National Cross Country Championships – Harewood House, Leeds – 23rd February 2019

December and January were a bit of a disaster for me running-wise. One chest infection seemed to follow another, although I did manage to squeeze in one cross-country and the Brass Monkey Half Marathon in a brief, mid-January hiatus to my unhealth.

Then we had a couple of weeks of icy conditions. That’s the one type of weather in which I do generally try to avoid running outside. Wind and rain are no problem. I love the heat. Snow is the best of all. But ice? It’s just dangerous unless you can run on grass, avoiding pavements altogether. When it’s icy outside, I resort to the treaded dreadmill.

In my humble opinion, just running mono-paced on a treadmill is quite possibly the most life-sapping activity known to humankind. So, I try to mix things up a bit. I have a couple of sets that I enjoy. With the incline at 2% to reflect running outside, I do 5 minutes at 12 kph, 10 minutes at 14kph and another 5 minutes at 16kph. That’s about 4.6km, so, if I have anything left, I try to make it up to 5km as fast as I can, up to 20 kph if the treadmill can go that fast.

The other set is more like a track session. 400m repeats at about 20kph followed by 60-90 seconds recovery. Most gym treadmills are occupied by people jogging along at a rather sedate pace, or even walking, holding onto the front rail. What’s the point in that? A treadmill going at 20kph actually makes quite a racket and you get a few weird looks as well. Follow up either of those sets with 2000m on a rowing machine and you have an excellent cardio session when you would otherwise be doing a good impression of Bambi on the pavements outside.

Anyway, the National Cross-Country Championships… I’ll try not to repeat much of my report on last year’s race in London. With the race being held in Leeds this year, we were able to get there and back by coach in a day and without a ridiculously early start either. So, at 8am, about twenty-five Gosforth Harriers and supporters clambered aboard and we made our way down to Leeds. The first race started at about 11am, so we had to be there well before then, making for a long day, with the senior men’s race not starting until 3pm.

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With the tent erected, we went on a recce of the course to see if there were any differences from the Northerns last year, held at the same venue, and to decide upon footwear. It was a 2-lapper of 6k per lap and it was, indeed, exactly the same course. Despite a slightly chilly, misty start, it was turning into the most gorgeous February day there has ever been. 15 degrees, not a cloud in the sky. Not a patch of mud either, in contrast to last year. As the day wore on, the ice cream van was doing a roaring trade.

The most important find on the recce was the underfoot conditions on one particular downhill. The right-hand side of the course was really badly rutted. The left-hand side of the course was as flat as anything. You could make some time and places by sticking left and, perhaps, avoid an injury. I also decided that spikes were the most appropriate for today. There were several parts of the course where you traverse across a slope, so you were running on a camber. For this, my tighter-fitting spikes would avoid my feet rolling around inside my looser fitting trail shoes. After some dithering, and changing twice, I decided upon 9mm pins which proved to be perfect.

The Nationals really is an fantastic event, with clubs from every corner of England setting up their tents alongside each other. The competition is obviously a step up from other events in all age groups, seeing some potential future Olympians winning their races. With still more than three hours before my race, I treated myself to a baguette filled to the brim with pulled pork. It was a bit bigger than I was expecting, but absolutely superb. In hindsight though, a high fat, high protein meal may not have been the best. The rest of the time was passed mostly sitting on the chair that I had brought, relaxing, chatting and enjoying the sunshine.

Onto racetime. My warm-up was pretty good. I felt fairly loose, and we were in our pen much earlier this year, getting our fastest runners to the front. We didn’t have a great draw, being on the far right-hand side and the first bend being a long, sweeping left-hander, but it must have been quite a sight to see 2000-plus runners streaming up the starting straight. The runner behind me may have been making a video as he was giving a running commentary about what an awesome experience it was to be part of it, as well as geeing up the crowd to cheer as we went past.

Space was a bit tight, as you’d expect, with the field still sorting itself out into natural order for the first mile which was slightly uphill. I saw a Saltwell Harrier whom I normally expect to beat by quite a way and was struggling to keep pace with him. Thinking back on it, I should have been aware that he was running much faster than he should have been, and hung back. But, with adrenalin and all that, I kept pace with him and went too fast up the course’s main hill on the second mile, a drag of a full half a mile. It was one of those occasions when I knew I was going too fast (6:35 for the first mile and 7:06 for the uphill second), but just didn’t slow down enough. I’d pay for that later.

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At the top of the hill, you take a right-hand turn and start a full mile of downhill. This was where the uneven ground was, so I stuck to the left and noticeably overtook quite a few runners down that stretch. Whereas I think I have lost a few yards of pace going uphill over the last couple of years, I think I’m quite a good downhill runner and tried to take advantage of it. Once again, probably going too fast with a third mile of 6:08. Running right behind the runner in front, I almost lost it on a narrow path on one of the sections with a difficult camber as I didn’t see the edge of the path and tripped up it, but just managed to stay upright.

Then comes the steepest uphill on the course. About 300m long and deceptive, with a false summit. I was blowing heavily, cursing myself, telling myself to stay relaxed and to keep my head up. The last 50 metres were painful. “Accelerate off the top,” I was telling myself. Yeah, right! I was barely moving forward by the top. At least, that’s what it felt like. We then had a good 300 metres of downhill back to the start/finish section to complete the lap in about 25 minutes. I tried to recover, but was moving noticeably slower than the first lap. I was suffering. Suffering to the extent of considering giving up. Others were. Drop-outs were regular sights, walking alongside the course back to the tents. I placated my self doubts by telling myself that if there wasn’t a point in a race where the preferred option is to stop, then you probably aren’t pushing yourself hard enough. My stomach wasn’t feeling great either though. Maybe that pork baguette was eaten half an hour too late. I didn’t have stomach cramps, but I felt bloated.

At this point, I caught sight of my main target this year in the Harrier League from North Shields Poly. I’ve beaten him once and he’s beaten me twice, but there’s never been more than a few seconds between us. I could use him as a pacer. I snuck in behind him, wanting to keep out of his sight as I suspected that seeing me would encourage him to go faster and that was the last thing I needed at that point. I was still in recovery mode.

For maybe a mile and a half, I did that until he slowed going down a short downhill and I overtook him. He looked over. We exchanged a brief greeting and then he put on a spurt and pulled away about 5 metres as we started going up the main hill again. I bridged those 5 metres and he pulled away again. I caught him and he pulled away again, this time putting 10, 20, 30 metres between us quite quickly. I was also passed by another North Shields Poly runner. I could see them both in the distance, and was now resigned to not catching them.

I had no other real benchmark to how I was doing. There are so many runners in a race of this size, that you are constantly passing and being passed and with so many unfamiliar vests that your brain cannot easily take it all in and remember individuals. I guessed I was losing places as I was definitely running slower on lap 2 than lap 1, but I also sensed I was passing people as well. There was another green and white striped vest about 15 metres ahead of me. There are only three clubs with these vests. Gosforth, Tipton and Woodford Green. It wasn’t a Gosforth runner, but I could use him as another benchmark. I definitely wasn’t losing ground. I was probably gaining slowly on him.

Then came the downhill mile. For most of this mile, I was concentrating mostly on picking the best line, staying upright, relaxing and leaning forward slightly so as not to brake with each step. This meant I lost track of where I was in the field, although I remember catching and passing the green and white striped vest. I could feel myself gradually getting stronger as the second lap progressed though.

I was dreading the steep hill. I had suffered on it on the first lap. I had visions of walking up it on this lap. Maybe I was more mentally prepared for the false summit though. Maybe I was looking forward to the downhill all the way to the finish after it. Maybe I was just concentrating 100% on getting up the damn thing. Half-way up, I suddenly remembered what I tell our juniors when they are running up a hill. “Pump those arms!” I did. And what a difference it makes. I powered up the last fifty metres, around to the left and started down the hill.

