Neil Featherby: How to approach an elite cross country race

Neil Featherby XC

Neil Featherby in action at a cross country race during his youth. - Credit: Neil Featherby

Good luck to everyone competing in this Saturday’s National Cross Country Championships at Parliament Hill Fields.  

It’s a race which goes right back to the 1870s and is without a doubt an event which really is steeped in so much history. 

Whilst for many years it was just for senior men, followed by a ladies National Race being introduced in 1927, the Nationals now mean a day of racing ranging from Under 13 boys and girls right through to senior men and women where thousands of athletes and clubs from all over the country will descend upon this year’s venue which is also steeped in history when it comes to cross country racing.   

My stand-out memory of running in a cross-country race, which featured the country’s best athletes goes back to school days when competing for Norfolk in the intermediate boys English Schools Cross Country Championship at Swindon in 1973. 

However, and going into it, my motto on the back of what I had always been told was: “Get to the front and stay there.” When it came to school, area, county and even Eastern Counties races, this was basically correct. 

It wasn’t quite the same when it came to competing on a national scale though. After a mad charge up a big hill, just after the start, I found myself in third place, sitting right behind the first two.  

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“Yes, I have done it,” or so I thought. However, what was to come next was certainly something I didn’t bargain for what with an even madder dash back down the other side before going straight up another hill whilst still running absolutely flat out. 

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At half-way I heard shouts of  47 – 48 – 49 – 50 in respect of the current race positions where I thought it was still not too bad, particularly as I knew I was ahead of all the other Norfolk athletes.   

After that it really was a case of trying to hang in there whilst feeling numb from the waist downwards amongst so many other runners. Some going past me and others going backwards. 

Then after what felt like an eternity, the finish was in sight where it was a case of pushing as hard as I could amongst what was still a huge bunch of athletes all fighting it out trying to pass each other if just to gain a couple of more places until across the line and put into roped off pens where a disc was put into your hand with your finishing position. 

I looked down at mine and it said 118. As much as that might seem really poor to those who might be reading this and don’t really follow the sport, this was in hindsight not too bad considering it was a race which consisted of the best eight young athletes from each county in England.  

I was indeed also the first Norfolk runner with one of our team having actually won an English Schools track title just two years before. If nothing else that is what I kept telling myself at the time to make myself feel better. The winner of the race did also go on to be an international for which many years later I finished ahead of him in a couple of road races evoking memories of that day in Swindon. 

The junior boys’ race was won by Eamonn Martin who of course went on to have a brilliant career on the track and cross country as well as winning the London Marathon whereas the senior boys’ race was won by one of Norfolk’s best ever athletes, Kevin Steere, with none other than Steve Ovett in second place, a long way behind him.  

Whilst Steve went on to set world records and win Olympic gold, Kevin didn’t hit the same heady heights as a senior athlete, but speaking to Steve Ovett about him many years later, it was so very clear that Steve really did have the greatest respect for him.  

I did also finish ahead of Kevin in the 1985 London Marathon, but still felt in awe when going over to nervously chat to him, such was the mark he had on all schoolboy athletes back in our day. 

In a nutshell, when it comes to racing against the very best in national cross-country events, the one thing you can be sure of is that every person who takes part will retain memories of their own personal day for many years to come.