There we all stood, the cool autumnal air brushing against our skinny exposed legs. Nervous for what was about to come, for what was fabled and foretold. We were lined up in a single line like prisoners about the meat a nasty end, our guard marching up and down the line. This was it boys, it was now or never, it’s time to show this lunatic just what we’re made of.
The guard blew his whistle and we were off, running for our lives as though a pack of rabid dogs were bearing down on us. We charged for the gate and the open fields beyond, we were free.
The pace was frenetic and unmaintainable. Lactic acid was ravaging my thighs and my lungs were burning. I slowed to a walk, barely. I wasn’t the only one. I looked over my shoulder to see a line of boys strung out as far as I could see, each panting and gasping for breath, and each with the same exhaustion etched on their features.
This was not some tale of a great wartime prison escape. This was my first experience at a middle-school cross-country run.
The Cross Country Run
At nine-years-old, I was heading out of junior school and onwards to middle-school. The fabled cross-country run was legendary, a story told by those elders that had gone before us. They told of the pain and suffering that Mr Hepworth would inflict as he whipped us around the muddy and hilly course for hours on end. We were suitably petrified of what was to come in September.
The first time I met Mr Hepworth was when we carried out our first experiment with a Bunsen burner in science class – boiling water. To this day I still believe he just wanted a brew. He was a small, wiry man with a glare that could cut glass. Small glasses balance on his pointed nose as he scurried around the laboratory. I remember one time in winter the pipes froze in the false ceiling above his lab and then burst when they thawed. We were all, obviously, hopeful of the lesson being cancelled and spending the time doodling on scrap paper somewhere. It wasn’t to be, the guy only went and turn it into a science lesson on the expansion of water when heated from freezing.
I digress. Mr Hepworth was also one of the PE teachers and his speciality was cross-country running. He was a runner himself and therefore rather fond of recalling the class of a Monday morning of his weekend running adventures. My nine-year-old self, quite frankly, couldn’t have cared less.
We knew the day of the first cross-country run was coming. 99% of the class hated the prospect. Of course, there was always the one or two nutcases who couldn’t’ wait to show off their endurance and athleticism to us all. But, for the most part, none of us relished the prospect.
As it happened, the course chosen for our first run on that Autumn morning was on familiar ground. It was pretty much a loop of the road and off-road routes that I could choose to walk to school on. It was probably about 3 miles, if that, and Mr Hepworth couldn’t wait to inflict this misery upon us. The glint in his eye was all too obvious as we shivered on the school playing field awaiting our fate.
But I had a trick up my sleeve. This run was on my turf and I would take full advantage. I knew all the snickets and alleys that I could use to shave distance off the course. A friend and I would do it together and return to school in glory as the first ones to return from our epic adventure.
Mr Hepworth wasn’t as daft as I assumed. Needless to say that we thought our little diversory route was the perfect way to get one over on the master of torture. The first diversion was straightforward enough as we cut a large corner out near the further point from the school. We were in our home village and knew just where to go. On re-joining the course we were in front. This was going to be brilliant. We would return to school to see Mr Hepworth looking at his watch astounded by our time.
There was, of course, a slight fly in the ointment of our plan. As we cut through our shortcut we joined the main road (so much for a cross-country) that would return us to school. As we turn into the direction of school we began to notice a distinct lack of runners in front or behind us. We were certain we were on the route as set out but given the lung-busting start we had, subsequently followed by the better runners passing us we never expected our shortcut to put us out in the lead! And not just any lead, this was a serious breakaway move.
Onwards we went, carried upon our tired legs. We discussed the issue of coming back first and second placed and how this might not be the best course of action as we had no desire to be selected for any running teams. So, we took another diversion back onto the off-road section, now clear of the stragglers, and followed some of this route in reverse. The theory being that we would sneak back onto the road further down having given the lead runners the chance to catch up.
Whether it was youthful misjudgement or exhaustion affecting our mental capacities we failed to stop and “sneak” back onto the road. We had also misjudged just how far ahead of the race leaders we were. We had also failed to comprehend that Mr Hepworth himself was leading the race. Yes. Quite how we didn’t realise this until the point we scurried out of the gap in the hedges and onto the footpath right in front of a science teacher in full flight we shall never know. To give Mr Hepworth his dues he did a marvellous job of half long-jumping and half high-jumping over us. The guy never even broke stride as he pivoted one-hundred-and-eighty degrees, pointed at us with a death stare whilst jogging backwards, pivoted once more and carried on his way.
We half jogged and half walked the remainder of the way back to school. We knew what was coming. We would be ridiculed in front of the whole class and called out for cheating. Our peers would judge us and pillar us for such a heinous act against them.
We were correct. We were ridiculed and called out for cheating in front of the whole class. Mr Hepwroth was awaiting our return and hauled us aside, he didn’t need to say a word so not a word was said. Disapproving looks came our way from the lead groups of boys which quickly turned to smug looks once the punishments were handed out.
Of course, we garnered some infamy amongst our fellow strugglers who though our maverick move was a masterstroke of insolence against a regime hell-bent on putting off children from ever going any faster than a fast walk for a bus. Our punishment was just, we had to run around the playing fields on our breaks and lunchtime. Yet another way to put us off the sport for life.
I look back at this particular episode and smile. Because, 22 years later, when really started my love affair with running I realised that those school cross-country runs weren’t the reason I never became a runner in my youth at all. It’s easier to blame incidents like this than admit that you were just not into running. People don’t spend their free time doing something they don’t enjoy and back then I most certainly didn’t enjoy it.
I didn’t discover running, it discovered me.