The best and worst of Christmas: Ordeal by mud in the Boxing Day scramble

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Indy Lifestyle Online
There are less punishing ways to spend Boxing Day. You might, for instance, go up to the person who has been outside a West End store for six weeks waiting for the sales to start and tell them to get to the back of the queue. Or you could go into the Arsenal end at a north London derby and question George Graham's parenthood. Or you could go and lie on the course at Kempton Park and wait for the King George VI Chase to start.

At my in-laws' house, such post-Christmas behaviour would be considered wimpish. At their place, on Boxing Day morning you go for a run. This is no simple jog to clear the head. While the rest of the nation groans in bed, or pours milk and sugar over its turkey flakes for breakfast, our family goes for a nine-mile competitive pelt through the Oxfordshire countryside. Anyone declining the invitation to take part can look forward to a new year of derision.

My introduction to the ritual was when I was still courting. My wife has eight brothers, none shorter than 6ft, who saw it as their role in life to put her boyfriends to the test. One suitor, who had a large nose, was once relaxing in the family's sitting room when he noticed, being lowered from the bedroom above, a huge, cardboard proboscis bouncing around outside the window.

At my first Sunday lunch at their house, the boys eyed me suspiciously throughout the meal and then suggested we all go out motorbike scrambling. What they neglected to inform me until we arrived at the mud-packed course in a nearby wood was that they did not actually have any motorbikes. Instead, I had to run through the wood, hands held up in front of my face as if holding handlebars, making a roaring, engine-like noise. My performance in the race would be timed.

The first time, I assumed it was part of the test and thought I had better take part. My future father-in-law was the chief timer, my wife-to-be was stationed in a car halfway round the course to check there was no cheating and my future sister-in-law went ahead on her horse.

I knew I was in trouble from the start, lining up against a team of lads who were not so much fit as machine-like. I came in an admirable last, the soles of my feet looking uncannily like the turkey at the end of the previous day's lunch. The boys seemed pleased. Here was someone stupid enough to compete, yet bad enough to beat: the perfect rival.

Every other year since, I have taken part in the race. It is not the running of it which depresses me so much as the build- up. From the moment the family gathers on Christmas Eve, the talk is of little else. 'I'm feeling quietly confident,' everyone says. Throughout Christmas Day bets are laid, strategies formulated, sabotage attempted ('have another mince pie, tee hee'). It must be the only house in Britain where the sixth glass of seasonal cheer is refused.

Last year, I kept them in sight most of the way. About a mile from home I saw one of the boys struggle, then fall to his knees and vomit copiously into the hedgerow. I swished past him and headed for the drive in the rarified atmosphere of next-to-last. With only yards to go, though, I heard him steaming up behind me. Like Steve Cram in the 1988 Olympics, I put my foot down - but there was nothing there. He galloped past on the finishing line and collapsed on the ground. When he had recovered, which was some time later, he informed me that it was bad enough to come last of the brothers, but to have lost to me would have been total humiliation.

This year it looked as though I had escaped. It is my side of the family's turn and Boxing Day with them involves nothing more strenuous than a marathon game of cards. Unfortunately, as they are all coming to our house and there is no room for them to stay the night, we found ourselves free on the 26th. My mother-in- law sweetly invited us over for the day. 'Come early,' she said. 'The boys will be relieved that you can go on the run.'

Apparently, they had all been a bit worried about the possibility of coming last.

(Photograph omitted)

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