NEHL Alnwick – 29th February 2020

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.img_4014

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?img_4016

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.

National Cross-Country Championships, Wollaton Hall – 22nd February 2020

I write these blogs both for my own memories and to give its readers an insight into what’s going on in my running story, during training and before, during and after races. Focussing on myself for a moment, I realised the other day that I haven’t done a 2019 review, so, while it’s still sort-of fresh, I’m going to start off with that.

2019 was a difficult year in many ways, some running-related, some not. Lots of colds; close family bereavement; really bad sleep problems; five different bosses at work; pesky piriformis syndrome; not getting to anywhere near as many club training sessions as I would like; too much driving; building an extension at home; getting slower… I could go on.

I spent a lot of time thinking about how running is a part of my life. Yes, I would like to do more, but, these days, my body complains when I do two hard training sessions on consecutive days. Hard evening sessions mean I struggle to get to sleep before midnight or 1am, but I still have to be up at 6am for work. Even if I could do more physically, it would mean eating into family time. And that is something that I feel guilty doing. If I was an elite athlete, with running being my job and our income dependent on performance, that would be a good excuse. But I’m not. Running is an important hobby for me. But it’s not worth sacrificing other things in my life for.

Having said all that, 2019 was still my second most runningest year on record, covering a touch over 800 miles. I did quite a few long runs in Spring / Summer – the best time of year in the Northeast for running in my opinion. I was hoping to ramp up to marathon distance and maybe enter an autumn race last minute, but the old piriformis always reared its head after about 15 miles, so I topped off at that.

Piriformis aside, I managed the full year without any real injury that stopped me running, although ill-health did put me out of action for a few weeks. Running injury-free is obviously important. I avoid racing two weeks in a row now because my body struggles to recover in time and that is when injuries happen. I’ve also started doing a lot more strength and conditioning. I feel better and stronger for it. But, unfortunately, not faster.

I heard on a recent podcast that the running performance of a half-decent veteran club runner starts to show undeniable decline on average at about 48 years old. I was 48 in 2019 and I really noticed a slowdown. I fear I won’t be threatening to set any more PBs, despite putting in plenty of hard sessions. Then again, I am really enjoying my running. At my age, slowing down is sort of inevitable, but it doesn’t mean I’m going to accept it or stop running. Far from it.

I’m also quite proud that running is becoming so popular and that it’s my sport. The number of social running groups is exploding and, by social, I mean they are running for fun, fitness and social interaction rather than any form of competition. Running is so inclusive. On one recent club LSR, we had runners in their 30’s, 40’s, 50’s and 60’s and we all had an entertaining time and a challenging run.

It must also be the most cost-efficient form of exercise, even with the exorbitant cost of decent running shoes these days. You can get a full year of running shoes, club membership and the odd race entry not covered by club membership for about the same price as three months at a decent gym. OK, you don’t get the swimming pool, jacuzzi or sauna at our clubhouse, but…

Then there’s the phenomenon of parkrun, which continues to grow exponentially year on year. Within ten miles of where I live, I now have a choice of fifteen free 5k parkruns every Saturday morning, although, personally, on a Saturday morning, I am more likely to be with my daughter at her netball match or at my club’s training than at a parkrun. Hill sessions are the best!!

So, 2019 wasn’t a bad year after all. And I’m looking forward to 2020. It’s got off to a good start with some decent mileage and sessions in January and February. I’m still struggling to get down the track due to football dad responsibilities on the same night, but you can’t have everything.

And so, onto the Nationals. I love this race. There’s something about the term “National Cross-Country Championships” that inspires the mind and the body and impresses non-runners when you tell them that’s what you’re doing this weekend. You’re also expecting a long, championship length course (8 miles/13km this year) and, with the senior men always going off last after thousands of runners have churned up the course beforehand, it’s normally very tough.

To say this winter has been wet would be a bit of an understatement. Three Harrier League events have been called off due to car parking facilities being flooded. After two named storms in two weeks and another deluge the night before, we were expecting the worst from the infamous Wollaton Park course in Nottingham.

With a bit of local knowledge, I avoided the long queues for car parking and arrived in time to see the first race finish and witness the mud-covered legs and splattered faces of the participants. You expect to see lower legs covered in mud after a cross-country – some would say it’s not a true cross-country if that’s not the case – but all the way up to the thigh? And faces as well?

Wearing my wellies, it was soon obvious why, as I picked my spot by one of the water ‘features’ to watch my son in the Under 17’s race. Knee-deep, muddy water. They did that section twice. The senior men would be doing that four times. A quick mental calculation suggested certain parts of the course would be trampled by about thirty thousand pairs of feet during the day.

I read that the senior men’s race was four laps: one extra small, one medium, one large and one extra large, so it wouldn’t be easy to do a full course recce. With another clubmate, we went to watch the senior ladies at the steepest part of the course near the stately home that doubled as Wayne Manor in some of the Batman movies. In fact, it is only five miles from Gotham, the small Nottinghamshire town that gave its name to Gotham City. The hill was steep after a longer uphill drag, but nothing too intimidating.

There were a few tourists milling around the stately home, greeted by the spectacle of a national cross-country championship race. I listened to one person say that he ‘never got cross-country running’. I have a passing interest in human anthropology from a couple of books I have read recently. It is thought that one of the reasons early humans were successful was our ability to chase down animals over long distances. While humans weren’t fast enough to catch their prey over short distances, the animals would tire after a few miles, while humans had evolved to be able to carry on longer by losing heat more effectively from our hairless bodies and big heads by sweating and eventually take down their exhausted prey. Cross-country running, perhaps, is the modern-day, more peaceful progression of that. Maybe the hunters of old weren’t the strongest, as depicted in Hollywood movies. Maybe they were the fittest and the fastest with the best stamina. For me, it’s one of the most natural forms of running. Quite why it isn’t in the Olympics is baffling. The Winter Games, of course!

