NEHL #6 – Alnwick Castle – 17th March 2018

Mud CHECKimg_1365


Forest CHECK

Support CHECK

Scenery CHECK

Welcome to Alnwick Castle.

The Beast from the East weather system that hit the UK in early March caused the postponement of the last episode of the Northeast Harrier League due to travel concerns, but, happily, only for two weeks. Despite an awful forecast of strong winds, snow, sub-zero temperatures, even harsher with an easterly wind chill, and adding a couple of inches of rainfall during the week leading up to it, the North East’s hardiest cross-country runners gathered at Alnwick Castle for most people’s favourite course on the NEHL circuit. We arrived expecting the worst underfoot conditions, but they turned out to be amazingly good – the best conditions of the whole season. Whoever put in the drainage solution for the pastures around Alnwick Castle, please apply to Herrington Park to sort that out.

Gosforth Harriers’ men’s team were in pole position to take the Division 2 title and secure promotion to Division 1 next season. We just needed to get a full team of six out to ensure promotion and finish in sixth place or higher to guarantee the title. There were a few injuries and other absences meaning we fielded our smallest team of the season, but we hoped it would still be good enough. Pushing for promotion or avoiding relegation tends to encourage clubs to pull out all the stops and field big teams in the last event of the season, no more so than the relegation bun-fight in Division 1 where any two of seven of the division’s ten teams could end up going down.

After some excellent performances by Gosforth’s juniors, securing a first and two second places on the day, it was time for the senior men. I was cold warming up in three layers, so I decided to wear a base layer for the run. Then took it off, then put it back on, finally deciding to take it off. Vest and shorts for me and several of the Gosforth team, in contrast to most other runners. I did wear gloves and ear band though. My ears always get cold and, since my hand operation in December, my hands really suffer to the extent that it is distracting from my running. My warm-up went really well. Learning my lesson from the Nationals, I limbered up my ankles ready for the battering they would take on the uneven surfaces around the course.

I had read through my blog from last season’s Alnwick fixture and remembered that I died somewhat on the last lap. I didn’t want that to happen again, although that was when my body was pretty tired from marathon training. My recent training has been intermittent, mainly due to work requirements and also partly down to the weather, but at least I was fully healthy. The heavy snow flurry at the slow pack start had passed over by the time of the medium pack start. I was surprised how many runners had turned out. Yes, the field was smaller than usual, but still a decent size. This would be the last time I would start from medium pack. Having failed to secure my spot in that pack for next season, I would be starting in October from slow pack and, hopefully, able to score well for the club again. I looked around for any targets and couldn’t see any in the melee, but I was feeling good and ready for action. The whistle went and off we set, heading downhill towards the castle. There were a few sploshy bits in the first half mile, but, taking a right turn onto the long uphill section of the lap, we were, by and large, running on grass rather than mud. I picked out an Alnwick Harrier around my age, as my target. Alnwick also had a chance of promotion from division 2 and had a big team out, especially as this was their home fixture. No sooner had I identified him, then he powered up the hill, leaving me standing. I resisted the urge to chase him down. I felt my effort levels were spot on, although the biting wind was at its worst on this, the most exposed part of the course.

A right hand turn at the top of the hill and onto the forest section. 20180318_230507788892837.jpgIn previous years, this had been very rutted, but not really at all this year, enabling me to power on. The smaller field was helping as I was now passing large numbers of slow pack runners, but still had plenty of room to pick my route, only once being slowed down. Another sharp right and the biggest, steepest downhill of any cross-country course with a 100ft drop in less than a quarter of a mile came into view. You just have to let go and hope that your footing is sure. You can lose a lot of time and places on that hill if you don’t throw caution to the wind. A final right turn, through the start / finish area and onto the second lap. I was amazed how good I was feeling. I didn’t have the lap-two-lethargy that normally afflicts me when I start to tire, but am still so far from the finish. Turning onto the long climb again, I saw the Alnwick Harrier who had surged ahead of me at the same place on lap 1. I caught him and passed him half way up the hill, thinking that he had gone off too fast and also the fact that I was maintaining my speed well. My watch said I did slow a little on that second lap, but only by a few seconds.

