but everyone competes for a better finishing position, and a better team placing, so it makes you want to go a little faster than you want to up the hills. It makes you plough straight through the mud rather than avoid the worst of it. It makes you keep to the shortest line, even though that is the slippiest after it has been trodden by so many others. It’s really tough trying to run fast through claggy mud, but you want to do your absolute best. The competitive atmosphere brings out the best in you.

I finished with a fast downhill and a smile on my face yesterday. I was exhausted, but full of a joy of running in the simplest sense of the word. When you’re racing, it doesn’t matter what splits you’re running; it matters whether you can catch the person in front and overtake them, then hold them off to the end to gain a position. Racing focuses the mind. It really gets the adrenaline pumping. Cross country for me is one of the simplest and purest forms of racing. It appeals to me as a trail runner because you’re out in the countryside, doing your best, with other like minded people. It’s the best of both worlds. And it’s fantastic training too. Cross country builds strong road runners too.

I didn’t perform particularly well yesterday, because I haven’t done any other cross country training this season, nor speedwork. I spent last year focusing on ultra distance, and although I’ve had a lot of off road and hill experience, attempting to run fast over that terrain yesterday hurt a lot! But it’s awakened in me that competitive spirit that I thought was lost. I want to do better at it, so I’ve promised myself a full season next year, with the associated training. Our club has great fell running coaches, which will also help me hugely in cross country, so I’ve decided to go and be terrible at something for a while, so that I can get better at it. Because it’s great fun.

I’d highly recommend everyone goes along to experience the buzz of the Nationals at least once. All runners welcomed, you just need to be a club member and wear your club vest.

I sense cross country is set to change soon. Yesterday, sponsors Saucony were running a survey about race distance, because the English Cross Country Association continue to permit women and men to run different race distances. Our senior women’s race yesterday was 8 kilometres, compared to the 12 kilometres the senior men had to run. It’s nice to see the ECCA is not just burying its head in the sand about it, but is instead seeking opinion and willing to change.

You can find more details here on the English Cross Country Association website