Anyway, time to get ready for the senior men’s race. I was a little nervous during my warm-up as my ankles were very stiff. I didn’t feel like I was flowing at all well. I kept at it and eventually felt better. By the time I had returned to the tent to strip down to my vest, the other three clubmates in the race must have already headed off to the start, so I went on my own. I caught sight of a green and white striped vest in the starting pen, but it turned out to be a runner from Derwent, one of the three other clubs with the same vest as us. By that time, about 1,800 runners were lining up, so I joined the throng on my own.

I lined up to the right of the 150-metre-wide starting pen, having picked that as the best line through the standing water and mud that formed a fair chunk of the starting straight. The first bend was also a right-hander, so that also helped. I went into a little world of my own, knowing that this was going to be tough. Excited as well though. This was the Nationals. London Heathside runners to my right, Wallsend runners to my left, dozens of other clubs from every corner of England all around me.

The gun went and the charge commenced. Cheers and shouts. And that was just from the runners – the adrenalin coursing through our veins. Splashing sounds all around as 3600 feet charged through the water. Then into the mud. The first casualty after only 100 metres with a runner losing one of his spikes. He stopped to pick it up and carried on running with it in his hand. I gradually moved over to the right-hand side, seeing that the ground there was still grassy, running at close quarters to the spectators on the other side of the fence, hundreds of phone cameras and proper cameras recording the scene.

Around the first right hand bend, once again sticking to the firm ground, I was amazed. I had a remarkably clear run, taking the inside line and on good ground while hundreds of others trudged through mud on a longer route. I know I picked up a lot of places doing this, even at this early stage. The course took us through a tricky bit back to the start/finish area where the majority of club tents were. I heard our supporters shout my name – always nice to hear. Was that the ‘extra-small’ lap already finished? I suppose so. Onto the ‘medium’ lap.img_3968

The course led us around to the water feature where I had watched my son plough through earlier. Filthy, shin-high water, splashing up over our heads. And it absolutely stank. No hesitation though. Out the other side and away. Cold, wet feet now, but not a problem. A tree trunk straddling the width of the course had to be hurdled, a bit more mud then back round to the start/finish area, hearing my name called again. ‘Medium’ lap done? Only a mile completed. I began to doubt my lap counting!

Through the water a second time and then round to the left this time. I checked my ankle to make sure my chip was still attached, which it was. Largely decent ground now as we headed downhill towards the lake. I could pick up a bit of speed, although so could everyone else. I had no bearing regarding targets with the exception of a couple of the Derwent Runners also in green and white. I was trying to stay with them, but over differing terrain, different runners have different strengths. Through the mud, some surged on. Down the hill, some surged on. Slow starters passed me. I passed some fast starters as they slowed. I was comfortable with my pace. I felt good and my ankles weren’t stiff.

Then the deepest mud I have ever run through. Some came to a grinding stop. It was still crowded. A guy near me grabbed hold of someone else’s arm to stop himself falling over, receiving a quick rebuttal, although quite polite in the circumstances. And then another tree trunk to negotiate. I could barely lift my foot out of the mud to jump onto it, let alone hurdle it in one go. I planted my mud-covered spike with new 15mm pins on the top of it and I prayed for good purchase as I launched myself forward and over it. And back around to the start/finish section to hear more support to which I gave a thumbs-up. A quick look at my Garmin. 3 miles done. Surely that wasn’t the ‘large’ lap? Surely we didn’t only have one ‘extra-large’ lap to go? We still had about 5 miles to run. They weren’t cutting the race short today, were they?img_3969

This next lap took us for the first time up the hill to the house where we had watched the ladies. I found the energy to surge up the hill, knowing that there was a downhill immediately afterwards. I passed several people and then took a line down the hill that avoided a congested, narrow ridge, restricting the runners to single file, which also seemed a good move, albeit with a tricky camber. Down the steepest part of the course on good ground. On a course with so much mud, you had to take advantage of this bit. I strode out, as fast as I dared. With the field starting to thin out a bit, there were targets now that I could gauge my position on. A runner from Kent AC, one from Bournville, one from Tonbridge and a Sunderland Harrier I recognised as well, who is quickly becoming my new nemesis! There were tree roots all over the place. You really had to watch your footing. I missed one and went over on my right ankle, giving me an intense, but thankfully short-lived, shot of pain.

Back through the dreaded deepest mud – no point trying to look for an easier route; there wasn’t one – over the logs and round to the start/finish area, but not down the finishing straight. My fears, though not entirely unexpected, were realised. We had just done the ‘large’ lap, not the ‘extra-large’ lap. More than 2½ miles to go and I was really starting to feel the exertion.

Most of the course that was reasonable to start with was now cut up, especially the start/finish straight and just before the hill going up to the house. You struggled to find any line that wasn’t ankle-deep mud and it was totally strength-sapping. I wondered what differences the ‘extra-large’ lap had to the ‘large’ lap. I was soon to find out. The steepest hill on the course was not actually the steepest hill on the course! The additional loop took us up a very cheeky climb taking that accolade from the hill near the house, giving already tired legs a further test. With lungs bursting, we turned right at the top and then down the other side towards the lake.