Passing the start / finish area to start the third lap, I saw I was catching one of my usual medium pack targets whom I had not seen at the start, but who had been well ahead of me on lap one from pictures I saw after the race. He has a very distinctive running style and provides a real benchmark to how I am doing. He is in the same age group as me and we often finish very close in all sorts of races, although he beat me by over a minute at Thornley Hall Farm, the last Harrier League meeting. This provided a real incentive for me to give everything on this last lap. I caught up with him on the bottom straight, and ran behind him up the first part of the hill. I took the inside line on a left hand turn, drawing level. He clocked me and I’m sure he put on a burst as he then pulled away a couple of yards. I responded and tucked in behind him for the rest of the hill. I love these little in-race battles. Approaching the top of the hill, I moved to the right, drawing level with him again, giving me the inside line for the next turn and a clear run through the narrow, single-file only, 30-yard stretch of the course. He tucked in behind me and overtook me again as soon as he could when we started on the forest path. I had felt really good on the first two laps through the forest and felt confident to accelerate. I overtook him again and floored it down the very slight decline. With less than a mile to go, including the big downhill, I told myself this was like the home-straight and gave it everything I dared. He couldn’t respond and I pulled away. 20180318_2304231184367487.jpgI was blowing a bit by the time I turned right for the big downhill but tried to relax and, without much traffic to pass, I followed the trodden path down, which was probably the fastest and safest route. As the hill levelled out and with maybe a quarter of a mile to go, I started scanning for division two team runners to pass. There were two Saltwell Harriers about thirty and forty yards in front of me. It would be tough, but I’d give it a go. I was catching them with every stride. I turned into the home straight and saw the finish a good hundred metres away. Going hard from a long way out, I passed the first Saltwell Harrier, was passed by a Wallsend fast packer and just managed to hold off a Durham City fast packer in an all-out sprint for the line.

I’d given everything and felt like I’d had a really good run. I was the eighth Gosforth runner home and there were some stand-out performances in the top six counters. Surely we had done enough to secure the title and promotion, but we needed to wait for the results. I finished in 119th place out of 345 in 43:45 and 6th in my age group by time out of 46. If I hadn’t had the handicapped start, I would have finished in 29th place and been promoted. Easily my best run of the season. I beat my time on this course from last season by 23 seconds and my mile splits varied between 6:55 and 7:10. An incredibly even run for any 10k, let alone a hilly cross-country. Of the four segments on Strava, I had three PRs on the final lap. More importantly, when the results came through, the team had finished fourth on the day, thereby winning the division two title by four points from Jarrow and Hebburn in second place.

For its size, Gosforth Harriers punches above its weight in cross-country. Of the 49 competing clubs, 16 other clubs had more senior male athletes than Gosforth who turned out for at least one event. But each Gosforth runner took part in an average of 3.5 out of the 6 events, which is much higher than all but one other club and by far the highest in the top two divisions. Of the 59 runners from all clubs who turned out for all six events, there were 5 runners from Gosforth, again, more than from any other club. Dedication, consistency, coaching, training, captaincy and team spirit are all there in abundance. And maybe a little bit of talent as well.

And so, the 2017/18 cross-country season comes to an end. It’s been a long, cold winter and I think we are all looking forward to some nice warm evenings on the track. Kudos to the NEHL organising team for the whole season and to Alnwick Harriers for putting on the final event in testing conditions.

Promotion CHECK

Division 2 title CHECK

Let the celebrations commence.


National Cross-Country Championships – Parliament Hill, London – 24th February 2018

Most races with big fields, like major marathons, half marathons or big 10ks have a lot of fun runners, joggers and walkers. In the Great North Run, for example, I normally post a time in the top 5%. There are not many races with participants in the thousands with a high quality field across the board. The National Cross-country Championships is one of those events. Over 1,700 finished the senior men’s race last year. You can only race if you are a member of a running club, so almost everyone is at least a fairly serious runner, and, obviously, the entry is from all over the country, well, England anyway. It was my first time running this event and my expectations were to hopefully finish in the top half, bearing in mind that I finished in the 61st percentile of the Northerns when I was still recovering from illness and I was at a better level of fitness for this one.


