Real Cross Country from Cambridge, England

Glen Norcliffe writes

So, no auctions, no concerts and no free dinners this weekend, so what to do? Perhaps a short race. Go on line and find very little on offer except a race called “the race for wildlife”. Ambiguous, but could be my kind of race. It appears to be organized by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and will take place at Lakenheath Fen, which I find is about 80 km north east of Cambridge. Definitely my kind of race.

I search the bus and train systems and discover there is a station at Lakenheath, and the race organizers tell me that the station is close to the starting line—about 500m. I try to book a ticket on line, but the NatRail Web site wants 40 pounds for a return ticket which seems a bit steep (four times the cost of race entry). OK, won’t bother. But for some reason I check again, and this time using a booking site celled Red Spotted Hanky, and to my surprise it offered me a return ticket from Cambridge to Lakenheath Station for 10 pounds. I book. Then I notice on the web site that the train does not actually stop at Lakenheath, but goes to Thetford, further down the line. And sure enough the 3 car train sped through Lakenheath Station at 80 mph. But there was mention of an even smaller 2 car train from Thetford back towards Ely, via Lakenheath, and Lakenheath was a “request stop”. So as the next train came I asked the conductor if this was true. She looked at me in puzzlement– presumably because no one had ever actually asked her to stop at Lakenheath. After a few seconds she said “That’s possible”, and phoned the driver. I got on and she came back a minute later to check my ticket and said that a stop was arranged at Lakenheath. I mean, that was what was said on my ticket. Cambridge to Lakenheath and a ticket is as good as a contract.

Sure enough ten minute later I was back in Lakenheath, and this time the train did stop. I was the only person to get off, and I noticed the conductor watching me carefully to make sure that I really did want to get off. It had never happened before. What’s more, it wasn’t going to happen again in a hurry– the next train to stop at Lakenheath station was apparently due on Monday afternoon which raised interesting issues for my return journey. Could I stand on the platform and put out my hand and request another train to stop?

I trot to the race headquarters—a sort of large birdhouse. A handful of runners and a bunch of bird spotters were milling around. Turns out that yesterday someone claimed they saw a glossy ibis, but nobody confirmed it. Perhaps the spotter had one Marguerite too many? But if it were true it would be a rare sighting.

I register and see that there are two races. A 5 km and a 10 km, I pick 5 km and to my delight see that nearly everyone is doing the 10 km. They suggested that we might want to run with binoculars in case the glossy ibis showed up. I thought of shouting that I had seen the ibis at 1 km and, when the runners stopped to look, I could sprint through to fame and glory.

No gun at the start—it might startle the birds. The chief bird-spotter whispered “go”, and we were off dodging round serious bird-spotters carrying binoculars and cameras that were longer than bazookas. At 1.5 km the 10 km runners split off and head towards a fen, and to my amazement, I see that there is just one person in front of me! We go another kilometre then run up a bank which forms a levee beside the appropriately named River Ouse. From there we run back on this bank oozing with mud and cattle droppings. Then I see the cause of this salubrious footing: we have to run through a herd of brown cows. Perhaps the lead runner will panic or take a tumble in the mud or be blocked by a large brown cow. But by now my glasses are totally steamed up, and I have to take them off, which makes no difference. Worse, moles have been digging little holes all over the place, and my ankles are being twisted to their wooden limit. And to cap it off, a section of mud sucks my right shoe off. I see the chances of victory slipping away from me as I slither along the last 2 km back to the finish. But then someone put a lovely silver home made wooden medal round my neck and it was all worthwhile! And the winner was 50 years younger than me, so I could not begrudge him his success. And when another person told me that the winner lived near Thetford station, I congratulate him even more profusely on his excellent performance, bought him a coffee, and then let it drop that I had a 15 mile walk to Thetford Station to catch a train. He got the hint and I am now safely back in Cambridge recovering from my adventure.

Copyright Toronto Olympic Club 2019