Lapping the slower runners now, I felt sorry for them as they were directed to the right and last lap runners to the left. Once again, I missed a root and went over on my right ankle. It hurt more and I noticeably lost some pace, not getting it back this time as the pain stayed with me to the end. To cross another stream, the marshall was shouting “Easy route to the right! Face-planters to the left!” Guess which side I was on! No face-plant for me though! Not far now, but some particularly sticky mud still to come on the ¾ mile uphill slog which saw my pace dip from 7 minute miles to 10½ minute miles at one point. I was looking forward to the home straight, all downhill.img_3976

We rounded the penultimate right turn. I started winding things up, picking up good pace as the downhill home straight started. Then the last 100 or so metres was just a quagmire! Could they not at least give us some decent ground on the finishing straight?! I extracted the last remaining ounce of energy from my failing body to haul myself over the line, remembering to stop my watch as I did so. Light-headed, I needed the fencing to the side to stop myself toppling over, before being ushered forward by a marshall. I looked at my watch. 1 hour 00 minutes 12 seconds. Should I be so disappointed about those 12, or rather 13, seconds? Not really. Especially not in cross-country where time means nothing. But I was! Not that I could have done anything about it. I was exhausted. I had given everything.

I looked down at my mud-caked legs to take my chip off. You couldn’t see anything of my spikes. It was like I was wearing brown mud shoes! At least I still had both on though! Unlike some who had courageously completed such a horrendous course in a sock. I wandered back to the tent to be greeted with lots of club chat, smiles and photos and a chair to sit down on.

In the two Nationals I have done previously, my aim has always been to get into the top 50%, but it’s something I’ve never quite managed to do. When the results were published later on that evening, I was 852nd out of 1,710 finishers. That’s 49.8%. Get in!! Getting slower? Pah! I knew I had run well, both in performance and tactics and, both health and fitness-wise, I’m in decent shape. Regular readers might know that I’m a bit of a geek when it comes to results analysis. Comparing runners who finished a little ahead of me in the Northerns a few weeks ago, I averaged about 2 minutes faster than them this time round. I call that a good run. I’m also one of only two senior men in the club to complete the Trinity this year of the NorthEasterns, the Northerns and the Nationals.

I tried to explain to a few bewildered friends in the pub that night about why we do this thing called cross-country. Despite being too tired to really put many coherent sentences together, I hope I managed to convey the challenge and achievement of just competing in such an event, despite the pain and exhaustion evident in some of the pictures later to go online.

Also, if we had lived 10,000 years ago, I’d like to think we would collectively have brought home an absolute feast!

Three Completely Different Race Experiences

Northeastern Cross-Country Championships – 14th December 2019 – Alnwick

It started with a sneeze! Cue three weeks fighting a virus. That was the last week of November and the first two weeks of December with no running whatsoever. So it was no surprise that the Northeastern Cross-Country Championships as my first run back was a very underwhelming result. It was on one of my favourite cross-country courses, modified and extended for the championship race distance. I probably shouldn’t have been running at all to be honest, but not wanting to let my club down and an internal drive to fulfil promises I had made spurred me on to do it.

I didn’t do a full course recce. If I had, I would have chosen trail shoes rather than spikes. I started off at a pace I thought I could maintain, slower than my normal pace. Less than a mile in, people started passing me. Every time someone passed me, I mentally told myself to hang onto the back of them. Every time, I failed. I had neither the strength in my body nor the oxygen in my lungs to stay with them. It was so demoralising. I started hating parts of a course that I loved. I was frustrated that I hadn’t inspected the half mile or so of the course that was totally unsuitable for spikes, going over on my ankle a couple of times. But I stuck at it. All the way. Including a sprint finish with a Darlington athlete that I won even though we recorded the same time.

I finished, went straight back to the tent, collected my bag and headed home, trying to forget a bad day at the office. I only checked the result when writing this blog over a month later. I was about three and a half minutes slower than a fully fit me would have been. It felt a lot slower. More importantly, I was the club’s sixth counter. Without me, we would have dropped two places in the rankings. It somehow became all worthwhile!

 

Sherman Cup – 4th January 2020 – Temple Park, South Shields

In the last two weeks of 2019, I only managed another two training runs, both really social and enjoyable events. Importantly, by the New Year, my infection had gone and I was in a much better state for the Sherman Cup cross-country in South Shields, even though I was sorely lacking in fitness. This is an important event for Gosforth Harriers with the winners being the club that performs best across all age groups. We normally do very well at it.

Temple Park is often derided as a course, especially compared to some of the other courses we have in this part of the world, but I quite like it. As an urban park, it does have a long, tarmac path when spike-wearers have to run on the grass verge, which was why I opted for trail shoes. Once again, I didn’t do a full recce and, on this day, maybe spikes would have been the better option, but it was a close call. It has a couple of long hills and one particularly nasty steep bit. On the first lap, I went up the middle of that hill and struggled to get grip. On the second and third laps, I made sure to go up the side where there was a small amount of grass and got much better grip.

It was a windy day and you were most exposed running around the field at the end of each lap. I do like a sprint finish and, even though I was on my last legs, I was metaphorically licking my lips when three of us entered the field together for the last half mile of the race. The pace noticeably increased. One dropped back, so it was myself and another runner from one of the several clubs in blue vests. The first half of the lap was mainly into the wind. I stuck behind the other runner, still running hard, but blatantly drafted him. 300m to go and around the penultimate right-hand bend. Now the wind was across us. I drew level with him, starting to ramp it up. 200m to go. Faster still. Now almost flat out for an extended run-in, and I could tell I was pulling ahead slightly. “That’s it! I’m done!” said the other runner, effectively announcing he was conceding our little race within a race, and he dropped back. ‘Victory!’ I thought to myself, a little disappointed it wasn’t going to come down to an all-out sprint down the home straight.