5019462108708864No holding back now. Just less than half a mile to go. Steeply downhill to begin with. You can hear footsteps behind you. Everyone’s a good runner here. Could I let my sprint finish count? Should I save anything for a sprint finish? No. What’s the point? Just go as fast as I can. I was going well below 6 minute mile pace down the hill as I saw afterwards. It flattens out with 300m to go. You can see the finish arch with the sponsor’s name on it around a shallow bend to the right. No one will pass me. 200 to go. Still flat out. 100 to go. 50 to go. Who’s that passing me? It’s only the Poly runner. How did I bridge that 30 metre gap? How did I not realise that I’d bridged that gap? He had the momentum. What have I got left? 20 to go. Sprint! He sprints as well. Am I closing? No. It’s at this point that I realise I’m going to be throwing up at the end. A final effort, but I just don’t make the metre or so between me and the Poly runner. A measly 1 second between us.

I have to apologise to the little girl behind the barrier who witnessed the contents of my stomach – mostly liquid – re-appear in front of her. She moved away quite quickly as I doubled up and wretched again, being told sternly by a marshall to move on through the finishing area. I passed the medical tent, with three runners in wheelchairs looking very pale, before being able to take the chip off my ankle, throwing it in the chip bin and searching out those of the Gosforth team who had already finished.

As a team, we waited for every member to finish. It had been a long, tough course that held bad memories for some after the previous outing here, but we all finished and finished well. My time was 50:33 and I came 1,101st out of 2,006 finishers. That was the 54th percentile, about where I expected. I beat my time on this course last year by almost 5 minutes. Then again, the conditions were poles apart and that seemed to be the par time difference. There’s no data on age groupings in the Nationals. As a club, we finished 39th out of 358 in the 9 counter competition and 48th in the 6 counter, beating a lot of much bigger clubs in the process.

What is it about running, that you’ve put your body through hell and you can’t stop smiling? The relief of finishing? The self-satisfaction? Everybody enjoyed it, even more so when we saw that the our magic club tent had already dismantled itself to make a quick exit back to the bus! An in-joke there! Sorry! A few beers on the bus going back rounded off a thoroughly enjoyable day.

For me, the cross-country season is over as I cannot make the last Harrier League meet. Some relays and road races, as well as some track meets, are next on the agenda. All that remains is to thank those who organised the entry and transport and also those who supported all day. The shouts by name and by club as you pass really do help, especially when those demons are telling you to give up!

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Brass Monkey Half Marathon – 13th January 2019

img_2194The Brass Monkey Half Marathon first came to my attention in about 2007 or 2008 when it was voted Runners’ World’s Best UK Race. I tried to get into it for several years, always getting my entry form and unpaid cheque returned in the post despite sending it in on the day it opened. Now, in the days of online entries, all you need to do is get up at a ridiculously early hour on a weekend morning and hope you are one of the lucky ones in the randomised queuing system. I was one of those lucky ones this year. Organised by York Knavesmire Harriers, the reasons why it was voted the UK’s best probably haven’t changed. Fast, flat, an excellent indoor base at York Racecourse with lots of toilets, a huge number of friendly marshalls, a quality field and nice countryside along the route that is mainly closed to traffic.

cannonballsYou do need to be lucky with the weather. It was cancelled in 2013 due to snow and the name itself is reference to the cold conditions you should expect in early to mid-January. A ‘monkey’ was the brass tray that held cannonballs on warships in years gone by. In very cold temperatures, the metal of the tray would contract to the extent that the cannonballs would fall off. The weather this time was nothing like that. Dry, a perfect running temperature of 10 degrees, but with a stiff wind sweeping in from the west. The course takes you south-west for 6 miles, a right turn, west for a bit and then back north-east with the first 3.5 miles and the last 3.5 on the same road. Due to the wind, the first half would be a bit trickier than the second.

Being completely truthful, I have run over ten miles all of three times in the last year and a half and was completely undercooked for the distance. I fully expected the last three miles to be a bit of a struggle. When asked what time I was hoping for, my answer was sub-1:30 without really believing I’d be able to achieve it. But I’d go for it anyway.

A 5:45 alarm call was not the start I was looking for. York is just under 2 hours’ drive from Newcastle and I wanted to be there at least an hour and a half before the race, having had a decent breakfast before I left. I arrived in the excellent, free car park at the racecourse at 8:20 and promptly had a kip for half an hour in the car. I felt so much better afterwards and raring to go. I met up with some colleagues from work and clubmates in the Ebor Stand at the racecourse – a warm place to change and shelter from the wind. A few stretches, half a banana and then outside for some strides and a few more stretches. Strip down to running vest and shorts, dump the bag in the baggage area, a last wee and out to the start area with two clubmates with five minutes before the off.

The start was marked out by finishing time and, certainly forward of the 1:45 marker, almost everyone was wearing a club vest. I recognised a lot of people from the northeast running scene. Without any delay, we were off. It was a little crowded at first, which is never a bad thing at the very start. A look at my watch after 200m and it said 6:05. Too fast – a common theme. Slow down. After 400m, I was bang on my target pace of 6:45. That would bring me in just under 1:30 with a minute or so to spare. If I could hold on. It was going to be critical to pace this really evenly to stand a chance.

The first mile was up and over a road bridge which turned out to be the steepest hill on the course and into the village of Bishopsthorpe. Even though this part was sheltered, you could feel the wind coming at you from the side. Extremely supportive marshalls lined the route, giving encouragement even though we were only a mile into the race. This was to continue the whole 13 miles. Thanks to them all. Of course, by this point, I needed a wee again. No I didn’t, I said to myself. I’ve just been and haven’t drunk much this morning. It was just psychosomatic. Eventually, by about halfway, the feeling disappeared.

Once in open countryside, you could really feel the wind. All the time, I was trying to find larger runners to shelter behind. I was less hopeful now of beating 1:30 as 6:51 is the exact pace to hit for that and miles 2 and 3 were 6:51 and 6:50. Would the wind be any more behind us coming back? Or was it a swirly one where you feel it is against you the whole way?

At 3.5 miles, I saw the sign for a water station. I quickly downed my caffeine gel and grabbed a plastic cup from one of the helpers. Squeezing it into a spout, I got a few good gulps and threw it to the side for the cup collectors to pick up. Despite the wind, miles 4 and 5 were 6:48 and 6:49. Miles 5 and 6 were the windiest of all – farm fields either side of us without even a hedge for shelter. Everyone was running on the left-hand side of the road, mainly because we were being blown that way. Mile 6 was 6:57, although at some points, my Garmin was saying over 7-minute miling. I dug in. We turned west, directly into the wind, although the trees either side of the road now offered some shelter. Mile 7 was a little faster – 6:46. Beyond halfway now. How long could I last at this pace?

Another water stop and then we took a sharp right through the small village of Appleton Roebuck. Music, supporters, applause. The villagers were having a bit of a party for our benefit and it certainly gave me a big boost. At the same time, we turned northeast. The wind was definitely a little behind us now. Still mainly from the side, but the difference was palpable. That, along with a jelly baby from my back pocket, gave me the impetus to bang out a 6:36 mile 8.

Along with two North Shields Poly runners, I was now finding myself starting to pass people quite regularly. I needed another gel, which I took and looked for a marshall to hand the wrapper to rather than just drop it. It turned out to be the only part of the course where there didn’t seem to be a marshall stationed, so I carried it in my hands for about a mile. Maybe that was the reason why that mile, mile 9, was 6:50. It wasn’t because I was starting to struggle. Mile 10 was back on track at 6:42, my second fastest mile so far and the final water station.