Driving down the night before and getting a train for the last part of the journey, I arrived at Hampstead Heath in good time for the junior events and we chose a prime position for our tent which gave us an outstanding view of both the mass start and the start of each lap, although not before encountering unbelievable levels of ignorance from Wimbourne Running Club when they tried to place their tent pretty much on top of ours! It was sunny but with a very chilly wind. The underfoot conditions looked fantastic but word from those doing an early course recce was that there were some parts that were brown, wet and very slippery. This was only going to deteriorate as the big fields in the earlier races made their mark. There was another excellent turnout from Gosforth, bearing in mind we probably had about the furthest to travel of all teams to get there. The fraternity of northeastern clubs played out again as athletes from Jarrow and Hebburn and Sunderland Harriers were made very welcome to use our club tent.

As the junior races were finishing, the number of runners finishing with fewer than two spikes on their feet was noticeable! Some shoes were still out on the course, others were being carried, but it showed that conditions were pretty tough out there. I didn’t want to run the whole 6k lap as a warm-up, but I went for a look and, yes, there were some parts that were filthy. I wasn’t too happy with my warm-up. My ankles felt stiff. It might be a consequence of driving five hours the evening before and being on my feet for the six hours before my race, but whatever I did, they didn’t seem to loosen up. I hoped it wouldn’t affect me too much. I’d been thinking how to run this race. It was a 12k race and I wanted to make sure I wasn’t dying on my feet during the latter stages and haemorrhaging places. A steady pace was needed and I’m sure the crowds at the start would prevent me from going off too fast anyway.

During the women’s race, the announcer on the tannoy explained that the men’s race was no longer two 6k laps. It was to be one medium lap and two long laps and, pretty soon, it was time to gather at the bottom of the hill for the start, laces tied tight and spikes taped onto our feet. As a team, we were probably a bit late getting to the start as several other clubs also assigned to that pen were already in place. The start line must have been 300 metres wide, but I was still probably five people back in the pack waiting for the gun and there would have been five people behind me as well. This would be a mass start. No packs or distinction between seniors and veterans. Everyone started together. The gun went off and the charge began – a pretty impressive sight from the videos.

The first third of a mile is uphill, going from a very wide start and getting narrower as we climbed towards the right hand turn at the top. About half way up, we were basically walking, such were the crowds and the bottleneck at the top of the hill. Turning right, it opened out again for a downhill to the worst part of the course and a sharp left. The juniors had warned us that it was slippery there and I stayed on the outside of the bend and really benefited from it. It was like a skating rink on the inside. A couple of fallers and a few people retrieving spikes sucked off by the mud, but I managed to avoid the carnage. Then a wide, 200 meter stretch of slippery, sloppy mud before a left hand turn and a long uphill. At this point, I saw one of our seniors with one of his spikes in his hand, stopping to put it back on. Not a good sign with still 11k to go.

The course turned right and then down a dip to a very narrow bridge over a little stream. The whole field ground to a halt as we patiently waited our turn to cross and start running again.28377972_1725372694192961_8550889472496832774_n I was taking a bend quite tight, passing close to one of the white poles holding the course marker tape in place. The guy in front flicked it with his hip as he passed it. It sprang back at me, caught the material of my shorts and, with a loud rip, took the entire side of my shorts off. A nervous glance down revealed my modesty was still intact, although now everyone could see that I wasn’t running commando!

It became apparent that we would be doing the medium lap first. We started passing a few ladies who were still out on the course. If we had done a long lap first, then we wouldn’t have passed them. I felt really sorry for them to have to suddenly endure thousands of men streaming past them at speed as they made their way to the finish. One idiot barged in between two women, telling them to get off the course. He was politely told to f%@* off, quite rightly so. I tried to see to which club he belonged, but he disappeared into the crowds again. We took a long sweeping left and passed our tent to start the second lap. I was feeling alright, but not as fluid in my downhills. The stiffness in my ankles meant that I was heel-striking more than my normal mid-foot striking. This meant that I didn’t have as much cushioning or spring in the transition into my next stride. Short of stopping to stretch out and flex my ankles more, I didn’t really know what to do to improve it.

