Cross country running is a very British pastime traditionally  carried out in the dead of winter when cold weather, mud and rain conspire to attract only the hardiest of souls.

I hadn’t run a cross country race since I was a schoolboy but the intervening 30 years seemed like yesterday as I waited for the off in a muddy field in north east London.

London is not renowned  for its cross country but every spring its acolytes will find a stern test in the shape of Epping Forest’s Orion 15.

This historic race, which began as a 15 mile ‘constitutional’ run in 1923 by host club Orion Harriers, offers a lung bursting 15 mile course which twist and turns and slithers and slides  its way through London’s largest remaining tract of woodland.

It’s a real gathering of the tribes. The Mornington Chasers rub shoulders with the Springfield Striders, while the Fairlands Valley Spartans size up the threat posed by the Ipswich Jaffers and Thurrock Nomads.

The Orion 15 entry letter gives competitors fair warning of what they are letting themselves in for with an introductory ‘Dear runner, friend and lover of mud, hills and puddles’ together with a course description of  ’hills, forest trails, fields, hills, horse rides, some hills and not a little mud.’

It certainly lives up to its reputation as the starter’s gun lets loose a jostling mass of several hundred runners. No sooner have we slid around the first bend then the mud is upon us.

Is is, of course, worse for us slow coaches at the back who plough a furrow through the churning ankle deep morass  left by the rest of the field.

The mud claims victims straight away sucking off a shoe here and there  to howls of anguish while one  unfortunate lands on his knees only to be knocked down by the ensuing change .

Someone else grasps vainly at a tree branch before ending up on his back. An old hand ploughs through the thick of it  with a sage ‘you’re going to get muddy so get on with it son.’

The course certainly tips its hat to cross country’s equestrian roots when runners held the human equivalent of ‘horse and hound’ races with one or two athletes chased by a relentless pack.

The brief respite of firm ground offered by bridle-ways and snatches of road is replaced by an assault course of muddy trails, water filled ditches, stiles, ankle turning tree roots and hill after lung busting hill.

I’m feel surprisingly good after what I think is three miles only to turn the corner and see the luminous one mile marker. I feel the energy drain out of me  at the thought of another 14 miles as I’m elbowed into a bramble bush by a passing runner with a brisk ‘make way, make way.’

I settle for a slow jog trot and ignore the markers after that along with the forest’s rich history which including a hunting lodge used by Queen Elizabeth, highwayman Dick Turpin’s hideout, a grove of fruit trees nurtured by Lawrence of Arabia and a grand obelisk making the meridian line.

I thankfully make the nine mile cut-off of one hour and 30 minutes after which slower runners are asked to retire and only remember the remaining miles seeming to get slower and longer the closer I get to the finish.

I finally stagger across the line in 130h position – a solid half-an-hour  after the winner – to polite applause and a celebratory cup of Buck’s Fizz.

Never again? I’ll be back next year.


Marathon runner Harmander Singh likes to dress up for the big occasion and has completed the London Marathon a knee trembling 25 times in a variety of guises including Obelisk the Gaul, Wee Willy Winky and as a nurse.

The indefatigable 50 year-old has raised thousands of pounds for charity since running his first marathon aged 24 and has competed in 43 marathons all over the world.

Harmander now passes on his experience of long-distance running to people wanting to get in shape through the ‘Sikhs In The City’ Running Club who meet every Sunday morning in Redbridge, east London.

“We’re always looking for people to join,” says Harmander whose most high profile success was training the then 89 year-old Fauja Singh to run his first marathon in just ten weeks.

Fauja was a poster boy in Adidas’s ‘Impossible is Northing’ campaign and also competes in road races as a member of Sikhs in the City whose four members have a combined age of 336 years.

Harmander added: “We have a 2km circuit of local roads marked out which people run around. I always jog or walk alongside new members to assess their fitness, work out a training programme and assign a ‘running buddy’ of similar ability. We take people of all ages and abilities so don’t be shy about coming along.”

His combination of encouragement and gentle leg pulling has certainly got some impressive results and his enthusiasm for running infectious.

“We have one member who was overweight and recovering from a heart condition who ran a marathon within 18 months and another who’d never run before but was clocking up15km in a matter of weeks and couldn’t believe how fast she lost weight.

“Running can really change your life. You don’t need expensive equipment or membership fees bar a decent pair of running shoes.

“It’s all about personal achievement and we are here to help people reach whatever goals they set themselves as long as they show commitment.”

Harmander has an unusual if honest motivational tool for new members.

“I tell people to go home, take their clothes off, stand in front of the mirror and ask themselves if they like what they see.

“I ask them to acknowledge it has taken a lot of time, money and effort to get in that condition and that re-directing even half that effort into getting in shape will work wonders.

“My advice is be realistic and work towards a goal. It’s amazing what you can achieve over a period of time with sustained effort.”

The father of four discovered his own love of running as an errant schoolboy growing up in south Ilford and still enjoys the sense of freedom it gives him.

“I find running a great way of keeping in shape and getting rid of stress.

“It also brings people together. I’m a firm believer that there is only one race of people and that’s the human race.”

Harmander’s commitment to helping people is a reflection of his Sikh faith and the Sikhs In The City Runners simply present him with another opportunity to help the community.

So does anyone else in the Singh family run?

“Oh yes. I’m a baby really. To date, I‘ve run 43 marathons but my uncle is way ahead of me on 111 at the age of 66.”

If you would like to get in shape, why not join the Sikhs In The City Runners on Sunday mornings and take the first step towards realising your goals of living a healthier live. Harmander would like to hear from anyone interested in joining on 07858 94 6868 or

It is free to join the club but you can also join the Sikh Sport Association on a rather novel membership (you don’t have to be a Sikh to join). Simply subtract you age from 100 and that is your lifetime fee. Membership will give you access to a year round calendar of sports events and activities. For details, speak to Harmander.

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