We were now back on the road that we had run before in the opposite direction. The mile markers the whole way were absolutely spot on with my Garmin, within 20 or so metres. At the 10-mile mark, you can start telling yourself that it is just a parkrun to the finish. A few mental calculations told me that 22 minutes for the last 5k would get me in under 1:30. That’s about 7 minutes per mile. I just had to keep my pace under 7 minutes per mile for the last 3 miles to get a sub-1:30. But these are the hard miles, where your legs are started to complain. Your running rhythm isn’t so smooth and the drive off each step is less powerful. At least that’s what it is normally like. I still felt fine. When I say fine, it wasn’t like I could have stepped it up, but I was able to maintain this pace. I was passing people who obviously were starting to struggle. I kept looking at my Garmin, expecting to see a 7 at the start of the pace field, but it wasn’t happening. Mile 11 was 6:48 and mile 12 was 6:44.

Into the last 1.1 miles. I now knew I was going to get the sub-1:30. Now my legs were starting to moan. But when you only have 8 or so minutes of running left, you can put up with the discomfort. You can keep pushing yourself. That last mile also had the opposite of the bridge over the road that we had done in the first mile. An uphill at that point wasn’t exactly welcomed, but I told myself there was a downhill just on the other side. The 800m to go sign. I was still passing people. Could I get in under 1:29? I knew that we turned into the racecourse at the 400m to go sign. I was looking into the distance and saw the turning. I pushed on, lengthening my stride. Faster. Turn left. 400m to go. Boom! Right into the wind.

Then a final right turn with 200m to go. I can’t say I really sprinted, but I absolutely was running as fast as I could. One more runner that I can pass, which I did. I’m still competitive, even when it doesn’t really matter. I crossed the line and stopped my watch at 1:29:07, although my official race time was 1:29:03. A few seconds of light-headedness as I stopped and wobbled through the finish area to get a bottle of water, catch my breath and get some blood back into my head.

I met up with a clubmate a few metres further and was given my finishers’ medal, made of wood, interestingly. Very eco-friendly. The T-shirt was long sleeved, perfect for winter training, but a very feminine colour and a bit on the small side. Probably the only downside of the whole event for me. We did a slow, half-mile cooldown. If there is one piece of advice that any novice runner should take, it is to make sure you do a cooldown. It takes five minutes and loosens the legs up immeasurably compared to how they feel without a cooldown. I did some stretching as well, wary that I had a 2-hour drive back home, before getting my free chocolate shortbread from the selection of cakes on offer and a protein bar back in the warm race HQ of the Ebor Stand at York Racecourse.

Looking at the analysis of my run, it probably has to go down as one of my best. 11 of the 13 mile splits were between 6:42 and 6:51. The two outliers, if you can call them that, were 6:36, when we had the wind pretty much behind us in mile 8, and 6:57 in mile 6, when we had no protection at all from the wind. My first half was 44:36. My second half was 44:31. Even better – a negative split by 5 seconds! Although the wind may have had something to do with that. It has put me in the frame of mind that, if I can do that with barely any half-marathon-specific training, just think what I can do with a full spring and summer’s training for my next half, perhaps the Great North Run in September.

The quality of the field was obvious from the results. In the GNR, I am normally in the top 2% of finishers and the top 2% in my age group. In this race, out of 1,553 confirmed finishers, I was 294th – the 19th percentile. In my age group, MV45, I was 44th out of 202, the 21st percentile.

A massive thanks to York Knavesmire Harriers for putting on the race. It was obvious that every member and, probably, their family and friends as well, were drafted in to help out on the day. I certainly didn’t see any of their famous quad vests on any runners on the course. All in all, an excellent event and I shall certainly be back.

Sherman Cup – 5th January 2019

The Sherman Cup for men and Davison Shield for women are unique in the Northeast cross-country calendar as the final standings take into account results through all the age groups for each individual club. Because Gosforth Harriers has such a strong junior section, it is a competition in which we often do quite well. The ladies have won the Davison Shield for the last two years. The men are regularly placed in the top three in the Sherman Cup. The pre-requisite is to have three runners in every race, including both veterans and seniors. That’s no mean feat, especially in the U-17s sections when there are many other attractions vying for the attention of that age group. It’s also our club cross-country championships. The winners of each age group will receive a trophy, with their names engraved on it, at the club prize-giving night later in the year.

This would be my first race since October. A chest infection and some household responsibilities had stopped me doing much in the way of running, either training or racing, for the best part of two months. I had done a surprisingly fast 10k in training a few days earlier, which told me I hadn’t completely lost my fitness and gave me a bit of confidence. I checked my time on the only previous occasion I had run this course two seasons ago as a marker to beat.

The morning broke clear, calm and with just a little chill in the air – the best that can be expected for early January. Perfect running conditions. It hadn’t rained for almost two weeks, so the ground was as dry as it was going to be. Shoe choice was a no-brainer for me. Not so much for the ground conditions, but for the tarmac path that stretches for the best part of a quarter of a mile on one part of the course. You can run to the side on spikes, but the extra pace I can get running on tarmac compared to grass is quite considerable. A course recce confirmed this decision. Even the short, very steep hill we have to run up was firm enough under foot to wear trail shoes.

My warm-up went well, stretching and striding nicely as I watched the ladies’ race. In the lead by a significant margin was Laura Weightman, local lady and double Olympic 1500m finalist. Seeing elite athletes glide along, seemingly effortlessly, at a pace us mere mortals can only dream of, is a joy to behold. This picture is taken barely half a mile into the race and there are a lot of very good athletes in the chasing pack. Our girls and ladies were doing stunningly well, in the lead in the team competition by quite a way after three of the four races. Unfortunately, we only had two senior competitors and three are required for a team, so no third Davison Cup win in a row.

I heard the whistle for the men’s race and was actually first in the pen. I sort of saved an area for the faster Gosforth athletes when they turned up a few minutes later after the team photo, so we got a good club starting position. I looked around for my usual targets but didn’t see any. There was no real hanging around and it wasn’t long before the gun went to set us off. There are no packs in the Sherman Cup, so it’s a mass start, meaning there will be a lot of fast athletes shooting off. I made sure I didn’t make the mistake of trying to follow them, although I’m not sure how accurate my new Garmin is over short distances. After 200m, it was saying I was running at 5-minute mile pace. I slowed down, but I didn’t think I was going that fast.

Up the hill at the start, down the other side and out to the far end of the course on fairly uneven ground. There were a couple of muddy bits among the few undulations which were easy to avoid. The course is by no means the toughest on the circuit, but interest is maintained with some short, sharp hills, a couple of fast descents and a ditch to negotiate. I found myself running with a Morpeth Harrier, also, as I found out from his supporters, called Neil. He has beaten me once when I couldn’t stay with him in the last half mile and I beat him once in a sprint finish. Psychologically, I decided that every “Go on Neil!” or “Well done Neil!” for him was actually a cheer for me, in addition to the excellent support from the Gosforth ladies who stayed on to cheer us men. Believe me, it worked!

When we got to the path, I found myself overtaking six or seven runners on that stretch – the benefit of trail shoes on tarmac as opposed to spikes on grass. Some overtook me back when we got back onto the grass, but, I told myself, I’d get them again on the next lap. I felt good, but the first lap seemed a long way. Back to the start area with the main bulk of the support, a sharp left around a tree, and then a circuit of a field to complete the lap.

I was very happy with my pace. I didn’t feel like it was too fast, but I was now steadily overtaking people. Would my lack of fitness make me pay on the last lap? Along with the Morpeth Harrier, I was running with a Gosforth clubmate. We gave each other encouragement whenever one overtook the other as we traded places several times. There was another clubmate in a pack about 50 yards ahead, visible by his green and white vest. Could I bridge that gap? Focussing on little things like that really helped to maintain the effort. I also made sure I took every corner right on the apex. Over five or six miles, those marginal gains will add up in terms of distance run and maintaining speed.