In a field this big, I found it impossible to judge how I was doing. I didn’t have a clue if I was better or worse than expected. I didn’t see another Gosforth Harrier during the whole race. There were so many different terrains and routes being taken that individuals were surging ahead and falling back all the time. About a third of the way into the second lap on a part of the course that was good underfoot, the runner next to me said hello. Looking to my left, I recognised him from chatting in the start pen at the London Marathon last year. We exchanged a few pleasantries and went on our way. I made a note to use him as a gauge of how I was doing. There were still quite a few falling over, slipping headfirst into the mud. One guy about five yards in front took a tumble and I had to take evasive action, calling a “Man down!” warning to those behind me. On the longer laps, there were a couple of wooded bits. Normally, I like them, but the ground was so much firmer there and I wasn’t enjoying that today. I went over on my left ankle at one point which threw me for a bit. A little over half-way, I started feeling feint. In some races, you get a light-headed feeling that is an indication of the effort you are putting in, but that is different to feeling feint and you don’t have to let up. This time, I was feeling properly feint, breaking into a cold sweat, and suddenly feeling very loose down below. Then I got a stitch in my side. I had to ease off even though I didn’t feel like I was running at the limit anyway. A flood of runners went passed me for the next mile and I lost contact with my London Marathon mate. This coincided with the worst time mentally for me of any race – the third quarter. You are already tired, probably in pain due to the exertion and you are not close enough to the finish to take that as any source of comfort. The first half of lap three was a bit of a blur and I don’t remember too much of it, but the bad feelings gradually wore off and I was able to speed up and started passing people again. I drove myself to increase the pace markedly when I recognised a part of the course that told me we had less than a mile to go and mostly downhill.

28168319_1725372340859663_6606792425930331754_n (2)

As we exited a wooded area, we could see the finish, about a third of a mile away, around a long left curve, the crowd held back by barriers. I was ramping the pace up further and further, looking to win a mini race down the home straight, the runners around me no doubt doing the same. 150 meters to go and I passed our men’s team captain, not running due to injury, cheering us on. He urged me to beat the two runners in front. One of them was from Nottingham-based Holme Pierrepoint RC, of which my friend is a member, about five yards ahead. 100 meters to go. We were running at exactly the same pace. I was just behind him. An early sprint would give me the momentum and that’s just what I did. He tried to respond, but I passed him and the other runner from Tonbridge in a flat-out sprint for the line. I heard my chip being recorded as my foot landed on the mat and eased down to a walk as I went through the finish funnel.

It looked like I was the third Gosforth Harrier to finish. We shook hands and had a good laugh at what was left of my shorts. I greeted my London Marathon mate as well. He finished almost a minute ahead of me, having been level before my wobble. Several other Gosforth runners came home in quick succession and we congratulated each one before the cold started biting and we made our way up to the tent to get some warm clothes on. I finished in 1,225th position out of 2,328. That’s the 52nd percentile, better than the 61st percentile of the Northerns but just outside my target of finishing in the top half by about 33 seconds. As an experience, the running was excellent with so many different vests out there on the course. The bottlenecks almost have to be expected for a field so large, but it was only in two or three places. I was surprised at the lack of catering facilities and the late course changes and felt sorry for the poor ladies caught up in the men’s field. It’s due to be held at Harewood Hall near Leeds next year where the Northerns were held this year, so that will be easier for us to get to and is a definite in the calendar for next year.

Next up is the last cross-country of the season and the climax to the NorthEast Harrier League in Alnwick. A sixth place team finish or better will give us the Division 2 title, and promotion, regardless of what the other teams do. All eyes on that now. And with the weather forecast for the next few days to be snow, snow and more snow, I honestly cannot wait!

Royal Signals Relays – Hetton Lyons Country Park – 17th February 2018

This is one of the bigger relays in the region, doubling up as the NorthEastern Counties Athletic Association Road Relay Championships. Rather than a road, it is two laps of a paved path in a park with a couple of long, meaty hills on each lap. The combined 4-legged men’s over 50 and ladies’ race, with good performances by all Gosforth teams involved, was before the combined 6-legged men’s senior and vets’ race. It was still a little chilly, but with sunny intervals and no rain or wind, it was perfect for fast running.
I did this race a couple of years ago, my first proper race for the club. It is a tricky course as it’s very easy to go off too fast up the first hill when the adrenalin is pumping. Two years ago, I did just that and paid for it for the rest of the 2.2 miles. I was mindful not to let that happen again. This course calls for equal effort the whole way to post the best time. That does mean slightly slower on the uphills and faster on the downhills. For the first time in many weeks, I was feeling fully fit from a health point of view, although still not completely there in terms of running fitness.

