Cheering on a succession of grey haired people in vests

Kevin Haighton was standing on a hill in a yellow tabard, cheering on a succession of grey haired people in vests running past him with determination in their eyes.

By David Bocking
Friday, 18th March 2022, 8:09 am
Updated Friday, 18th March 2022, 8:09 am

“I did my first cross country four weeks ago in Pontefract,” the 61-year-old said.

“It was amazing, but really really tough. I think there were nearly 600 runners and there were only three behind me, the marshals were clearing up the flags at the end and I had to navigate by the indentations in the grass. I was a complete sweat-soaked wreck when I finished, but I loved it, and want to do more.”

Last Saturday, Kevin was part of the marshalling team hosting the first Yorkshire Veterans Athletics Association Cross Country Championship since Covid arrived, held this year at Norfolk Park, and hosted by Kevin’s running club, the Steel City Striders.

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Yorks Veterans Athletics Assn. Cross Country Championships at Norfolk Park.

To be fair, some runners did not have grey hair, since veterans in the athletics context means anyone over the age of 35 - but of the 262 club runners who came to Sheffield from all over Yorkshire last weekend, plenty were in their late 70s, and some in their 80s.

“In my view, people are staying younger for longer, maybe it comes out of the 1970s punk ethos, and just carrying on getting involved, ” said race director Richard Pegg, who was 17 when the Sex Pistols released Anarchy in the UK.

“Look at that guy, for example” Richard said, indicating a white haired runner towards the back of the field in the M70+ category pounding down a nearby slope. “He’s struggling a bit now, but I bet he was running three hour marathons in his 30s or 40s.”

Cross country is a really hard and really friendly running discipline, both at the same time, and takes place usually on grass and mud that’s forgiving on older bones and muscles. All of which makes it a popular sport for people who may have been running competitively for most of their lives, but still want to take part and ideally beat a few folk in their age category.

Yorks Veterans Athletics Assn. Cross Country Championships at Norfolk Park - Roger Bradley in the M75+ category

“You tend not to look at your watch all the time, all you do is try to catch the next person and not be caught yourself,” said Richard.

Norfolk Park has long been a popular and picturesque venue for mud-based athletic fun, with cross country running for all ages and cyclo cross taking place in years past.

“It’s a fantastic, proper cross country course,” said Rob Kersey, the YVAA cross country championship coordinator. “It’s got uphills and downhills and all sorts off terrain, not like some of the flat courses you see on the telly.”

There was some disappointment, however. After a night of heavy rain, the traditionally boggy lowlands of Norfolk Park were barely muddy at all. “Unfortunately it’s still dry today,” sighed Richard Pegg. “The water table must be too low.”

Deborah Richards (Sheffield) & Nichola McNally (Penistone).

Jacqui Herring enjoyed herself anyway. “I like the challenge,” she said. “People have those memories of being forced to run round a field at cross country at school, and it’s horrific, but it’s not like that at all, it’s so friendly, and it’s for all abilities, you don’t have to be super fast, you’re just part of a team. But I do like the mud, for me the more mud the better.”

As the veterans galloped around the distant hillsides, onlookers debated the growth of running among elder Yorkshirefolk. Maybe parkrun has had an influence, maybe public health messaging for the over 50s is working, and possibly the increased activity under the early pandemic lockdowns has led to more people taking up walking, then running, and enjoying it so much they then fancy competing against others up terrible steep hills.

“There’s a camaraderie in running,” said Kevin Haighton, “and with what’s going on in the world, I think there’s the need to keep moving and get off our backsides and enjoy life while we’ve got the chance.”

As happy veterans bowled across the finish line, 62 year old Richard said: “People of our age are going to keep going until we drop.”

Yorks Veterans Athletics Assn. Cross Country Championships at Norfolk Park.

More info & results:

Kate Scott coming in 2nd in the F55 category.
Cross Country Championships at Norfolk Park.