I didn’t slack off the pace for the last 100m though. After all, he could have been bluffing. I could still hear multiple pairs of footsteps behind me. I crossed the line and promptly threw up. A South Shields Harrier joined me in doing so. In a weird way, retching or throwing up at the end of a race or training session has a certain satisfaction about it. It shows that you have put everything in. It certainly isn’t anything to fear.

We had full teams out in every age group in both genders – one of only two clubs on the day from the whole Northeast to manage that. We finished third in both the women’s and the men’s competition. As the third counter for the vets’ team, I think that’s earned me a medal, which is always nice to get. I was probably at least 30 seconds down on some of my targets, but I’m getting there.

 

Northern Cross-Country Championships – 25th January 2020 – Bedale

I’ve never quite managed to complete a championship race as well as I would have wanted to. I have either got my preparation or the race itself wrong or been unwell. I was determined the Northerns would be the first one I would get right. It was held at a new location in Bedale, North Yorkshire. Surely that meant hilly?

The club bus arrived early, in good time for the junior races starting at 11:30am. With the senior men not going off until 3pm, that gave us plenty of time for a full course recce around probably the flattest cross-country course I’ve ever seen. There were some smooth, grassy bits and some boggy bits, which were obviously going to deteriorate as the day went on, and, bizarrely, the wreckage of an airplane on the furthest part of the course! Despite the lack of hills, it was a nice course with lots of trees. The longer distance of 12.5k would need careful effort management. I mentally noted where I could push on, some narrow parts of the course that may be bottlenecks and when I should start my increase in pace on the last lap for the finish.

There is a significant elevation in class at these regional events. A top 10 runner in the Northeast may be only top 40 in the North in field sizes not much bigger. I would normally come in the top third in the Northeast events. In past championship events, I haven’t been in the top half.

Some of our juniors were coming back commenting on a section through the forest that was particularly muddy underfoot. Definitely a spikes day. I changed my pins to 15mm, wondering if that was overkill.

I was feeling pretty good. Some decent training weeks since the New Year and some more focus on strength and conditioning from a book I got as a Christmas present had put me in a good frame of mind. After cheering on the ladies, I finished my warm-up and, perhaps a little more rushed than normal, I stripped down to my vest and shorts and headed over to the start pens with the three other Gosforth men. As a club, we seem to have been beset by injuries at the moment, so we were unfortunately down to a number that would not qualify us for the team event.

Looking around, I commented that the field seemed small, although it is difficult to tell at the penned start about 100 metres wide. There also seemed to be more seniors as opposed to veterans. I gathered my thoughts during the last few moments before the gun.

‘Equalise my effort across all three laps.’

‘Don’t go out so fast that you start haemorrhaging places in the last lap.’

‘Don’t get taken in trying to keep up with athletes you don’t know and don’t know how fast they are.’

I mentally prepared myself for the effort I am going to ask my body to give over the next hour.

‘This will hurt. Accept it.’

The gun went. The first half mile was a grassy field. Not quite cricket pitch smooth, but as good as you are going to get on a cross-country course. I felt as though I was well down the pack, maybe with three quarters of the field ahead of me. A quick look at my Garmin told me even that was too fast. I slowed down as we went past one of the areas with lots of supporters. The good thing about taking a club bus is that everyone stays for the whole event, so there are plenty of shouts of encouragement.

The smooth grass turned to soft grass. The soft grass turned to muddy patches and then we arrived at the bit everyone was talking about. Ankle deep mud for about 150 metres. Every step was an effort. The running technique on mud that thick is completely different to normal running. By going in toe first, your shoe cuts through the mud easier. You can then pull out heel first which reduces the mud’s sucking effect, reducing the effort you need to use to get your foot out and also reducing the likelihood of leaving your shoe in the mud. But it’s very tough, especially on your hamstrings.

A sharp left turn, a nice firm bit through the forest before another boggy bit. Some shouted advice from one of our coaches told me I was hunched over too much as I reached the end of that boggy bit. Good call. I absolutely was. I stood up tall and was able to push on down to the start/finish area. Two miles down. One small lap down. Only the best part of six more miles and now two large laps to go. I was already shattered. ‘So was everyone else,’ I told myself. I wasn’t concentrating on my position, but I noticed that I wasn’t being overtaken. If anything, I was gradually gaining positions.

The boggy bit on the second lap was now getting ridiculous. There were people walking. The mud had the effect of slowing you down and taking every ounce of energy you had. But then, when the mud finished, you had to consciously accelerate again, otherwise you would carry on going at that same, slow pace. That was tough, but worth it when you overtook someone. The long lap took us on a loop around the airplane wreck on decent ground. A time to recover and push on. The only hill on the course was here. About the height of our club tent! Still worth accelerating into it and down the other side though.

It was at this point that I felt something in my right shoe. Something hard. Something pointy. Note to self: when changing spike pins, don’t use the other shoe as a temporary pin storage facility. Or if you do, make sure you get them all out before you put the shoe on your foot. I managed to push the pin to the end of the shoe with my toes, but it was an unwelcome distraction as it kept moving around.