I was on the second leg of the vets team in the second race. The first leg is a proper race, a mass start, often with the fastest runners of each team trying to get a good position. We also had our fastest runner on first leg and he produced a cracking time, coming in in 24th position overall and 4th vet. My job was to try to hold that position. That may be difficult against some of the senior teams, so holding our vets position would be the main aim. With 80+ teams in the race, the end of the first leg was still at close quarters with several teams coming in pretty much together. In relays, you often find yourself running somewhat alone, especially in later legs, but that wouldn’t be the case today. As I took over, four or five seniors and one vet overtook me almost immediately and disappeared into the distance. The vet who disappeared from view was from Sunderland Harriers and posted the second fastest vet time of the day, so no shame there. The vet starting immediately, literally one second, in front of me was from Gateshead and we seemed well matched. He pulled away from me a bit as we went up the first hill which was a third of a mile long. Quandary time! Do I try to stay with him as he was going faster than I wanted or do I let him go? If I let him go, would I be able to get back with him? He stretched to about 10 yards in front of me. I could have gone faster and stayed with him, but I was hopefully being prudent and keeping something in the tank. He was challenging me though, pulling me along.

There was good support around the course for both Gateshead and Gosforth, especially at the top of the first hill and the home straight by the tents. I normally make up a bit of ground on the downhills, so I was hoping I would catch him back then, but I didn’t today. He was pretty speedy there as well. On the next uphill, I could feel another runner breathing down my neck as we turned the corner into the home straight for the first time. Another downhill through the crowds of support, but again I made no impact on the Gateshead runner, still about 10 yards in front of me. Turning the corner after the start/finish zone, I was passed by a Heaton Harrier. I couldn’t tell if he was a senior or a vet at the time, although he turned out to be a senior. He also went passed the Gateshead runner who I expected to respond and stay with him, possibly widening the gap between us. But that didn’t happen. In fact, I noticed the Gateshead runner was slowing and it wasn’t long before the gap was down to a couple of yards as we were going up the first hill again. I was then passed by the Gosforth Harrier from our senior team. I noticed the Gateshead runner do a double-take as he saw a Gosforth runner overtake him, but it wasn’t me. I decided to put in a burst to show the Gateshead runner that he was being double Gosforthed, passed him and he fell back.

Knowing you’re on the last lap helps you gauge your energy reserves and release what you think you can safely release. At the bottom of the next downhill, I could see I was gaining quickly on a couple of the senior runners who had overtaken me right at the start. Also, the Heaton runner was no more than 10 yards ahead, having been 20 yards ahead at one point. FB_IMG_1519066029974I passed a Tynedale senior and a Darlington senior as I made my lungs burst going up the final hill, really ratcheting up the effort for the finish. A different Gateshead runner, a senior this time, then started drawing level with me. The last 50 yards, where these pictures were taken, were all downhill going into a narrow finish funnel. It would be difficult to overtake in the funnel. I had to go now. I turned the afterburners on, moved back in front of the Gateshead runner and very quickly made up the remaining 10 yards or so to pass the Heaton runner as well, before stretching out down into the finish funnel to hand over to our third leg runner, 7 seconds behind our Gosforth senior team.fb_img_15190196869001718799277.jpg
I had to take a knee for a couple of minutes, absolutely exhausted. I had given everything, running harder and faster than I thought I could at this stage of fitness. I stopped my watch at 13:14 for 2.2 miles, an average of 5:59 per mile on a course with long hills. I had lost net 3 senior places, one to the Gosforth senior team, and had lost one and gained one vet place, so net no change there, coming home in 4th place in the vet standings. I had paced my run well, learning from my previous mistake on this course and had beaten my time from two years ago by well over a minute. I was tired, but happy. I went on a cool-down and stayed to cheer the Gosforth runners on the later legs.
Thoughts now turn back to the mud and the National Cross-country Championships in London next weekend, with a decent Gosforth contingent in attendance, and the final Northeast Harrier League event the weekend after, in the beautiful surroundings of Alnwick Castle.

