TEN MILES CROSS-COUNTRY
ALTHOUGH he lost some time at the barriers, he won fairly easily.” That’s what a Durban (South African) reporter had to say about me in the 1923 Natal cross-country championship. My version would have been somewhat different, anyhow as regards the ‘: fairly easily.”
I had recently won the 54-mile Comrade’s Marathon and, knowing that useful experience was always to be gained by a reasonable amount of competition, entered for this ten miles race. From the papers I gathered that because I could win a fifty-miler with plenty to spare, ten miles ought to be a mere tarradiddle and I ought to walk away with it ; evidently the reporters hadn’t been crosscountry men in their time. I didn’t agree with them at all ; in fact I knew that any decently trained ten-mile man could put it across me at that distance without batting an eyelid. But anyway I was out to learn what I could, so my entry went in.
I was then in my forty-first year. From all sides I heard that there was only one man likely to really worry me, and that was C. B. Tod, a youngster of nineteen who had won the title the previous year, and who would no doubt like to retain it. Very good : if Tod were well trained he’d have things all his own way ;
but I guessed all the same that he might be inclined to rely on youth to conquer age, as it so often does. If he wasn’t in real good trim he’d have to learn the lesson.
The course, with which I was unacquainted, was four laps of two and a half miles each, round the outer edge of Clairwood racecourse where spectators on the stands could view us all the time. The pistol started us off and I noted at once that Tod didn’t spring to the front any more than I did ; in spite of his short experience he evidently knew a thing or two.
After five minutes or so I had settled down to a steady ten miles per hour which was my top racing speed, and Tod was only a few yards ahead with half-a-dozen well in front of him. We arrived at the first hurdle, a permanent fixture about 3 ft. high laced with brushwood, and the men in front sailed over it like a covey of partridges. I didn’t. I hadn’t done any jumping practice for a score of years and was quite unable to clear such a thing without taking risks. The only way I could decently manage was by landing with one foot on top and thus ” walking ” over it, and of course this meant slowing down so that I lost quite a few yards. – Next we came to a ditch about six feet deep and seven across. Like the others I jumped this, but the amount of effort I had to put into it warned me that it would be too risky to repeat the performance when I came round again. Two more hurdles, at each of which I lost a few yards, and we completed the first lap.
It was encouraging to note that in spite of the obstacles I hadn’t lost anything in position so far ; the bunch in the lead hadn’t altered, but Tod, who was probably keeping an eye on me as I was on him, was still my immediate neighbour, and showed no signs of running away.
I worked my passage over the first hurdle again and went on to the broad jump. This time I deliberately let myself down into the ditch and then had to run fifteen yards to the side of it before I could scramble out. This cost me quite a bit of ground, but by extending a trifle for the next quarter-mile I caught up with my rival once more. This went on for another lap and a bit more, after which Tod and I found ourselves in the lead, having outrun all the others. I dared not attempt anything more in the way of speed at this point so had to be content to let him lead the way.
Presently we came to the last lap. Tod approached the first hurdle at a point where it had been partly knocked down and quite naturally strode over what was directly in front of him. An official immediately stopped him and told him to return and take the hurdle at its standard height. Quite right, no doubt, but it seemed to me to be a bit of monstrous bad luck—why hadn’t the official guarded the broken part so as to avoid such a mishap ? That little contretemps put me well in the lead—I don’t know how much for I didn’t look back—but I felt it would be most unfair to take advantage of his unintentional mistake, and deliberately slowed down to seven an hour till he had levelled up again. He soon managed that, and once more we were at it hammer and tongs.
Again I lost sixty yards or so at that confounded jump but once more was able to make it up, and of course I realised that the real tussle was at hand. When the last hurdle was cleared there was only some six hundred yards to the tape, and if I didn’t go all out then I felt I should probably lose. Experience had taught me that quickening my stride would help me much more than trying to lengthen it, and I started to pep it up at once.
Slowly I became aware of a gap, and an increasing one—Tod’s footfalls’ were becoming less distinct—but that really didn’t mean much because, on account of his age, he might be capable of putting in a sprint which would have knocked spots off my best endeavours ; sprinting had been no part of my training and I just couldn’t do anything decent in that line. So I stuck to my effort, even adding slightly to it in an attempt to put so much between us that even a sprint on his part would fail to overtake me. It was a real tough finish, especially as I knew that at any moment I might see him shoot past me, but I got home in first place after all. It was then that I discovered my lead—about 100 yards—had worked the oracle : the expected sprint had not materialised.
Now you can understand why, when I saw the report in the paper next day, I thought the ” easy win ” was more flattering than correct.
Time : 65 min. 21 two-fifths seconds.