By now, there was a recognised group I was running with. A couple of Sunderland Harriers and runners from Bingley, Bury, Wetherby, East Cheshire, Sheffield and Spenborough. Sometimes one of us would push on ahead. Different runners handle different terrain at different speeds. The boggy bit on the third lap was now shin deep. My hamstrings were showing the first signs of cramping and my spikes felt so heavy as I exited it, gradually lightening as the mud came off on the grassy stretches. The Bury athlete was the strongest of our group, now about 30 metres ahead. I wasn’t going to get him back.

I took the lead of the rest of the group to get the inside track around a corner. About half a mile to go. One of the Sunderland Harriers passed me, so I increased my pace to latch onto him. I’d get him on the sprint. The home straight was about 300m long, slightly downhill on pretty firm ground. Perfect for the speedsters.

img_3805I maintained good focus as we ran alongside each other, ready to react if he kicked. Then I kicked and overtook him, ready to kick again when he came back at me. 100m to go. He dropped back. I kept going, extending the difference between us. I even felt comfortable enough to take a couple of looks behind me to make sure no one else was coming up behind me as I approached the line, hearing the reassuring beep of my ankle chip registering as I stepped onto the timing mat, telling me it hadn’t come off in the mud.

img_3802At last, a championship race that I was proud of. I’d loved it. It was tough and not everyone managed to get around without becoming more acquainted with the mud than they would have wanted! I shook hands with the Sunderland Harrier as I sat down next to him to take off my timing chip, met my team mates and then headed back to the tent as I knew the rest of the club members would have been wanting to make a sharp exit. We still made sure we did a cool down run. Sitting on the coach for an hour and a half would have been a disaster if we hadn’t done so.

When the results came out, I was a little disappointed with my position in the field. 359th out of 584 in 58:15. A much smaller field than in previous years. Possibly higher quality? Who knows? There were a couple of runners ahead of me that I would normally expect to beat. Then again, there were some runners behind me who would normally beat me. I didn’t feel like I had taken it too easy, but it’s an indication I need to work harder in training to improve.

Next up is the Harrier League and then the Nationals at the end of February in Nottingham.

Harrier League Cross-Country – Aykley Heads – 23rd November 2019

After almost two months since the last fixture, with two events cancelled due to heavy rain flooding the venues’ parking facilities, the Harrier League was able to reconvene at Aykley Heads after, ironically, about 36 hours of incessant rain which was forecast to continue throughout the day. The amount of water that has come down from the sky during the Autumn so far meant that it was always going to be a tad wet underfoot and will be for the rest of the season. Combining this with one of the tougher courses on the calendar was going to make for an interesting day.

If we had thought the grey skies and wet weather were going to deter the hardened cross-country runners of the Northeast, we would have been wrong, with good-sized fields across all the junior age groups and seniors/vets races. Some excellent performances from those Gosforth athletes in green and white are great reward for the hard work put in by both athletes and coaches, not forgetting the parents as well, who were out supporting in wellies and waterproofs around the course.

Junior Teams

Taking just the junior results and ranks that are published, and applying a Sherman Cup / Davison Shield style totting up of club positions from the season so far, Gosforth are top of the leader board by quite a way, ahead of Gateshead and Durham City Harriers in equal second. Equal to performance in importance, is participation. Being able to field a full team in every age group is something that very few clubs are able to do.

Watching the juniors sliding and sometimes slipping over around the course showed how tough the conditions were even at the start of the day. And with every race, they were getting worse. After a really good performance by the Gosforth ladies with a seventh placed-finish in Division 1, it was time for the men’s start. Due to various injuries, other events happening over the same weekend and general unavailability, we were a smaller crew than normal – just eleven of us. With six to count, it was important that every single teammate stepped up and put in a performance.

I’ve had a half-decent chunk of training recently and was feeling confident. But I’ve had two out of two poor performances at Aykley Heads in my previous outings there. I was determined it wasn’t going to beat me this time. The gun went and the hordes set off. I got buffeted from left and right, so made my elbows sharper which put a stop to that straight away. I didn’t think there was any danger of me getting in the top 10% and therefore promoted to the medium pack, so didn’t bother to count those ahead of me. A sweeping left-hander took us out of the still-grassy starting straight and onto the main lap course. I made sure I took the very inside line and checked my pace. A bit fast. Slow down. Going off too fast will destroy you, especially on this course in these conditions.

The first half of the lap is mainly downhill and very twisty, so taking the right line is important. Thinking ahead, being in the right place when the field is crowded, to take the inside on a corner will gain you places. However, when it is muddy, the inside line is, obviously, normally also the muddiest. There would be times today when taking the outside line allowed you to keep momentum and not drain energy. There would also be times when allowing your hip to brush against the tape of the inside line and only nipping out to avoid the poles holding the tape actually allowed you to run on good ground and take the most inside line of all. When there is no tape, there is often a grassy fringe. Running on any type of grass is normally better than running through mud, although it can be a little uneven. Then there are times, especially on the narrow straights, when it makes absolutely no difference what line you take, because it is all mud. We had all of this today, making your individual running tactics on every stretch of the course an important part of the race.

On the furthest part of the course, there was a steep downhill with a sharp right-hand turn at the end. It was a skating rink made of mud with no option to avoid it. Multiple times my shoes, with 15mm spikes, gained absolute no grip whatsoever and my foot slid left, right or just straight ahead of me. There were going to be plenty of fallers today. No doubt about it. I negotiated the first right-hand carefully and the second right-hand with the aid of a tree to swing me around the corner.