Northern Cross-country Championships – Harewood Hall – 27th January 2018

“We don’t do this because it’s easy!” Those were my first words on returning to the club tent after finishing the Northern Cross-country Championships race over the beautiful grounds of Harewood Hall, near Leeds in Yorkshire. It certainly wasn’t easy. At 12k, championship races are a third longer than Harrier League races. The competition is obviously tougher. The course? Well, every cross-country course is tough. Last year’s Northerns in Knowlesly was the most hellish course I have run, not because of the hills, but because of the incessant mud. Conditions were kinder at Harewood Hall. There was actually some grass in places.

But a race can be a challenge for other reasons. My last race was the Durham Cathedral relays two weeks ago. I felt the beginnings of a cold that morning. It turned out to be full blown ‘flu. A week off work, spent mostly in bed, and an additional week recovering. The day before the Northerns, I ventured out on my first run since Durham – an easy 2.5 miles – in order to gauge whether I should run in the Northerns at all. Even after that run, I still wasn’t sure, still suffering with a phlegmy cough and a very snotty nose. But the coach down to Leeds was booked and I would be going down with my son anyway, so my rationale was that, as my test run didn’t give me a definite ‘no’ then I would run and rely on how my body felt to dictate how hard I would run it. Towards the end of a cold or infection, I do feel that a run can actually speed up the process that clears the gunk from your lungs. I didn’t want to DNF, but if I felt so bad, woozy for example, then I would do the sensible thing and either slow down, walk or pull out altogether. What this also meant was that I had run a grand total of only 37 miles in almost 8 weeks due to illness and recovery from an operation. The fitness I have lost, as well as strength and stamina, in this time must be pretty significant. This hard cross-country race was certainly not going to be easy.

We boarded the coach early in the morning and made the 2 hour trip to Harewood House, arriving in time for the first junior races. It would be a long day – arriving a full five hours before the senior men’s race. The forecast was for 11 degrees Celsius, but it was far from that with a cold wind and drizzle in the air for most of our time waiting. It did warm up just before race time though. Instead of the usual 3-lap course, we would be running 2 laps on a longer course. On walking it before any of the races, the conditions under foot were great; a few muddy bits, but nothing extreme. But there would be nine races before ours with some big fields. Plenty of time for the mud to form. It looked an excellent course though.

Reservoir Dogs, Gosforth Harriers Style

The organisers had ensured that every opportunity to make us go up a hill was taken and there were some big hills; not ridiculously steep, but long.

Time for the race arrived. My warm-up was OK as I cheered on the senior ladies on their race. We had a good men’s squad out, one of the largest clubs there, but we were against some big running clubs. What I have noticed is that Newcastle has a huge number of clubs, whereas most other cities have a dominant club, such as Leeds City, Liverpool, Sale and Blackburn Harriers, which attract the most talented runners in the area. Gosforth is a suburb in the north of Newcastle and there isn’t a Newcastle Harriers, so the talent in Newcastle seems to be a bit more dispersed. This makes the local Harrier League more exciting, but means the regional team competition winners are unlikely to be a club from Newcastle. I was also surprised how few northeast clubs were taking part. Several first division Harrier League clubs couldn’t get a full team out.

The start was epic.

Senior Men’s Mass Start

Rather than the usual narrow channel with runners lining up for 50 yards behind it, some therefore taking 15 to 20 seconds to cross the line, this start line was about 150 yards long for a race of almost 800 runners with clubs allocated to start pens. The sight at the gun is amazing, like a middle ages war film with a huge, multi-coloured army rushing towards to the enemy, swords or spears drawn. OK, maybe no spears or swords, but you get the drift. There are also no slow, medium or fast packs. It is a mass start, with some international level athletes on the same line. The first third of a mile is uphill, levelling out before dropping to complete the mile. It was a bit crowded, but the course was fairly wide, so very manageable. I was actually feeling fine, running it in 6:57. My lungs were holding out and I was about where I expected to be in the pack. I was making ground on the muddy bits and the downhills, where my technique is quite good, and losing ground on the uphills, presumably due to a lack of strength, but I felt OK. I had made the right decision to run. I had two clubmates to run with, both around the same level as me, and that definitely spurred me on. There were a noticeable number of drop-outs on the first lap, whether that be due to injury or something else. The second mile includes two uphills, one lasting a good half of that mile. Conditions had definitely deteriorated during the day. Areas that were a bit squelchy on the course recce were now just mud. The uphill second mile done in 8:04. Mile 3 was completely downhill. I let loose and overtook quite a few, completing it in 6:36.