Taking it easy up the hills and opening up going down the hills also seemed to be paying dividends. I put on a burst of pace down the tarmac path again on the second lap and pulled away from my current pack. I could hear very heavy breathing behind me which turned out to be a blue shirted runner who had managed to stay with me. I had now joined another small group in front of me as we went up the hill past the supporters. I was on the right-hand side of the group with the sharp left coming up. Bad position. Although it was uphill, I put on a burst to get to the front of the group, hearing the shouts of support from the Gosforth ladies again, and crossed to the left of the course, giving me a perfect line to take the corner.

I was now only about 20 yards from a pack in front, including the other clubmate, which was about six strong, and I was gaining all the time. Round the field and up the hill to start the next lap. Only 10 yards between us now. Going down a hill, I put in another burst to bridge the gap and, as I drew alongside my clubmate, I let him know I was there and encouraged him to keep going, I was going to take a small breather after several recent efforts. In good communication, he told me he was starting to struggle to maintain the pace. Knowing that, rather than take the breather, I pushed on.

The short, steep uphill was now showing signs of muddiness, but the grip from my trail shoes was still sure. The heavy breather was back with me as we ran down the tarmac path. He was in trail shoes as well. We were joined by another blue-shirted runner who overtook us both as we headed towards the field for the last time. There’s a short downhill as you enter the field and I used that to gain momentum, almost sprinting down it, overtaking the heavy breather, but not making any impact on the other runner who was slowly pulling away from me. About 400m to go. I had to take the next corner on the outside of two runners still on their second lap. Hearing more shouts of encouragement for me, I went as fast as I could down the back straight, putting distance between me and those behind me, but still losing ground to the guy in front. Into the home straight. I wasn’t going to catch him. Time to focus on not being overtaken. There were at least two runners about 20 yards behind me. Did either of them have anything left to sprint? A quick glance back to check. No. Another glance back. Still nothing. 30 yards to go. No more looking back now. Just get over that line as fast as you can.

I finished in 35:54. That’s 24 seconds faster than my previous best on this course. 35th position out of 251 in the vet competition and third vet counter for the club. My pacing was pretty much perfect with only 15 seconds separating my fastest mile (net downhill) from my slowest mile (net uphill) and I had nothing left at the end. Along with Alnwick last year, it was probably my best cross-country run in terms of maximising my performance from my current level of fitness. As a team, we waited and cheered every Gosforth runner home, each one showing grit and determination down the home straight in their own mini-races. In the vets’ competition, we came third, beating some big clubs in the process. In the overall Sherman Cup, we also came third, a decent performance and one of only three clubs to field a team in every age group. But for some injuries and illness from a few of our senior runners, we would probably have come second.

The day was rounded off with a club gathering in the pub and a meal out later that evening. It made for a long, but thoroughly enjoyable day.

NEHL #3 – Gosforth Park – 27th October 2018

Home. Course. Advantage. Surely it’s worth something? For the first time in decades, the Harrier League was coming home. Well, our home anyway. The ever-growing popularity of cross-country running, and the North East Harrier League in particular, means that new venues are regularly required. And a new venue needs a new host. And that host, helped out by Heaton Harriers and Tyne Bridge Harriers, was us, Gosforth Harriers. The men’s Team Captain was the main instigator, plotting the course, opening discussions with the owners of the land and proposing the new venue to the Harrier League committee. The date was chosen and so, at 07:30 on Saturday morning, about 30 brave souls ventured out into a late October sleet storm to mark out the course. A couple of hours later, drenched to the skin and with fingers numb from the wet and cold, most of us took shelter, our job done, and waited for the first club tents to start appearing.

Gosforth Park elevation

In my humble opinion, the course was a cracker with a bit of everything: woods – every cross-country runner’s favourite – with tree root trip hazards to watch out for; undulating fields, nothing too daunting in terms of hills, although there weren’t really any flat bits on the whole course – it was either uphill or downhill; some water in the swampy far corner; some narrow bits that would test the elbows; and a gravel path that would challenge the choice of footwear.

Tent City would be right next to the start and finish as well as providing the opportunity to cheer each competitor up an incline each time they started a new lap. The location was also great for accessibility. Straight off the A1, the main road through the North-East, plenty of car parking, lots of paths and trails through the woods away from the course on which to warm up and a pub for essential rehydration afterwards. Even better, I could walk there from my house! The horrible thunder sleet from the morning had given way to deep blue skies and minimal wind. Perfect conditions as the club tents started to arrive.

I had volunteered to marshall, but there were so many volunteers, most of those who were running were relieved of their duties before the first race began. So, I was able to concentrate on the junior races and my own preparation. I took a position by the water jump for some photo opportunities and saw a combination of those jumping it (too wide to avoid getting at least one foot wet) and those just running straight through the six-inch deep pool. One of the jobs we did while setting out the course was to remove as many branches from the route as we could, including a few submerged in the muddy water, that could have turned a few ankles otherwise.

For the first time this season, we had full teams out in every age group and gender. Maybe only three or four clubs can boast that at any single meet and it was noticed and commented on by representatives of other clubs as well. Lots of Gosforth vests drew encouragement from the many club members, friends and family, and maybe even a few Gosforth inhabitants enjoying a day out at our local park and popular dog-walking location. The marshalls, as ever, were super-supportive, encouraging everyone, but obviously giving special encouragement for those in green and white vests. Our ladies’ team looked to be putting in another really good performance, eventually finishing a strong second in their division.

Returning to the tent, I started focussing on myself and my own run. I hadn’t had the best preparation. I had pulled a stomach muscle sneezing of all things a couple of days earlier, although I was hoping it wouldn’t affect my running, but the main thing was tired legs, having been on my feet constantly for six hours between setting up the course and the start of my run. My ankles were very stiff, so my main warm-up was focussing on loosening them up. Some days, everything feels good. This wasn’t one of those days.

We had a men’s team photo and headed to the start line, making sure we had a good position in what looked to be a very big field. A row of Gosforth vests at the front of our home meet was very satisfying. With another runner promoted at the last meet, it was great to have another couple of potential counters doing their first run of the season. That’s the trick to surviving in Division One and something that, as a comparatively small club, compared to others in Division One (and most in Division Two), we suffer from. A third of our regular senior men are now running from fast pack and, therefore, unlikely to finish in the top 100.

I lined up next to and chatted with the North Shields Poly runner who normally finishes very close to me and we waited for the gun to go. There’s no ‘On your marks, Get Set…’. You line up and then you hear the gun go off. I thought the starter was to my right. He wasn’t. He was about two yards to my left and the gun scared the pants off me! And we were off. After the first 100m, there was a bend to the left, so it was important to get good position into that bend. Two runners shot off in front of the rest of the field. One looked like a runner. The other didn’t. They reached the first turn about 10 yards in front of anyone else and carried on at that pace. Around the bend and up the uphill gravel path, which was the reason why I had chosen to wear trail shoes rather than spikes again, past the supporters cheering you on. A left turn, more uphill before a right and a quick left into the woods for the next three quarters of a mile.