This led us onto the flattest part of the course along the railway line. I took stock of where I was. Ahead of me were two clubmates, to whom, based on recent road times, I was closer than I expected to be. There were runners from Hunwick, Derwentside, Alnwick, Elvet and Tynedale whom I recognised from the previous meet at Wrekenton around me as well.

We started passing some backmarkers from the ladies’ race. We had been warned about this at the start and everyone I saw gave plenty of room as they were passing. Unfortunately, as he was changing course to do just that, one lad in front of me slipped at the worst possible time and bumped one of the ladies. Profuse apologies followed. It was totally accidental and I hope the lady realised that.

The second half of the lap has two big hills, the first a long incline, the second one shorter, but much steeper. In between is a narrow, downhill section through the forest with tree roots lying in wait to trip you up. The combination of these three sections in quick succession, for me, epitomises the challenge of Aykley Heads. You can’t take time on the forest section to recover from the first hill because others are capitalising on using the downhill. Then you have to grit your teeth to get up the second hill, thinking about your technique: stand tall, relax, pump arms, before accelerating off the top to get some speed back just when you are blowing out of your backside. Then, you get a section with the best underfoot surface you’re going to get on the whole course. If you don’t make use of that, you’ll lose places again. That mile is one of the hardest sections of any cross-country race in the calendar. And also one of the best.

I noticeably lost a bit of ground to some of those around me on the two uphills and the downhill forest section as I took the focussed decision to equalise my effort, saving my energy for later laps. Three laps is strength-sapping and there were people almost sprinting down through the trees and straining every sinew to get up the second hill quickly on the first of those laps. After the next section, I had caught back up and overtaken most of those who had overtaken me, having used less effort overall.

I was feeling good. My pace was right. Our coach shouted out my position at the start of the second lap. I was 45th. Much higher than I thought, so I started counting. I took five places over the next half mile, moving up to 40th. Of course, the medium and fast pack runners would be catching up before long, so I wouldn’t stay there.

The second lap had different dynamics on certain parts of the course. The best route on the first lap was not necessarily the best route on the second lap. There were more places where you now had no choice but to trek through the mud. When racing on road, you can normally concentrate purely on running, which often means your brain is empty. You are too tired to think about anything else and your instincts as a runner are all you need. Today, you had to think about almost every step. The route you will take next. Is there a better one? What will I find under the next step? Do I need to adjust my foot contact to land lighter or my cadence or arm position to maintain balance? What’s the person in front of me going to do? It was mentally tiring as well as physically tiring.

When you enter these events, if the first two laps have been hard, you know the third lap is going to be harder still. I passed a couple of casualties on the slippiest part. Not injured, just caked in mud. Their pride hurt more than their body as they both carried on, although, at the finish, they would wear that mud up their arms and on their faces with a certain pride! A train passed as I went along the trackside path. I wondered what the passengers would be thinking about seeing a long trail of muddy runners on a desolate stretch of land on a dark, dank, wet, November day. “They’re mad!” Maybe we are!

Onto the first of the uphills for the last time, as we were reminded encouragingly by the marshall stationed there. My legs were now completely wasted. Strava would show a markedly slower progression to the top compared to the first two laps. One of our club’s medium packers came past me just as we entered the forest. ‘Last time,’ I thought to myself, ‘push on, take the downhill as fast as you dare!’. He obviously was thinking the same as he slipped, fell forward and slid for a few yards before coming to a stop, the guy behind him taking evasive action. Should I stop and help him up? At least ask how he is or give him some encouragement? By the time those thoughts had gone through my tired mind, I was almost past him.

“Come on! Get up!” was all I could gasp, as I sprinted off down the hill. I was fourth counter, so he was a counter as well. We needed him to put that spill behind him and finish strongly. It would be easy for a fall like that to destroy any motivation. We couldn’t afford it. Every place would count. I knew that he knew that as well so I didn’t think too much about my apparent lack of compassion and we had a good laugh about it at the end.

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Up the final hill. At the steepest part, I thought I was barely moving forwards although I was pumping my arms and legs as hard as I could. They just didn’t have the strength to propel me up as quickly as my head wanted them to. Over the top and 400 metres to go. I accelerated, overtaking one more person as I took the inside line before swinging around to the right for the home straight. My clubmate passed me again. ‘No one else can pass!’ I promised myself. I heard someone behind me and kicked again. 30 metres to go. Full on sprint and I crossed the line two seconds in front of the medium packer from South Shields closing in behind me.

What a run! Completely exhilarating! Completely exhausting! Another clubmate finished a few seconds later to be surely our sixth and final counter. That’s got to be a good result. We joked with those who had obviously had a fall. There were many! We chatted with friends from other clubs. Faces of exhaustion quickly turning to smiles and laughter after a minute or so’s recovery.

I finished 76th out of 527 in 49:18 and beat all but one of my targets. I was 31st from slow pack, so picked up 14 places on the last two laps. Outside promotion territory but only by 48 seconds. Closer than I thought I would be. Indeed, everything was frighteningly close when the team results came out. We came second in division 2, only 5 points behind the team in first. In fact, we were equal second, on the same number of points as another team. If I had been overtaken by the runner closing in on me at the end, we would have come third. Who knows how important that point may be at the end of the season.

At the third time of asking, I was happy with my run at Aykley Heads. Well-controlled and as good as I was going to do at current fitness levels. The crazy thing was the time difference between running exactly the same course in 2017, when there wasn’t a trace of mud, and today. I was six minutes slower this time round over just over six miles. Looking at other runners’ times, it was a similar differential, sometimes more, so it wasn’t just me. That just shows how tough the conditions were. It’s also one of the reasons why we love cross-country so much.

