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SOAR X: Why cross country running is where heroes are made

SOAR X: Why cross country running is where heroes are made

Ten everyday runners, two renowned coaches, and an elite training programme like no other. 

You don’t enter a cross-country race by accident. It’s a gruelling, mud-slathered world of dark Saturday afternoons chasing other runners around a field. This is no charity run. No one here believes in the taking part; it’s the performance that counts. You can leave your GPS watch at home, for cross-country is not about the time you run but the people you beat. Because a race time doesn’t tell you about sideways rain, stiff wind, and slick grass. But your place among your fellow racers? That’s where the reckoning is made.

That’s why we chose cross-country for the SOAR X programme. Our idea? To see what happens if you bring together ten everyday runners, and treat them like elite athletes. That was the core premise of SOAR X, our training group unlike any other: tightly goal-oriented, built on the same principles used by the elites, and tested against the finest runners in the country.

Meet the experts

We convinced Matt Yates, top coach and former European indoor 1500m champion, to coach ten everyday runners over ten weeks and two races – and see how they got on. At Matt’s side was Barry Ewell, assistant coach, time keeper, and repository of everything you’d ever want to know about running. Together, Matt and Barry treated the SOAR X runners just as they would their stable of Olympic hopefuls: dishing out bespoke and meticulous training plans, gruelling sessions, and lashings of trackside humour.

At SOAR, we know true performance comes from close attention to detail. We wanted to make sure, in building the SOAR community, that we didn’t become just another loose association of runners. That’s not how we, or Matt and Barry, work. So we focused on two cross-country races – one in the middle of training, and one at the end. That would give us results to improve on, and keep everything we did, individually and as a team, closely focused on the end goal. 

We didn’t want to hide away in a quiet corner of the cross-country scene, so we chose the London Metropolitan League, widely recognised as the highest quality, most competitive league in the UK. No messing about, then.

Cross-country is a serious business

For many people, cross-country is a distant, miserable school memory. Why on earth would you add it to your lovely grown-up running regime? Well, few disciplines are quite so hard, or so good for you: the soft ground and tough conditions make you stronger, fitter, and faster. It’s a brilliant way to stay focused over the dark winter months, and lay the groundwork for success on the summer track. But what does it involve?

No two races are the same, but they are variations on a theme: cold, miserable weather, ever-deepening mud, and the raw instinct of the competition. Viewed from the sidelines, it’s a bizarre way to spend your weekend. For the few who dare to take part, though, there’s nothing better: there is something pure and primeval in cross-country, and it’s one of the few places you’ll find elite runners in the same line-up as local clubs.

Training in the shadow of the greats

Although the SOAR X runners are not elites, they’re all seasoned and committed runners. There was no age limit, so the group ranged from people in their 20s to 60s, and there were no specific requirements, just that the group were of a similar enough standard to work well together in group sessions, with the commitment to succeed over the ten weeks. And they had to be able to get to the track in East London every week – the same track that the likes of Usain Bolt and Mo Farah warmed up on for the London 2017 World Championships.

Many of our team had run the classic race distances: a 10K, a half, or a marathon – but often these efforts were guided by a rough plan taken from the Internet. No one had trained like a pro before. Few had even trained as a group.

Inside a runner’s mind

How did it feel to make the change from running solo to training and racing as a team? To find out, we caught up with one of our SOAR X runners, Jon Regan, shortly after the programme finished. An IT manager at Thames Water, Jon grew up in Yorkshire, lives in London, and had just run the Amsterdam marathon in 2:49 when he joined the programme.

One of the first changes Jon noticed was the process and mindset of training with a professional coach. Matt insists on the importance of small things – the kit you wear, when you wear it, staying hydrated, resting properly, choosing the right spikes. “It was a big learning curve, going to the track to train,” says Jon. “Discovering how it all works took time: the etiquette, and what to turn up in. You wear lots of layers, then you warm up, then stretch, then you do drills, then suddenly you change into your fast shoes and you’re ready to race. I found that routine really useful.”

There was no let-up just because the SOAR X team weren’t aiming for the Olympics. “He treated us as elite athletes,” says Jon. “You do the work, and you get something out of it. It was a proper, serious approach. You get told off if you don’t have leggings on for the warm up.” There were occasional military-style beastings too, of course.

Coach-led sessions are notoriously tough – which is why the physical aspects of training like an elite athlete probably come to mind first. But the mental preparation is often just as important: all of our SOAR X runners were coached in thinking like a pro – not just running like one. For Jon, that meant breaking each part of the race into manageable chunks, with clear goals, and knowing exactly what you should be doing at every moment of the race.

Train like a pro. Even when you’re a new dad.