This was our terrain. We train on these paths, through these woods, most weeks. The route we were taking was part of our 700 metre loop. I know the boggy bits and the firm bits and how to take the sharp left-hand corner without losing speed. I felt my pace was good. Challenging, but good. Not too fast. Not too slow. I was in about 40th place and had three clubmates ahead of me. A good team position. Downhill now towards the water. Not worth jumping – it was too crowded on the first lap anyway. A very sharp, very narrow left-hand turn next. I made sure I got good position for that. Plenty of Gosforth support, driving you on. Out of the woods and up the main hill on the course – we run this in training as well, normally the other way, but I knew the tricky undulations of this grass – and then the steep downhill at the top into the next field. I passed one of the two guys who shot off at the start – the one who didn’t look like a runner. Maybe he was trying to get in the photos! More Gosforth support, including information on your position in the field. It’s so important to know that. Down a hill along a hedge, up another hill, then down a hill and we were onto the second lap of three. A touch under 2 miles per lap. I have to say, the course marking was excellent! I was level with the Poly runner. I knew I was pretty much at my limit, ten seconds behind a clubmate I am normally very close to, but whose form has been getting markedly better over the last few weeks with a good sequence of regular, consistent, injury-free training.

Then I saw something that was a first for me while running cross-country. About 200 metres into lap 2, still passing the spectators around tent city, there it was, lying on the gravel path in front of me. A crisp, plastic £10 note, folded in two. The thoughts, decisons and assessment of the consequences of the obvious instinctive action that went through my mind in the split second after seeing it would have blown many a powerful computer. If I stopped to pick it up, I would lose five, six seconds, maybe. Nothing in the scheme of things. But those five or six seconds would be five or six places. What would my clubmates say? That I had valued a measly tenner over the success of my team. So what if I did stop to pick it up? Have you ever had anyone in a race stop right in front of you? I have, and it’s not pretty. I was about half a mile into the Great North Run about 5 years ago and the woman immediately in front of me hadn’t done the zip of her pocket at the rear of her shorts up. Out flowed keys, coins and a credit card. She stopped to pick it all up and caused absolute carnage with people crashing into her as she had to force her way upstream to pick up the important things up. I managed to avoid her only by almost taking out the person to my right. Maybe the carnage wouldn’t have been quite so drastic as then, but it would still not have been pretty. By the time my brain had processed all these thoughts, I was well passed the tenner anyway and my decison was made for me. It would be somebody else’s lucky day. It wasn’t there next time I passed!

I started struggling with a tight chest on the second lap, unable to take as deep a breath as I wanted. Often that means the onset of a cold or chest infection. We’ll see next week. I was now tracking closely behind the Poly runner, staying with him, but no more, throughout the second lap, in 45th place, according to the Gosforth marshalls giving the information. I reckon at least the top 60 would be promoted today, but the fastest medium and fast packers would soon start coming past me.

Onto lap 3. It was now a case of hanging on, using the downhills as best I could, maintaining my pace on the uphills, but there was a steady number of runners passing me. 80th place at the halfway point of the lap. The Poly runner was about 5 yards ahead of me, but I made that up on the steep downhill, drawing level with him. Could I maintain that? If I could, I was confident I would beat him in a sprint finish. The tightness in my chest was getting worse though, like I was wearing a very tight heart rate monitor.

The finish wasn’t coming soon enough and I started losing ground again without being able to respond. It was time to really dig in with each grassy stretch. Round the penultimate bend. The Poly runner was now more like 10 yards ahead. I wasn’t going to make that up. All I could do was ensure I wasn’t going to lose any more places, especially not to runners from Division One teams. Every point and, therefore, every place, may count in a close divisional race. The last bend and then a good 120 metres to the finish line. Uphill, of course. I had a Heaton Harrier – a Division One club – maybe four yards in front of me giving everything he had. Over the last 20 metres, I put on my usual strong finishing burst, passed him and crossed the line just in front of him.

I hate finishing funnels. All you want to do is stop and/or collapse, but you have to keep moving, instructed to do so firmly, and necessarily so, by the funnel marshalls. The Heaton Harrier I had just passed patted me on the arm from behind to shake my hand and the Poly runner was waiting for me to shake hands at the funnel exit. I just beat him last time out. He just beat me this time. Fantastic competition between the two of us though and I look forward to our next meeting. I was the fourth Gosforth runner home. The fifth came in shortly after me, but we then waited a long time for the sixth and last counter. That could be crucial in the standings for today’s results.

While recovering, I listened out for chat amongst the runners from other clubs about what they thought about the course. Without exception, it was positive. ‘A good test’, ‘Nice course’, ‘Deceptively tough’, ‘Loved it’, ‘Hope this is a regular venue’. It also turned out to be popular in numbers. An all-time Harrier League record attendance for the senior men with 625 finishers. That also meant the top 62 finishers would be promoted. We had two runners in that category which will make the rest of the season even tougher in the fight against relegation.

Gosforth splits

I came 94th. Not my best performance, but not my worst either. Probably about 20 seconds slower than what I was hoping for based on my comparative placings at the last meet at Druridge Bay where I thought I had run pretty well. I was quite happy with my splits. Miles 3 and 5 and miles 2, 4 and 6 were all pretty consistent times, aligned with the more uphill first half of each lap and the more downhill second half. The incentive I had to stay with the Poly runner was important mentally. It kept me focussed, despite the tightness in my chest making it a more painful run than most. By Wednesday of the following week, I was coughing and spluttering with a full-on chesty cold. Having a target or anchor is an important tactic to gauge how you are doing. Pick them wisely, stay close and then see how you feel in the last portion of the race.

As a team, we came 8th in the division, missing 7th place by a measly 9 points (258 v 249). In the division, we are one place above the relegation zone. It’s going to be a tight one. With so many runners now in the medium and fast packs, and in addition to regular training, we may need reinforcements, although, unlike other clubs, we don’t have too many members who haven’t run cross-country yet this season.

While the volunteers took down the course, the runners did our cool-down before some of us retired to the pub for a liquid debrief and to reminisce about a long, but thoroughly enjoyable day while watching the results come in online. It felt like it had gone really well and, hopefully, will become a regular event in the Harrier League calendar. Once again, huge thanks must go those closely involved in preparing and staging the successful event. Some upcoming travel means I have a couple of weeks away from competition, which I hope will give me a chance to get healthy again.

Yorkshire Marathon Corporate Relay – 14th October 2018

Every race is different. This one would be fairly unique for me. First of all, I would be running with five colleagues from work rather than with my running club, Gosforth Harriers. Secondly, it would be a combination of the mass participation element of a major public race and the team element of a relay. I was really looking forward to it. I did the full Yorkshire Marathon in 2014. It’s a nice course; mostly pretty flat, taking in the beautiful city of York at the beginning and the end and the country lanes of North Yorkshire for the rest, closed to traffic for the duration. Each leg was of different lengths and I was quite happy to do the longest leg. Leg 2. 6.1 miles, between 4.8 and 10.9 miles of the full marathon.

The morning did not start off well. Let down by the taxi companies of York, I ended up having to run almost 4 miles from my friends’ house, where I was staying, to the University of York, which was the base for the race. I arrived with twenty minutes to spare before the shuttle bus to my start point was due to leave. Not great preparation and I felt a little tightness in my right thigh, while finding the rest of the team in good spirits. Teamwork came to the fore as the others helped me with my rushed final preparations, pinning my bib on our bright pink relay T-shirt that every relay team had, stashing my bag in the baggage zone and posing for pre-race photos.

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The company I work for, Venator, had entered a team of three men and three women, making us eligible for the mixed race, but we also hoped to do quite well overall. All of us are decent runners, training regularly at lunchtimes around the Wynyard estate. The whole Yorkshire Marathon event, including the Corporate Relay, is one of many events in aid of the Run For All charity. By entering a team, Venator was contributing to this excellent charity and providing the opportunity for its employees to participate in an event promoting health and fitness for all. That has to be a win-win.