Each lap was about 3.6 miles. I found the last half mile of the lap extremely tough. It started with a sharp hill, the steepest part of the course, and deceptively long at about 300 metres. I was expecting my lungs to give up first, but, instead, it was my legs. The hill seemed to sap the strength from them. Up until that point, I had been generally passing people. From then on, it was the opposite. The sharp uphill was followed by an equally steep downhill taking us back to the start/finish area and onto the second lap and another long uphill.

The course conditions had deteriorated further. A longer course is probably better in that respect with each section being used fewer times – two laps instead of three. Nevertheless, it was often now pointless trying to find a route offering firmer, less muddy ground. Even the sides of the course were cut up. There’s a certain camaraderie that exists between the Northeast clubs during the regional and national events. Supporters obviously from other Northeast clubs and officials from the Northeast give you encouragement because you are wearing a club vest they recognise. The number of “Well done Gosforth”s I heard far outweighed the number of Gosforth spectators. At one point early on lap two, I was running just behind a Heaton Harrier, who I normally beat in the Harrier League, on a fairly grassy part of the course. He noticed we were closing in on a patch that was deep mud with better ground either side. He pointed it out to me and moved over so that we could both avoid it. I gasped a word of thanks and tried to stay with him, but he pulled away as we started making our way up the second big hill on lap two.

My legs were feeling very sluggish and this was finally joined by my lungs as I made my way up to the highest point of the course. The long downhill was where I made up a few places on the first lap, but that was not the case on the second. I had a bit of a coughing fit mid-way through the second lap, nothing serious, but it deprives you of precious oxygen. Then came the steep hill where my stride length was so short, I felt I was going backwards. Should I walk? Never! This led to the last three quarters of a mile with a short, steep downhill, through a complete mudbath 27024242_10215288605877621_2303825274919719281_o.jpgat the bottom of it where there was a host of Gosforth supporters driving you onto the finish with a final third of a mile or so on the flat. I was hoping it was good ground so that I could eke out whatever speed I had left in me, but those hopes were dashed as the ankle-deep mud continued right to the very end and the finish line. I managed to hold my position and not be passed by anyone in the home straight. Maybe I passed a couple, but I was too tired to remember. Crossing the line, I bent double onto my knees and heaved a few hearty coughs, completely forgetting to stop my watch. I was patted on the back by a runner in a blue vest. I wish I could remember his club, but I was a bit light-headed at that point. He said well done on the run and that he was just behind me the whole race, but just couldn’t catch me. I said well done to him as well as we both took our ankle timing chips off to hand back. It was a really good atmosphere the whole day

I finished in 466th position out of a field of 761 in 55:31. That’s the 61st percentile, my worst performance in that respect in any race ever. But I was really glad I ran on such a beautiful course. I was 6th counter for the club, meaning that we finished in a very respectable 29th position, beating first division Harrier League clubs like North Shields Poly, Heaton Harriers and Sunderland Harriers.

My only regret was that the hog roast catering van was packing up when we got back to the tent. I had been looking forward to that. Never mind. No time for cool down as we packed up the tent and headed back to the bus for a well earned sit down that would no doubt result in some tight muscles tomorrow.

Away days with the club are always a good laugh and experience. It takes time and effort to arrange all these things so thanks to those who do it. Our next away day is the national championships in London at the end of February, but we have a Harrier League event before that. Now to focus on finishing my recovery from illness and start trying to regain both my fitness and strength. That won’t be easy either.

Durham Cathedral Relays – 14th January 2018

There’s something different about a relay race compared to an individual race. There’s a responsibility to your teammates to give everything, that maybe spurs you on to run even faster. Having done this race last year on the same course, it presented an opportunity to see how far I was away from the fitness level I was at then, when I was well into marathon training and covering 40+ miles a week.