Durham City 10k – 25th July 2019

It’s been a while since my last post. A number of reasons culminating in a lack of time to even train properly, let alone write about the races I’ve done. However, I have done a few races worth a mention before I get onto the featured race for this post, including the Blaydon Race and the Gosforth Harriers Club Mile, which I have written about before, so will give a miss this time round.

Wynyard 10k Trail Race

Midweek evening races in the summer are brilliant, taking advantage of the long daylight hours. This one was around the grounds of Wynyard Hall Hotel near Stockton-on-Tees and the organisers used every opportunity to send us up and down the steep hills around the extensive hotel grounds.

The start was surprisingly fast – just over 5 minute mile pace. I was probably down in 30th place which, for a field of only about 200, suggested a good class race. It was way too fast for me and I quickly settled into my right pace on a slightly uphill first mile, allowing more people to pass me without worrying. Almost the whole of mile 2 was a serious downhill on an uneven trail path. You had to balance the risk and reward of the extra pace against possibly turning your ankle, especially when you are following the person in front of you at close quarters and cannot see the detail of the path ahead.

Then came a serious uphill, the first of three on the course. Another runner wearing a triathlon club vest steamed past me going up. ‘Good luck to you!’ I thought. I could tell he was putting too much effort in. From the top of the hill for the next 2 miles, I was overtaking people quite regularly, including the guy who passed me on the hill and a couple of runners I recognised who must have been 100 yards ahead of me after the first mile.

By the time we reached the second big hill, I was in a bit of a tussle with two other athletes. Initially, the challenge was to get level with them and then to stay with them. The last mile was all uphill again. One of the two with me dropped off going up and I was blowing out of my backside trying to stay with the other guy.

Under normal circumstances, I can rely on my sprinting speed in a one-on-one finish, but I could tell it was being run out of me. As we hit the finishing straight, I was two yards behind. Every time I kicked, he kicked. He was quick as well and at least 20 years my junior. Plenty of cheers from the spectators who were enjoying the close finish. He had just too much for me and I finished a yard behind him in 17th place.

Masters Track and Field Series

I hadn’t done any field events since I was about fifteen. The masters track and field series is a perfect opportunity to right that wrong and have some great fun along the way, competing with people your own age. I chose to do the long jump, triple jump, 1500m and 100m on that particular evening. Long jump first and I was relieved to beat my 12 year old daughter’s PB when I jumped 4.56! Not by that much though!

I was put into the B race for the 1500m and paced it pretty well to finish in 5.09. Then the triple jump. The technique learnt from my PE teacher in the second year at secondary school served me well, finishing second with 9.67. Apparently, that’s good enough to be ranked 28th this year in the UK in the V45 age group on Power of 10!

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Finally, the 100m. I was really looking forward to this, unbelievably never having had an official 100m time in my life. Once again, I was in the B race and I was a bit concerned when several of my fellow competitors started setting up their starting blocks. I settled down into the starting position. “Set!” said the Starter. ‘Remember, the B of the BANG’, I told myself.

The gun went and I got a pretty good start into the fairly stiff headwind. Into the drive phase. Shoulders down, get that speed up. From what I could see, after about 20 metres, surprisingly, I was first, but not by much. It was very tight. After 50 metres, I was still first. The same after 75 metres. My technique than became a little ragged and I felt a couple of athletes draw level with me.

A dip on the line. Ooof, a blanket finish with several of the field in a row. The results came out with three of us recording the same time of 14.1 seconds, but I was given the victory. Get in!

Castle Eden Wolf Trail 5k

I’d run round Castle Eden Dene a few times as I work quite near there, so I knew there was one hill that any self-respecting race around that beautiful part of the world wouldn’t miss out. And I was right. On Strava, the segment is called Heart Attack Hill and it came in mile 2. However, it was soon apparent that Heart Attack Hill was not the only long, steep hill on the course, both up and down.

I started in about tenth place and was regularly passing people during the first half of the race. You know you are pacing it pretty well when you are not being overtaken yourself.

At the start of Heart Attack Hill, I had just made it into fifth place. Fourth was about ten yards ahead. The guy I had just overtaken was breathing down my neck all the way up the hill. The support was tremendous with applause and shouts of encouragement all the way up the beast. A brief thought of whether power-walking the last bit would be quicker than running, such was the steepness, was swiftly eradicated and I reached the top.

Still a kilometre to go. I’ve trained myself to try to accelerate off the top of any hill, despite the exhaustion you are feeling then. That’s when you can put a few yards in between you and many people behind you as the natural inclination is to carry on at the same pace as when climbing, which, of course, is going to be slower than your pace on the flat.

I finished in fifth place, not being able to make too much of a dent in the ten or so yards between me and the guy in fourth. A really good, testing run though, through beautiful forest and the smell of wild garlic in your nose. I do prefer those to flat road races with little of interest along the way.

Durham City 10k

Organised by Steve Cram’s company, Events of the North, and promoted by Paula Radcliffe, this race promised to be quite large with a 5k, a 10k, some hill sprint challenges and a family relay happening as part of a weekend festival of running in the city. It fell on the hottest day of the year, with the mercury in the Northeast going above thirty degrees for the first time I can remember in my twenty-one years here.

A burst water main meant the race had to be rerouted the day before and that the 5k and 10k races would set off at the same time. I can only imagine the nightmare this would have presented the event organisers.