Jon experienced big changes over the ten-week period – and not just in terms of splits. On the afternoon of the first race, he finished 111th out of 500 – just missing his goal of finishing in the top 100.

It was a good start, but he didn’t have much time to celebrate. Moments after finishing the race, he got a call to say his wife had gone into labour. Next thing he knew, he was at the hospital, still in his race kit. “I was sitting there with mud on my calves, and I was stinking,” he says.

So did having a newborn baby on the scene mean he skipped his training? Not a bit. “I had basically the whole of December off with paternity leave and holiday, so it meant I could make every one of the training sessions, and get my runs in in between,” he says. “I could probably have done with a bit more sleep, but that’s all.”

Focus hard. Then win.

As soon as the results were in from the first race, Jon knew the names of the people he had to beat next time. In those final weeks of training, everything started to come together. The months of hard work looked like they might just pay off.

A cross-country race meet can feel like a niche affair: lots of people in tiny shorts and club vests, keeping to themselves and keen to see newcomers – especially upstarts in SOAR X performance running wear – fail. Jon admits it was a bit daunting. “I had butterflies, definitely. I was thinking, ‘what if I’ve spent all this time working my bollocks off and it comes to nothing?’”

But the SOAR X group warmed up exactly as they would at the track, working through a routine that was now familiar. “Others were just standing about, having a sausage roll and fag,” jokes Jon.

Under the guidance of Matt and Barry, veterans of the Wormwood Scrubs course, Jon knew exactly where he should overtake, and where to keep pace in the narrow sections. All these mental tricks make the difference between an amateur mindset and an elite one.

It worked: Jon finished 92nd out of 500 in the field. An astonishing result, for the IT manager still just a few weeks into being a dad.

The legacy  

Has the SOAR X programme made a lasting difference to Jon’s running? Absolutely. He came first in his local parkrun just after Christmas. When we catch up with him, he’s got his sights set on a new PB at the Hackney Marshes parkrun at the weekend, and he’s aching from a tough self-imposed session in Shoreditch park the day before.

The SOAR X programme has transformed his approach to running. “Before training with Matt and Barry,” he says, “About 80% of my runs were open-ended vacuous plods, and about 20% would be tempo runs for a 5K. Now it’s the opposite: all of my runs have a really specific purpose. I work hard, and get much more for the same amount of time put in. Plus I can be out and back within an hour now – which keeps my wife happy.”

The day after we talk, he sends a message from the parkrun: ‘It was cold, wet, and slippery but I smashed it. 53 seconds off my PB, so I broke the 17-minute barrier. 16:56. Never thought I’d do that!’

We couldn’t have hoped for better results from the Soar community.

 

The SOAR X are:

Alan, who went from finishing 227th in race 1, to knock off 14 places finishing 213th in race 2.  Alan is now focused on using the speed he honed during the SOAR X to crack the 18 minute mark at parkrun, and one day running his dream race – the Marathon des Sables.

Jack, who was Mr. Consistency, securing 177th and 179th place in the two races respectively. Jack is now set to chip away at his road PBs from 5k upwards, as well making his first foray into track racing this summer.

James, who finished 434th and 437th in the two races, and in doing so, took the scalps of a number of personal targets. James bagged a parkrun PB of 21:33 during the programme and is now looking to implement all he learnt in his own coaching roles.

Jess, who finished 56th and 78th in the two races, despite being hampered by a lost spike in race 2! Jess ran a parkrun PB of 20:54 during the programme and is gearing up to unleash her newfound speed over a summer triathlon season.

John, who finished 390th in race 2, securing 3rd place in his age category in the process. John has since smashed the 20 minute barrier at parkrun, placing him in the top 40 V60s in the UK this year.

Jon, who achieved his goal of breaking into the top 100, going from 111th in race 1 up to 92nd in race 2. Jon has since gone on to run a big parkrun PB – knocking off 53 seconds for a 16:56 clocking.

Josh, who finished in 391st and 440th place in the 2 races and is now looking forward to using all he learnt in the SOAR X as he races trail and ultra marathons.

Lucy Hughes, who gained 17 places over the 2 races, going from 86th in race 1 to 69th in race 2.  Lucy has since continued her progression - setting a new parkrun PB of 20:42, knocking off a whopping 37 seconds from her previous best.

Lucy T, who finished 160th in race 1 before being laid low by injury. Not to be disheartened, Lucy is on the road to recovery and anticipating using all she learnt in the SOAR X to good effect.

Pat, who has now got the bug back for cross-country for the first time since his university days. After finishing 276th in race 2, Pat is looking to improve on this and continue to use all he learnt to run faster this spring and summer.

 

 

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