Alnwick has always been one of my favourite cross-country courses, but running the Northeasterns there while unwell in December and in inappropriate footwear may have turned me off the course for good. The weather forecast was not particularly great for race time either with strong winds and hail in the mix when I arrived an hour or so before my race.
The injury crisis continues among Gosforth Harriers’ senior men and a plea was put out on the various social media channels and groups for anyone fit and able to turn out. We have several former and current members of the armed forces in our ranks, so it’s tradition for the messages and chat to take on a military nature: “Battle stations!”, “Reporting for duty!”, “Reinforcement battalions”, “Let’s take that hill!”, especially when we’re talking cross-country. Being on active service thousands of miles from Gosforth is one of the few valid excuses accepted by our coach for missing a Harrier League event!
It’s very tight in the division with at least four teams still in contention for promotion. A finish outside the top two would not be good. Not being able to get a full team out would be disastrous, effectively ruling us out of any promotion. The mobilisation worked and ten Green and Whites declared themselves ready for action.
When our squad was finalised, based on the intricacies of the NorthEast Harrier League’s excellent handicap system, it looked pretty good, despite only one of our fastest eight runners being available. If all went to plan, we would get at least six low-scoring finishers, with the rest of the team, including a couple of first timers, doing everything they could to push runners from the other teams in our division backwards.
My course recce was a full lap. There were only a couple of muddy bits, but the main shoe decision was the path through the woods that had been reinforced with shale. Although there was a narrow, stone-free, dirt path that would be OK for spikes, based on my experience in the Northeasterns, I decided that trail shoes would be the option for me.
After my recent performances at the Northerns and Nationals, I was feeling confident. I wanted to test myself today, maybe push on a bit to see if the training I had been doing recently was really working. In cross-country, you can only compare this in terms of how you perform against other people in the race. You can’t use time as every course is different and conditions can impact time significantly. There were also a few changes to the course compared to previous years to make it safer, but also longer and hillier.
I took my place with the rest of the Green and White Army slow pack runners on the start line. While the strong, cold wind was still there, the clouds had mainly cleared to give some watery sunshine. The field seemed smaller than usual. I guessed at 350-400 compared to the normal 650-odd. I wasn’t aware of any other big races happening this weekend, so it was a bit of a puzzle. We had already discussed strategy regarding promotion to faster packs. The top 10% of the field, or the top 35-40 places today, would be promoted to a faster pack if they weren’t already in the fast pack. That means a handicap of about two and a half minutes for a medium pack runner and five minutes for a fast pack runner.
I cleared my mind while we waited for the off. The guy in front of me was a bit slow to react to the gun, so I had a slow start. I normally try to count my position in the field after the first hundred or so metres, but there were too many in front of me as we went down the hill, through the gate and turned right across the pastures into a strong headwind. I caught sight of two of my targets; let’s call them Target 1 and Target 2. We always seem to be close to each other in races, but normally they would beat me. I wanted today to be different.
We turned right to start going up the steepest hill on the course, my trail shoes slipping a bit. I was boxed in by other runners so I couldn’t choose my exact line and my route had virtually no grass at all. Once back on good ground, most of those around me were still going faster up the hill. Were they putting too much effort in or was I just slow going up hills?
The long, uphill drag we now faced gave me the opportunity to peer into the distance to count my position in the field. I was 35th, there or thereabouts anyway. I passed that information onto a teammate as he went past me. That put me 36th. I passed someone else. Back to 35th. And so on, allowing me to keep track of my position.
At the top of the hill, we turned right again into the wooded section with the shale-reinforced path. I had a clear run as I was the only one of those around me who elected not to follow the narrow, spike-friendly route. As we exited the wooded section, I was shocked to be overtaken by a medium packer who had already made up his 2:30 handicap on me before I had even finished the first lap. He was to go on and win in the fastest time of the day. He’s also an international standard runner, so I didn’t feel too bad.
I was a few yards behind Target 1 as we went down the main, steep hill which has a narrow path making overtaking tricky and a little dangerous.