I arrived at the race HQ and was looking at the revised route map, glanced up and there was Paula Radcliffe, right next to me, collecting the batons for the family relay. Also with her was Alison Curbishly, Steve Cram’s other half and former British 400m champion, with her marshall’s hi-viz vest on. They were quite happy to pose for photos with anyone who asked. Then, on my course recce, Aly Dixon, current British Olympian, passed me on her warm-up. Steve Cram, as Race Director, was at the start line making sure everything was in order. I can’t think of any other major sport where the world’s elites and former elites are so comfortable rubbing shoulders with the public.

There was plenty of local media attention, with the local radio station playing music at the start and at another point on the course. Photographers from the local paper were there as well. With all the road closures, it was quite a major event for Durham.

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Onto the race. Durham is a beautiful city, the city’s cathedral, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, sits on top of a steep hill that plunges down to a U-shaped meander of the River Wear. It promised some spectacular views and an exceptionally challenging finish, going all the way from river level up to the finish line in front of the Cathedral. A rise of more than 30 metres in only about a quarter of a mile.

It was hot, even at the 7.30pm start time. My heart rate was close to 100 just standing on the start line for the 20 minutes before the off. I say on the start line. I was about twenty yards back, such were the crowds. Even though there were time-based guide boards indicating where you should stand, the number of people who were obviously too close to the front was just annoying. It made for quite a crowded uphill start through the narrow streets of Durham with both the 5k and 10k races starting together.

That didn’t last very long though and we were soon heading down a steep hill to river level and crossing a bridge to the other side. Running along the river bank path then provided us with one of the best views I can remember in a race. I looked right and there above us was the majestic facade of Durham Cathedral. Stunning.

The main thing I remember from the race was having to prevent heat exhaustion. We’re not so used to running in these temperatures in Northeast England. At the first water stop, at 2 miles, we were given a new type of pouch. Not as much plastic as a bottle. Less spillage than a paper cup. It took a bit of a knack to suck and squeeze to get anything out, so the jury’s out on that one at the moment.

We got to the point where the 5k and 10k races split, not far from the finish of the 5k. I looked to see how many of those I was running alongside peeled off to the right for the 5k and was disappointed to see absolutely none. They were all 10kers. This probably has something to do with parkrun. Why pay for a 5k race when you can do one for free every Saturday morning? Although, of course, parkruns are timed runs, not races!!

We then headed across the 800-year-old Elvet Bridge and onto a part of the course I knew well from the Durham Cathedral Relays held on the same grounds. There were quite a few out and backs, probably to do with the course re-routing. On one of them, I was going out and passed Aly Dixon coming back. This was a training run for her, having already run 20 miles to get to the race. She encouraged every person she passed. ‘Well done guys, keep going.’ That support from fellow participants is one thing I love about running.

I was with about 5 other athletes for much of the middle part of the race. It was strange. There was a lot of overtaking. One person would forge ahead and I would pass them back a few hundred yards later. Then someone else would go and then fall back. It was probably the conditions. I tried to maintain the same effort level throughout.

I didn’t look at my watch much, but when I did, I noticed my mile splits were a lot slower than normal. By 8 miles, I was feeling very lightheaded, despite the fact that I was consciously saving something for the brutal last hill to the finish. My legs felt fine, but I was concerned I may pass out if I went any harder. The second and last water stop came none too soon and we started heading for home. I had recced the last mile on my warm-up, so knew what to expect. We crossed the river for the last time and went past two pubs. I wondered what they thought of us suffering as they sat leisurely supping beer or wine in the evening warmth with the odd polite bit of applause.

Then came the board telling us there was a ‘VERY STEEP INCLINE’ ahead. It wasn’t lying. We went through a tunnel, on possibly the steepest race path I have ever run, coming out through an archway onto the cobbled streets of Elvet Bridge again. That was about half the hill done. ‘Drive those arms!’ I told myself. One man I had been having a decent battle with the whole race passed me. I had been gaining slowly on a woman for the last mile or so and had just about caught her up.

A hairpin left and then something I hadn’t accounted for. Along the narrow street heading up to the Cathedral were a large number of the slower 5k runners. Some walking, some running, but all at a much slower pace than I was going. Several times I just couldn’t get past as they were two or three abreast and had to slow down. ‘Excuse me! Sorry! Coming through!’ The woman I had been catching got a better route through and was now 15 yards in front. At one point, there were two women 5kers in front of me. There was a gap in between them. I went for it. Just as I got into the gap, it closed. Profuse apologies from me. They both apologised as well.

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The last hundred or so metres were flat, looping around the square in front of the Cathedral with a wider path. I had almost had a rest going up the last bit of the hill due to the traffic and was able to put on a sprint finish. I overtook the man who had overtaken me going up the hill, but not the woman I had been chasing down. I crossed the line in 43:27 in 67th place out of 1,529. At about 4 minutes slower than normal, I think that’s my second slowest 10k race time ever.

Kudos to the organisers, the re-routed course was spot on 10k as far as my Garmin was concerned. Another of those pouch drinks was available at the finish and I got the knack of it in the end as I wobbled round the finish area to collect my T-shirt, medal and goody bag.

Looking at the times, most people were several minutes down on their normal 10k times. Not surprising in the heat and with the hills, but a good test nevertheless. Holiday time now and then I’ll be trying to get back into regular training with my club before the Great North Run and then cross-country season. The summer is coming to an end before you know it.

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!

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.