Thursday, March 27, 2003

Cross Country

Don’t get me wrong, we loved school sports. In the autumn we got rugby, followed by a spring of football and a summer of athletics. Even the most lethargic of kids would take part, a testiment to the enthusiasm of Mr Prince and Mr Curtis. They really cared about the kids in their charge, letting us play hard and free, while keeping us under the rod of iron discipline.

If everything was so great, then why did the sadistic bastards keep sending us on cross-country runs? Right in the middle of bastard winter, too, when there were ice-cold howling gales in your face no matter which way you were facing. My friend Tom who went to school in urban Hounslow has the same complaint. Is there a league of sadistic games teachers out there, or is there a law against sending kids out into the countryside during the summer?

Our school was drawn from three country villages, and was built between them right in the middle of farmland just outside of Reading. Running behind the school was the railway line to Henley-on-Thames, with sweeping views of the local sewage works and the River Thames.

And right in the middle of that was Prinny’s tried-and-test cross-country course. For decades, the man has sent the cream of the Thames Valley out into those fields, some as punishment, some in competition, and most perversely, some because they loved it; to run the three miles down to the river and back.

It was called “The Sewers”, because that’s what it was. A run round the sewage works, with the smell of shit forcing itself up your nostrils as you struggled for breath. The girls weren’t even spared this hell - they had “The Short Sewers”, an abbreviated version of the course, no less shitty and if anything, even muddier than the boys’ course.

The first mile or so was relatively easy - a jog across the school field, up the main road to the farm track. Tarmac all the way and fine if you liked that sort of thing. The farm track wasn’t too bad either. There’s the odd pothole filled with water, and with a leap and a bound you jumped over it and headed on towards the sewage works.

Stop smiling you fools, that's not mud

That’s when it hit you. The fetid smell of shit, piss and God knows what else, with the knowledge that it is also YOUR crap that’s in there. Crap that’s then pumped back into the Thames for the people of London to drink. Off the farm track and down the path to the river. And that’s when it got horrible. You were no longer running on a track, you were now in the Somme. With every step, your foot sunk into the goo up to the ankle. Mud built up on your feet like giant dinner-plates, making running nigh on impossible. But run we did.

I was running ten yards behind little Steve. He was waning, energy being sapped out of him yard by yard. I wasn’t doing terribly well either. Suddenly Stevie was gone. He’d run into a puddle, thinking that like the rest it would only be ankle deep. This one was a trench about two feet in depth, and he’d fallen in head first and was swimming for his life.

I had to stop and fish him out with the help of another couple of runners. He was covered head to toe in mud, his face a look of steely determination with the thousand-yard-stare of a shell-shocked soldier. As we pulled him free of the quagmire, his legs were actually still going, so we faced him in the right direction and off he went with the rest of us following.

At the front of the course was Jimmy. Jim, so it turned out, was a county-class runner who actually enjoyed this kind of thing. He had just moved to the school, and desperately wanted to make a good impression of himself for Mr Prince. He was miles out in front.

Before the race, Prinny told him the route so he wouldn’t get lost. “Down to the river, follow the path along until you get to the railway. Then follow the railway line back to school.” Couldn’t be simpler than that, could it?

Unfortunately, Prinny didn’t realise that Jimmy wasn’t playing with a full deck. He could run like the wind, but you needed to tell him when to start and stop and someone to tell him which way to face, otherwise he could end up anywhere. You can just imagine where this is heading...

“...Follow the railway line back to school...”

So he did. He vaulted the thin wire fence and ran along the railway line. What the hell, the rest of the race, struggling for breath, freezing cold and soaking wet all followed him. It was like that scene from the Railway Children, only without Jenny Agutter to save our lives. Jim reached the school, and finding that the fence was now twenty feet high with no way through, kept on going.

At that point, if the station-master at Wargrave hadn’t called the police, we’d have been halfway to London before we realised something was up.

Police cars and vans screeched to a halt on the bridge. Boys were physically dragged up the embankment, where, not knowing what to do with us, let us run back to the school. Stevie, still covered head to toe in shit, refused all help, giving the evil eye to the coppers as they tried to reach for him. Sensibly they let him go, and one-by-one we arrived back at the sports hall.

Prinny went ballistic. He was lost for words, waving his hands over his head as his mouth opened and closed noiselessly. Eventually, he managed to speak:

“You... you... you... twats! Are you trying to lose me my job?”

“But, sir, you told us....” said Jim.

“Never mind what I said! Haven’t you got a brain in your head?”

Apparantly not.

The next week he made us all do it again. The previous seven days had seen rain only previously witnessed by people saying “Hey, Noah! Stop working on that stupid ark of yours and come join us worshipping this false idol.” Jim, streaking away at the front and deaf to our cries of “Come back you stupid tart!”, turned the wrong way out of the school and ended up in Henley, and was rescued hours later by Mr Curtis in his car. The rest of us stuck grimly to the course, which was even muddier than the week before, arriving back in the playground, exhausted, each and every one of us fully qualified for our long distance swimming certificates.

Little Stevie is still missing.

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