We quickly discussed handover strategies. The ‘baton’ was a chip-embedded armband which had to be passed onto the next team member from start to finish in order to record a time. However, it was also absolutely chucking it down with rain, forecast to continue for the whole race, so we also needed to hand over warm, dry clothes for the incoming runner to change into so as to avoid freezing during the inevitable wait after finishing for transportation back to base. Plans made, us second leg runners left to wishes of good luck to board the bus to our start point, ironically only 400 yards from the house where I had spent the previous night.

We knew from previous year’s results, that we stood half a chance of performing well in the mixed competition, but it all depended on who turns up on the day. It was obvious from conversations with fellow leg 2 runners on the bus that there were quite a few teams in it who were not too bothered about their time or finishing position. It was the taking part for the charity that mattered. There were also teams who were pretty serious. It was apparent which ones they were when I started warming up about 20 minutes before Helen, our first leg runner and team organiser, would appear up a nasty hill to hand over to me. As a team, we had worked out approximate times when we should all be ready for the changeover, based on our best-case individual paces. This added up to a total race time of about 3 hours 03 minutes. Spot on a team average of 7 minutes per mile. The race started at 9:30am and the leaders ran past us at 9:55. At just over five and a half minute miling, elites seem a lifetime away from the times I can post, and these guys were a full minute per mile slower than Eliud Kipchoge managed while breaking the world record a few weeks ago. A few minutes later, the first relay participant appeared in view. There were spotters a hundred or so yards down the road radioing the number forward so that the next leg runner was ready. The first runner carried on, shouting to the changeover marshall that he was doing the second leg as well. While the team can continue, that is an immediate disqualification from the competition. It is a six-legged relay, requiring six individuals. Usain Bolt isn’t allowed to run two legs of the 4x100m for Jamaica!

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My warm-up had gone well. I had remembered to squeeze my caffeine gel down my neck and the tightness in my thigh had gone. I was just hoping that the unexpected run to the university hadn’t taken too much out of me. About six more relay teams, including a male runner from at least one mixed team, handed over before our number, 15, was shouted by the marshall. Helen was approaching. I saw her pink T-shirt in the middle of a pack of male runners, driving up the hill in the rain, giving absolutely everything. She was the first lady home from the first leg of the relay and must have been under her predicted pace of 6.45/mile. A cracking run. I could tell my adrenalin was pumped. I had been chatting to the changeover marshall beforehand and she offered to take the fleece and poncho to give to Helen, leaving me to concentrate on taking the arm band. I shouted encouragement and a ‘well done’ when she was about 10 metres away and grabbed the arm band from her outstretched hand in a perfect changeover. I slipped it on my arm as I set off, remembering to start my Garmin GPS watch.

I had predicted a time of 38 minutes to complete my 6.1 mile leg, which would be roughly equivalent to my 10k (6.2 miles) PB. That’s a pace of about 6:15/mile. The first 200 metres were quite steeply downhill and I immediately started overtaking the marathon participants. After a quarter of a mile, my usual look at my Garmin to gauge the right pace told me I was apparently doing 4:50 pace. That was a load of rubbish. The heavy cloud cover may have made it difficult to get an accurate satellite reception. I knew the downhill would have made for a quick start, but not that quick, although I did moderate my pace a bit, just in case. I saw the 3 hour pace bus ahead of me. In marathons, pacers have big flags strapped to their back and are normally accompanied by a mass of runners, collectively called a bus, aiming to beat that time target. It was no different here. They completely filled the width of the road ahead of me, which I could see narrowing a hundred or so yards ahead for a water station. I put on a burst and managed to get round them before the road narrowed and then moderated my pace again, running through the water station without taking anything. I had only just started, so I didn’t need it. I saw two relay participants in their pink shirts ahead and was happy to overtake both. By my calculations, that put us fifth, excluding the guy who would be disqualified.

The road ahead was largely flat. I passed the famous Yorkshire Marathon high-fiving vicar, braving the rain which seemed to be getting heavier, and was now on mile 2, still passing marathon participants regularly. The first incline appeared, not steep enough to be called a hill, but, at about 100m long, worthy of some respect. There was another incline about half a mile further on, a bit steeper this time, on which I passed the next relay competitor, putting us in fourth place. My pace was now in the 6:20s and passing others was becoming less frequent. It is worth mentioning that the marathon competitors with whom I was now running were on for a 2 hour 45 finishing time and a top 30 finish. That’s an excellent time in a marathon – one I can only dream of. They were running at the same pace for a marathon that I was running at for less than a quarter of the distance, as fast as I could. Kudos to them all.

YorkshireI was now on the mental part of a 10k. The third quarter. It would be easy to let the pace drop. You’re tired. It’s wet. You’re still a long way from the end. Support is mainly limited to the brave marshalls standing in the heavy rain for which every one of them deserves a huge thank-you. I was working at my limit, so my appreciation was limited to a thumbs-up rather than a vocal ‘Thank-you marshall!” I was also running on my own now. There was a group about 40 metres ahead that I just couldn’t close the gap on. The road now consisted of long straights with one particularly nasty uphill that went on for a quarter of a mile. One of the group in front of me dropped back going up that hill and I overtook him as we passed the water station at the top, which was now very welcome. I was especially proud of hitting the bin target with my water bottle from a distance of about 10 metres! Not an easy feat when running at pace. I could now just about see what looked like the pink shirt of what I thought must be the next relay competitor about 200m in front of me. He would be my next target. Could I make up that distance in two miles? Then again, I still wasn’t making much ground on the remainder of the group just ahead.

I found mile 5 tough, but, at the end of it, I was telling myself just one more mile to go. I reasserted my efforts and increased my pace. It was only a few seconds per mile faster, but I was now starting to reel in the group in front of me. The pink vest ahead was still at least 150 metres away. I wasn’t going to catch him, but the important thing in a relay is to carry on giving your all, right to the end of your leg. You don’t know what is going to happen in future legs and every second might count. Just as I was drawing level with the group, I went round a bend and saw the changeover zone about 200 metres away. It had crept up on me a bit quicker than I was expecting, so I went into an extended sprint. I saw our third leg runner, Rachel, waiting for me. I ripped the chip band off my arm, as I heard Rachel’s shouts of encouragement and, nicely, applause from the rest of the waiting relay competitors . Another perfect changeover as Rachel took off, pointing to the fleece and bin liner on the floor. She must have been hyped up as well as she took off like a rocket. I doubled over, trying to get my breath, half-hearing words of congratulations from the people around me through my haze of exhaustion. A lady handed me a banana and bottle of water that Rachel had thoughtfully left for me with her and, thanking her, I made my way through the crowd really hoping I wasn’t going to start retching!

I’d remembered to stop my Garmin and saw a time of 38:11. That’s about as close to my predicted time as I was going to get. I’ll put the extra 11 seconds down to the unexpected extended warm-up, but it was the equivalent of just 8 seconds outside my 10k PB on a net uphill course! The rain was still heavy, but it was important to cool the muscles with a warm-down jog, splashing through the deepening puddles, before getting onto the bus and into dry clothes. I was mostly happy with the run. Perhaps I could have ramped it up a bit earlier at the end, but it is what it was. My bit was done. Now all I could do was to track the team’s progress on the race app as we waited for the rest of the 2nd leg runners to finish before heading back to base on the bus. I ended up sitting near the runner from the team that was now leading, The Gastronauts. A quick look at the app showed he done the same leg as me in 32 minutes! A stunningly fast run, even if he was about twenty years younger than me. It was during the journey back that I heard from our team chat that one of The Gastronauts runners had pulled up due to injury, meaning his team would DNF (Did Not Finish). I felt sorry for them, but didn’t have the heart to tell him. That would put us third, but, little did I know at that time, that Rachel had passed another two relay participants during her leg, putting us first. For now. Still a long way to go, with our fourth runner, also Helen, now out on the course and making good progress. I was surprised how many people were sitting on the bus freezing in just their wet T-shirts. We have a good safety culture in our company, meaning we had thought about this beforehand. In fact, my team’s safety share the previous week had been taking care at sporting events.