There was a group of five of us as we battled into the headwind again at the start of the second lap: two other Gosforth Harriers, Target 1, Target 2 and me. Initially, I was right behind Target 1 who led our little group. I felt he was going too slow, maybe angling for someone else to take the brunt of the wind. There was another runner about fifteen yards ahead and I was feeling good. I pulled out, overtook Target 1 and put in an effort to catch the runner in front. This was also part of my plan to push myself a bit harder in this race: take lap one as normal, push on on lap two and try to hold that on lap three. The move seemed to break everybody else in the group.
On the course, there are two or three sections where the ropes purposely guide you through boggy patches. You are supposed to stay inside the ropes, ensuring you have to run through the boggy patches. It’s a simple rule. Cross-country is not supposed to be easy. The guy I was now running with decided this rule didn’t apply to him and ran outside the ropes on much firmer ground. I let him go the first time he did it, but not the second, calling him out by the name of his club. It angered me. If a marshall had seen him he should have been disqualified. I was then frustrated as I found I couldn’t stay with his pace and he pulled away from me going up the hill.
A couple more medium packers passed me and then one of my teammates from medium pack drew level. The plan we had made beforehand was for me to tell him his position in the field as he passed me. A gasped “35th” was all I could muster as he took on the information and then pushed on. He was flying and would finish well up the field today.
Before I made it to the top of the hill, Target 1 reappeared and overtook me. Maybe my plan to push on in lap two was backfiring. I was really blowing now but managed to recover as we went through the woods and I metaphorically hung onto the back of him as we went down the steep hill again.
I have to admit, my drafting of Target 1 at the start of lap three going into the strong wind was quite blatant. “Nothing wrong with drafting!” I was reminded by a clubmate as I recounted the race to him during a recovery run the next day. By now there was a steady stream of medium and fast pack runners coming past us, including another Gosforth Harrier making me now fourth counter, but both myself and Target 1 were pushing ourselves as hard as we could up the long hill for the last time. My counting was into the 50’s. At least I wasn’t going to get promoted today.
The effort I was putting in meant that, at the end of the woods section, I was getting that feeling in my stomach and throat that told me it was going to be another retching session at the end. ‘That’s OK,’ I told myself. ‘It’s alright to be sick if it means you beat him.’ If I could just manage to stay with him going down the hill, it was going to come down to a sprint finish. I was up for that.
The ground flattened out with about 300 metres to go and I was still right behind him. When shall I make my move? Not too early. The final turn was coming up. 150 metres to go. Into the spectator area. Right turn through the gate. He made sure I couldn’t take the inside line. 100 metres to go. Now?
I don’t remember actually making the decision to go. It just happened. I went through the gears, pulled over to the left and went for it. I passed him and didn’t see him respond. I kept going, then noticed someone coming past me on my left. I recognised the vest. Green and white stripes. If I was going to get overtaken by anyone in the home straight, let it be a clubmate. I was ready to put the afterburners on if needed in the last twenty metres, but a quick glance showed that no one else was closing in.
I crossed the line, moved into the right-hand finish funnel and stopped to throw up. This meant that the chip timing system allowed a Gateshead Harrier, who finished a couple of seconds behind me, to take my place and time and I took his. It didn’t matter in the scheme of things as Gateshead are in a different division, but it emphasised the need to continue walking down the finish funnel even when throwing up!
I was fifth counter home for Gosforth. Probably in the 60’s place-wise. Our sixth finisher arrived a minute or so later. All six counters in the top 100. That’s got to be a good result. We waited for the next two finishers, but it was a bitterly cold wind, so I headed off to the tent to get some warm clothes on.
When the results came out an hour or so later, it was a resounding victory. We were comfortably first in the division on the day, moving within a point of the leaders and putting a little bit of daylight between us and the third placed club. The top two clubs would be promoted to Division One at the end of the season. We only had two runners promoted to faster packs as well and, with two more events to go in March, every point will count and every runner is important.
I felt very pleased with myself. I’m not sure if my ‘push harder during lap 2’ plan worked – I was running on fumes in the penultimate mile, half a minute per mile slower than the previous three miles. But, I finished 27th from slow pack and had beaten both my targets and a few others who have beaten me recently. Target 1 had pushed me all the way and I would have shaken his hand at the end had I not been bent double being sick! Moreover, Alnwick had returned to being one of my favourite cross-country courses again.
Mission accomplished! Stand down, men! But only until the Battle of Lambton, the next Harrier League event, in two weeks time.