Victory in the ‘wilderness’

43 women step off the treadmill, into the mud and on to the podium

Okay, we didn’t win the league, we came third. And it wasn’t in the wilderness, it was in Surrey. But I wanted something grand to catch your attention so I could share with you the real drama and achievements of this season’s Surrey Cross Country League as experienced by our club’s senior and veteran women athletes.

This cross-country season, in our 125th year, we made it on to the podium, with Herne Hill Harriers’ women claiming third place in the Surrey League. The ‘victory’ is that we’re getting better: last season (2012/2013) we made it to fifth place. This season we made it to third, with 487 points, after some closely fought battles with Thames Hare and Hounds, who came second with 456 points. Belgrave Harriers continued to be a commanding presence and won with an impressive 311 points. That we are contending with these very strong cross country clubs is, however, extremely encouraging – and very exciting.

I say ‘we’ – and it most definitely is ‘we’, given the camaraderie among HHH’s senior women – but for now a few words on the extraordinary efforts of some hardy, trusty and talented individuals. Where better to start than with our captain, Karen Ellison? In all four of her league races this season, she placed in the top 20, showing steel, determination – and speed. Karen also has true grit, as she showed at the ECCA National Championships where she came 73rd. We know, of course, that she was also the first qualifying woman home, and trophy winner, in the South of Thames 5 Mile Championships. We are very lucky to have her showing us the way. Lucky, too, to have the wonderful Helen Hadjam and Julia Wedmore, two of our other top scorers, who have reliably – and tirelessly! – turned in very strong performances in the league races.

Where would we be, also, without our other scoring athletes: Cathy Ansell, who ran two dazzling races coming 1st and 3rd at Coulsdon and Lightwater respectively, Nikki Sturzaker, Cleo Bartholomew, Ieva Lobaciute, Ceri Diss, Sue Swaine, Jo Ritson and Fiona Brown? And where indeed without the other 32 valiant team members, many of them competing in all four events, ensuring that our scoring runners held their positions by fending off the challenges of our competitors? All of them strong and battle-ready.

In what other way is this season one of ‘victory’? I can find 43 women who will tell you the answer. That’s right: 43! This season we had one of the highest numbers of senior and veteran women taking part in the Surrey Cross-Country League. Every one of them temporarily turning her back on the comforts of modern London to embrace all the mud and chill that Surrey can offer. During the wettest winter in England since 1766, these women fearlessly stepped off the treadmill and into the mud.

Which brings me to the ‘wilderness’ effect: defined as the psychological effect of being in wilderness for a period of a week or more…fundamentally it involves “feelings of expansion or reconnection”. As I’ve conceded, Wimbledon Common and Lloyd Park don’t really qualify as ‘wilderness’ and even my race times aren’t clocking in at ‘a week or more’. Yet, for the forty something minutes of a race, I think I approach something like “feelings of expansion or reconnection”. Others tell me the same. They like the wild challenge of running ‘off-piste’, up-hill and cross-country. And that, too, is our victory.

Hayley Cook