I arrived back at base, met up with Helen from the first leg, put on some more warm clothes and got a sausage and egg bun and a protein shake in my stomach as we tracked our fifth leg runner, Mike, as best as we could on the app that wasn’t always accurate. We knew we were doing well, but sometimes we were second, then first, then fifth! The goody bag had a nice medal and some snacks and there was free alcohol-free beer available as well. Helen from the fourth leg arrived back next and the three of us tracked our last runner, Paul, on his leg to the finish. The app confirmed he crossed the line in a total team time of 3 hours and 03 minutes. Fantastic. Bang on to our prediction, to the minute, calculated over a coffee a couple of days before, based on our best-case times. Clearly, every one of us had excelled ourselves. Not long after that, Mike and Paul and, shortly after that, Rachel, who had the longest return journey of all, arrived back at base. After plenty of mutual congratulations, we began speculating on our actual finishing position. It wasn’t easy to track any other team on the app as you needed to know the name of the team. It didn’t provide a leader board so to speak. The organisers explained they would confirm the results later on in the week after various checks had been done, for example, having a full team of six (different) individuals and at least three women in the mixed event etc. After some of Rachel’s delicious homemade flapjack, it was time to head home. For me, that meant another 4 mile run in the incessant rain back to my friends’ house. I’d definitely logged my miles that day.

Fast forward a few days and the results were finally published. We had won! Not only the mixed event but the overall marathon corporate relay. And by a margin of 17 minutes in front of second place, so quite comprehensively. Prior commitments dependent, we’ll be heading down to York to receive our trophy next week and to have some promotional photos taken to be published in the local press, getting great exposure for Venator.

Relays are excellent. A real team spirit is created, even though running is a very individual sport – a genuine benefit to a business or indeed any other organisation that provides such an opportunity to its employees. The six of us have become friends rather than just colleagues through our training, preparation and competing and, when our jobs require us to work together, this can only be a good thing. There were also families and groups running for charity in the ‘corporate’ relay, both of which are great to see. It doesn’t matter too much which team wins as the vast majority competing for the enjoyment of it suggested, but, as someone who always strives to give their best at everything, it’s nice to win all the same!!

NEHL #2 Druridge Bay – 7th October 2018

After a first Harrier League outing where my summary was that it was something to build on, it was good to have a quick turnaround to the next meet just a week later. It had been a decent week of training. A tempo session, a track session and a long run mixed it up nicely and my legs were feeling pretty good on Sunday morning. Some good performances from our juniors were well earned by those who are always at training and have the right mentality for distance running. Not everyone has that mental capacity to rinse themselves inside out physically on a regular basis, both in training and in races.

Once again, a course recce was crucial. There had been some rain during the week and it was raining during the recce as well. The grass would be wet. Was there any mud? What were the corners like? Well, there was no mud to speak of at all and the odd corner may have been a little greasy for road shoes, but the main issue on this Druridge Bay Country Park course is the long, gravel path which is tough on spike-wearing feet on firm ground. My decision was to go for trail shoes.

I watched some excellent performances in the ladies’ race while warming up, including a third place finish for Gosforth, but was shocked to see the winner was more than two minutes ahead of the next fastest. She was an outstanding athlete, still looking really strong in the home straight. We sometimes get world class athletes at Harrier League and other northeast club events. Olympians Laura Weightman and Aly Dixon are occasional participants, as well as several GB triathletes (including a few from Gosforth Harriers). Aly Dixon actually holds the Strava crown for one lap of the Druridge Bay course. But the overriding benefit of running is back in the main field. It is so heartening to see clubmates and other friends getting faster, being promoted, achieving podiums or even winning big, local races. It’s also fantastic to see the other end of the age spectrum, where the focus may be more about slowing down the slowing down process or keeping active. And from a health point of view, one friend from another club has recently lost 3½ stone in just seven months and is now in the middle of the pack rather than at the back. All deserve the applause and support of the spectators and, I’m happy to say, get it.

I heard the whistle go to signal the gathering of the men’s start. I quickly made my way to the start line and was there fast enough to bag a spot right at the front. It was another big field. 550 plus. I went through my mental preparations, telling myself how I wanted to run this race. Firstly, don’t go off too fast, then don’t go off too fast and, finally, don’t go off too fast. The gun went and the hordes started off on the 100 yard or so stretch to the first corner. I was probably about 15th by then. By the next corner I was about 30th and the placings settled down with about 45 people ahead of me before the first mile was done. I was happy with the pace. In fact, I was thinking whether I had gone off too slow. A quick look at my Garmin showed 6:23 pace. Definitely not too slow. Just about right.

I was glad to be wearing my trail shoes as we went onto the gravel path for the first time. I could hear the clickety-clack of the guy wearing spikes next to me as he veered left to find the bumpy, narrow streak of grass to run on. I found I was able to push on down that straight, overtaking a couple. The next section had some damp corners. How would my grip hold out? Perfectly, was the answer, even taking the corners quite sharply. I traded positions with a Sun City Tri runner going around the two hairpins and made a mental note of him as he put on a burst and pulled away ten or so yards on the next section. A quick look back on a corner and I could see another couple of Gosforth Harriers no more than 15 seconds behind me. That was good. This is a team game and we need some good counters at every event to stand a chance of staying in Division 1.

I finished the first lap as a North Shields Poly runner who I recognised drew up alongside me. We are similar levels, but he had beaten me quite convincingly in the Nationals earlier this year, the last time we raced each other. Together with a Ponteland runner and the Sun City Tri runner from earlier, we were all fairly well matched, running quite close together. The wind was brisk and against you going along the top grassy section and onto the gravel again. There were certainly benefits to finding shelter behind someone, saving energy, but you needed to be right behind them, almost within clipping distance. Once the wind was partially shielded by the hedge, I pulled out to the side and accelerated a bit, once again using my trail shoes on the gravel path to good effect, managing to drop all three and put enough distance between us that they couldn’t use me as a windshield. I was now starting to overtake the odd slow pack runner who couldn’t keep the early pace up, as well as being passed by the fastest medium pack runners, most of whom would be promoted to fast pack for the next meet. A quick look at my Garmin and the pace was 6:30. Still bang on.

Onto the final lap. Hearing support from all around the course, from both seniors and juniors, was tremendous. I was dreading the third lap being as painful as the third lap was last week at Wrekenton but it wasn’t. I was feeling good and my pace was fairly constant. With half a lap to go, I was now down in about 65th position given that a few fast packers were now overtaking me, having made up their handicap. Expecting the promotion cut-off to be about 55th, I was safe from that. A teammate from medium pack passed me, making me now second counter for Gosforth. We exchanged encouragement as he went passed. I pushed the pace up a notch as much as I could. Just under a mile to go. A long grassy straight followed by the only real uphill on the course. Drive up that hill. No holding back now and a shout-out from the club coach to push on with only 400m to go.

Then the finishing section. A sharp right and onto a bumpy downhill, a sweeping left and the finish was 70 yards ahead, slightly uphill and giving it everything. It’s great for spectating, seeing all the races within races culminating in sprint finishes, last minute overtaking and lung-busting efforts to get one over on your rival and secure one fewer point for your team (fewest points = better). About halfway up the finishing straight, the noise of the crowd seemed to explode. It wasn’t for me. I wasn’t going to be able to overtake anyone ahead. It must be someone behind me, catching me. With 25 yards to go, a Jarrow runner overtook me on the right, sprinting, all out. He had put everything into his sprint finish to that point. One of my specialities is the sprinting speed I can generate in the last 20 metres of a race. It has gained me valuable places in all sorts of races. As soon as I saw the Jarrow runner in my peripheral vision, I put on that burst, overtaking him again and safely crossed the line, maintaining the position I had going into the home straight, almost taking the runner in front of me as he slowed on the line.

