18 Mar The National: A Canadian Indie band or one of the oldest races in the world | Ben Fish

These days when you mention the National, people may mistake you for talking about the Canadian Indie band, but for those in the know it’s the nation’s most prestigious annual sporting event; distance running’s equivalent to the FA Cup. It’s one of the oldest races in the world. It’s hard to understand why such an event garners such little attention; though I will try to offer a guess.

As the sport has become more commercial, with the glitz and glamour of corporate road races, or the plain ridiculous themed “mudder” events, it seems the old faithful ‘National’ has been left behind. Here’s a race where there’s no special treatment, where egos are bruised and gritty determinion prevails. This is the race where a 32 minute 10k runner can scalp a sub 30 performer. The international runner will still have to share the same freezing cold showers at the end like the rest of us.

Despite fewer appearances than I’d have liked and the fact that my measly best was 17th as an u/20 in 2002, the National has always had that magic about it. Last weekend was my first outing since 2007 and I knew I’d be in for a mauling after a patchy Winter with an ankle sprain and niggles. Still, I was really looking forward to this after having a good February of training. What made this extra special was travelling down as part of a thirteen man team for Blackburn Harriers, a first in the 18 years I have been a member and a true indication of the progress we are making as a club.

The venue was the classic Parliament Hill, the mecca of cross country courses as far as I’m concerned and it certainly delivered; it’s the muddiest National I’ve done, despite it being pleasant weather on the day.

At 3pm we were off and I got a decent start up the hill, probably somewhere in the top 100. There was hardly a single blade of grass left on the course after it had been battered over the past few hours, but despite all the mud I was moving through the pack. I had my best position after a couple of miles where it was a little better underfoot and was around 60th. However, by the second lap reality kicked in and I really started struggling through all the dense mud. By the time I got to the wooded section my legs were too heavy to make up the places I conceded and even managed to lose a further ten seconds when I hit the deck, as is customary for me in cross country! I lost two more places on the sprint to the finish and ended up 81st, a position I’d have taken at the start, but I was disappointed at losing places at the end.

What was most pleasing though, was our club’s team spirit, all of us gave it everything and we were rewarded with a credible 22nd placing for the 9-man team; a world away from the days of just a few of us flying the flag ten years ago. For me, the magic of the National had always been there, but even I have been blown away by the experience this year which was spent with friends old and new. What a weekend, this is why I love running, no matter how good or bad I’m performing.

I’m very optimistic about 2015 and I am very gratefull for the continuous help from Garry of GWFitness and Rehab and sponsorship from Terry Lonergan of Fastrax and Complete Runner. I’ve been getting advice from Eddie Simpson, which has helped me keep a certain perspective on training and racing without trying to bash it all the time.

That February has been the start of a turning point in my running, the sessions have been coming together and I was hopeful of a solid run at Trafford 10k, especially as I would be running for the North of England. I was apprehensive about how I would fare against quality opposition and decided to just focus on being as competitive as I could without paying much attention to the watch. I was also giving some shoes their first outing that I helped design with Sweatshop over the past six months. I was part of a team of six Sweatshop employees who’ve been helping the designers come up with a range of three models of race shoes. I had just received a sample pair the day before and I was pretty excited about giving them a whirl; they are the lightest in the series at just 120 grams.

I got a poor start and was some way off in the first kilometre, I was also getting a bit boxed in and took an opportunity to surge past a few runners by running through poodles and rough bits of the road where there was a gap. I latched onto a group of half a dozen runners and was battling hard to stay with them. I was starting to feel better after about halfway and could sense a slight slowing of the pace, by 8km I chanced a look at my watch expecting 24:30-45 and was pleasantly surprised with 24:07. Moments later Johnny Mellor came steaming past and I chased after him hoping I would stand a chance of getting away from the group. The last quarter of a mile was tough, but with a final sprint I was able to hold the others off and finish a couple of seconds behind Mellor in 10th with 30:06, my best performance for well over a year.

Onwards and upwards…