As the ultra running season has drawn to a close and the next races are a few months away it is time to refocus and give the body a bit of time to rest.

Rest can be a relative term as it doesn’t have to mean a complete break. In the case of long distance running or triathlon a proper break of 2-4 weeks will do mind and body the world of good.

From a psychological point of view having nothing particular to focus on can be very liberating: Just throwing in the occasional training session here or there because you fancy it instead of doing the session because you have to.

Similar can be said about doing some short course racing in the off season. Lots of long course athletes spend a lot of time working out at a steady effort keeping speed work to a minimum. If you shy away from doing speed work during the season doing some short course racing over the winter off season months can give you some much needed speed impetus.

A popular off season racing option are cross country (XC) races. These are usually between 5-10km long, locally organised and run in near enough all conditions. The surfaces they are run on can vary from fields, woodland, hills, trails, river crossings and depending on the weather conditions these can be dry, muddy, icy or snowy.

This winter is the 2nd season that I am competing in the Border XC series in the Scottish Borders. I find they help in keeping winter training fun when not much else is happening.
Due to the late end to my racing season (Beacons Ultra on November 17) I had to miss out on the first to events of the 2012/13 series which were held in Lauder and Dunbar. The first one I did get to race in was at Peebles on December 2.

I had run Peebles in 2011 too and was not impressed with my race effort there as I felt that the conditions didn’t suit me at all. It had been very muddy and hard going under foot.
2012 was a completely different story. There had been a bit of snow fall the previous night and we had a spell of sub zero temperatures which meant the ground was frozen. So we’d be running on a frozen surface with a 3-5 cm layer of snow. I was looking forward to it.
Seeing what the conditions would be like I was looking forward to the race as I felt this would suit me. On the other hand I had done no speed work in 2012 whatsoever (except for the odd club session here or there and one downhill 10k race in August) and wasn’t expecting to have much speed in my legs.

As usual though I lined up close to the front and got into a reasonable position. Initially this race loops round a park before following a river path, then looping back, crossing the river over an old railway bridge. This is followed by a woodland section and a climb up and down a hill through fields with the final section being along a tricky bit of old railway line.
I held my own round the field passing a few runners and being passed by others. The section along the river was tricky as there were some icy stretches under foot. This is the first time I realised that XC spikes would be beneficial (I was racing in my usual trail shoes). That said, where it wasn’t icy I was doing well and picking up the odd place here and there. This was in stark contrast to 2011 where once on the river section I just continued to go backwards. The pattern stayed the same for most of the rest of the race and I was moving quite nicely through the field especially when it started going uphill. I lost a couple of places on the descent after the big hill to runners who were clearly more at home at off road descending than I was.

I held my own against one runner on the final section to secure 30th place out of 220 runners. Last year I had finished 50th out of 170. My time was a bit slower but I only realised afterwards that the organisers had added a couple of extra doglegs to the course which will have added the best part of an extra minute to most runners times. So, on the old course my time would have most likely been faster.

To say the very least I was surprised at the pace I had. In ultra running circles there is an ongoing debate if there is a need for ultra runners to do speed work or not. This race result of mine would suggest that speed work may not be all that important as not having done any appears to have produced a more than speedy result. I think though this as a theory only works if there is a speed base there in the first place. The large amount of mileage I have done in 2012 has helped produce a very strong engine. The XC race itself will lend itself rather well to adding that bit of speed impetus during the off season which will also have a knock on effect for the pace you can run in long distance training and races.