77th place. Safely outside the promotion zone. 45 seconds faster than last year, although the course was slightly shorter this year according to my Garmin. 150th fastest out of 564 finishers. 9th out of 98 in my age group. More Gosforth runners came in in quick succession. We shook hands and started the recovery process, welcoming each runner home. It meant a 7th place finish (out of 10) in the division, although we did have one runner promoted, the same as all of our main divisional rivals. The race to avoid relegation is going to be very tight with four teams now seemingly in the mix a third of the way through the season, although we are best placed of those four teams at the moment.

Druridge Splits

Some runs leave you in such a happy mood and this was one of those. My mile splits were right on the money. I beat all the targets I had identified and really enjoyed it. We did our cool down, as is always recommended after a hard run, packed up the tent and headed home, but not before saying hello to some gorgeous Highland cattle. The organization of this event was also excellent. It’s our turn next at the end of October, but I have another couple of races before then.

NEHL Wrekenton – 29th September 2018

After a long, hot summer, I was looking forward to the start of the cross-country season, which is really the main focus of the year for Gosforth Harriers. The men’s team had gained promotion to Division 1 last season as Division 2 champions and we were determined to do better than the last time we were in Division 1, which ended in a swift relegation back down to Division 2. As with last year, the first fixture was at Wrekenton, always well organized by Saltwell Harriers. The host club has a significant responsibility to plan the route, set out the course and provide the bulk of the marshalls, something that we will be experiencing later in the season as the third Harrier League fixture is on our regular training patch in Gosforth Park.

The discussion around spikes, trail shoes or trainers was easy for me once I had seen the course on the recce. It was as dry as a desert, even dusty in places. Trainers it was, although, if I had covered a few more miles on my brand new, light trail shoes, I would have been tempted to give those a try. The worn path was flat, but veer off that and there were plenty of ankle-turning lumps and bumps hidden under the roughly cut grass. Watching the women’s race alongside our tent, I noticed several seemed to fall or trip at the same place. On closer inspection, I noticed a big, ankle-deep divot a couple of feet to the right of the racing line, invisible to the runners as they approached it. Mental note made and worth the course inspection just for that.

The first race of the day was the under 11s and the field was the biggest I had ever seen. The popularity of running, especially cross-country, now covers all ages. Having said that, I am still surprised at how many clubs in the region, especially some of the big ones, do not have junior sections. It requires specific coaching and safeguarding responsibilities, but the demand is certainly there judging by the long waiting list to join the Gosforth junior section.

I’m back in the slow pack this year, meaning I should finish as one of the counters for the club again. Having said that, the first event of the season will have a strong slow pack. All new runners start in the slow pack and, like me, any medium packers who weren’t promoted last season also start again in slow pack. Nevertheless, I started close to the front, enabling me to count where I was in the field, to determine if I would be in line for promotion to medium pack at any point. I guessed there were in excess of 500 starters in the men’s field. It was actually close to 600, meaning the top 60 or so finishers would be promoted unless they were already in the fast pack. Remembering the course from previous years, and reading my blog from last year, there are several parts of this course that are narrow, so starting close to the front and getting good field position is important so as not to be delayed by traffic.

A cold a couple of weeks ago had all but gone, but it did mean no running for a week to get over it. That and a week travelling for work with long days and late night travels meant I felt in no better than average shape. Last year’s time would be a good benchmark for me.

After a while standing in the brisk wind on the start line, during which I spotted a couple of targets, the gun went and we set off. I really wanted to moderate my start, not go off too fast. The first mile will always feel easy. It should feel easy. Don’t let that sense of ease fool you into going faster than you should, because you will pay for it later. The first half mile of this course is mainly uphill. That will also take more out of you if you power up that faster and expend more effort than you should. It’s better to take the first mile easy and either maintain a constant pace or, if you can, speed up over the second half – a negative split. I tell myself that every time. And almost invariably, my first mile is my fastest! 6:25 this time. Slower than last year which was 6:15, so maybe I am learning. Or maybe just getting slower!!

About 40-50 people were in front of me going up the first steep hill. No danger of getting promoted today as the fastest runners in the medium and slow pack would pass me on the last lap. There was a little bit of traffic, but nothing that slowed me down. I’m a decent downhill runner, and took several people on each downhill, generally maintained my position on the flats, but seemed to lose out on the uphills. Maybe that’s because I moderate my effort on the uphills, or maybe I need to put a few more hills into my training. The first lap was done in 12:15. For some reason, I thought that was best part of a minute faster than last year, but it was only 5 seconds faster. One lap in, I had definitely made the correct shoe decision, for me, at least. It is important to do that recce beforehand, leaving enough time for yourself to change shoes, perhaps even change the length of spikes, based on the conditions you find. Don’t think that just because it’s a cross-country race, that the course will be ankle deep in shoe-sucking mud, especially at this time of year.

I maintained the effort on the second lap. I saw a couple of casualties being attended to at the bottom of the steepest hill and a bonfire from one of the neighbours drifting onto the course didn’t exactly help the breathing. Halfway round, I heard a spectator tell a runner close to me that they were about 45th. That gave me a good benchmark for promotion and to pass onto other Gosforth runners. I was running in a group of about six runners, but, towards the end of the lap, I could tell I was tiring. My spring and flow just wasn’t what it should be. I started struggling to stay with the group, relying on catching them back on the downhills to maintain contact, but eventually losing them on the final lap. Some medium packers and fast packers started passing me and I could tell some slow packers as well. My mile splits were close to 7 minutes now and my legs were stiffening up. Not quite cramp, but close to it. One of my targets from last season, a South Shields Harrier, passed me. I never managed to beat him in the three races last year which we both did. It was frustrating now, but I couldn’t do anything about it today. A couple of Gosforth runners passed me, making me fourth counter. The support on the course for Gosforth was excellent, providing a combination of advice, encouragement, photos and cowbells. I metaphorically gritted my teeth and ploughed on, down the last hill, onto the embankment for the last time. I was doing everything I could to maintain my position, dredging the last bits of energy out of my legs. There would be little, if anything, left in the tank for a sprint finish today as I took the right hand turn onto the home straight. One past me, going a lot faster. With the sun in the right place, I looked for the shadows. I would see a shadow first before the runner. Never look back, especially not on the home straight on bumpy ground. I could hear footsteps, but couldn’t see the shadow. Over the last 20 metres, I put in my last effort, crossing the line one second in front of two people behind me.

Heavy legged, I made my way down the finishing funnel, glad it was over, hurting and a little light headed. Weary handshakes with the next Gosforth runners home, four coming in in fairly quick succession. With the top six counting, that was probably a decent result for our first fixture back in Division One. When the results came out while we were still getting dressed in the tent – kudos to the Harrier League organisers and the timing system – it turned out we’d finished 6th in Division 1. Definitely a decent result. We did have three runners promoted though, so it will get tougher through the season.

I came 96th, or 157th with the handicap system removed, out of a field of 594, a record turnout for the Harrier League apparently. I was 31 seconds slower than last year, most of which happened on the final lap. Looking at the results, a lot of people seemed to be a similar time down on last year. My Garmin showed the course to be a little longer, and there was also a brisk wind. In the unhandicapped results comparison with last year, I finished in an almost identical place. I was 15th out of 115 in my age category. Not too bad, but definitely something to build on. Back to training and the next race on Sunday at Druridge Bay. There is a little rain in the forecast, so I may be donning the spikes.