My performance at the Herrington Park Harrier League cross-country the previous weekend was disappointing, although it was off the back of an enforced 4 week lay-off, so not surprising. I committed to increase the amount of training I am doing and the quickest way of getting fitness back, I think anyway, is track sessions. The normal Gosforth Harriers track session is on Wednesday nights, which clashes with a dad’s taxi appointment that I am normally required to fulfil! The Wednesday in between the Herrington Park Harrier League fixture and the Durham Cathedral Relays was free, so, for the first time in many months, I went track training. Every track session is daunting when you look on the white board at what the coach has determined to be tonight’s session. A warm-up 1.25 miles around the streets, a ‘warm-up’ track mile that is anything but a warm-up, almost at full pelt, and then the main session. This one was 8x600m with 60 seconds’ recovery in between and a final 300m. There are a few clubmates who are very well matched to me on this sort of session, so there is constant competition for every leg and an incentive to do your best. There is then a cool-down 1.25 miles around the streets. During this cool-down, both my legs started cramping in the same place, indicating complete muscle fatigue. I was rinsed. I love that word. It describes how every scrap of energy in your body has been put into the session and you have nothing left. I could still feel the same muscles three days later on Saturday morning, the day before Sunday’s race, when I did a short, easy run. Ironically, the only time I didn’t feel the ache in my legs was when I was running!

Sunday morning came around. I woke up with a cold. Can you believe it? I took some max strength cold and flu drugs and left for the half hour drive to the course to arrive in plenty of time. We were met with a leaden grey sky and a real chill that went right to your bones, but at least it was dry and the grass course conditions were pretty much perfect. There was only one big puddle, so the organisers made sure that the course markers gave you no option but to go straight through it. The other good point about this race is that, although 35 is the veteran age in this competition, we vets have our own race. We’re not going up against speedy seniors 20+ years our junior, if you get my drift. As it doubles as the Northeast Masters relay championships, there were going to be some very good teams out today. We had three vets teams and I was the third and last runner on the Gosforth A team. In this same race last year, the Gosforth A vets team came 7th, so there was the first target.26756603_927847567375133_5085945729000288083_o (2)

Our first runner put in a fantastic leg and came home in third place against some class athletes, covering the 3000m course in under 10 minutes. The class competition continued as our second leg runner also put in a great effort coming in in seventh place, beating his time on this course from last year. Even in good condition, I would be the slowest runner on the team, so my main focus would be on getting round as fast as I could, maintaining our position and, important for me, putting in a time that would justify my place in the A string trio. It’s strange in relays that, despite the course only being 1500m long (we were doing two laps), and with 64 teams out there, that you can often be running alone. And this was the case on this run. The 6th placed team started 15 seconds in front of me and the fifth placed team another 10 seconds in front of them. That’s a long time in a fairly short race like this one, so I was going to have to go some to catch them.

The official raised his arm as the signal for me to go and off I went. My warm-up had gone well, my aching leg muscles weren’t aching anymore, probably because I was running, and the cold and flu drugs had worked. (The phenylephrine in my Asda Max Strength Cold and Flu capsules was removed from WADA’s banned list in 2014. I did check, just in case the dope testers were present!) The only reasons I wear my Garmin on these types of runs is a) to record the run for my overall totals b) to share on Strava and c) to give me an immediate indicator of my pace at the start. Adrenalin can be a curse if it makes you go off too fast and you don’t realise it. A quick glance after about 100m showed 4:59/mile. A bit quick, but I soon settled into the right pace. It was cold. My hands were freezing, leaving me wishing I had worn a pair of gloves. Wearing gloves with a vest looks completely illogical, but, if it helps you concentrate more on your running rather than how cold your hands are, they are probably worth looking odd for. I was making no immediate ground on the two runners who had started ahead of me, but there were runners to lap so it wasn’t a completely lonesome run. I was enjoying it. No hills and good, firm grass to run on meant the difference between last week and this couldn’t have been more stark. I was pushing myself and noticed the runner who started ahead of me in 6th had now passed the runner in 5th and I now seemed to be closing the gap as well. The first lap flew by in no time.

26840684_927847590708464_65211858182197799_oI was soon back on the home straight, passing the Gosforth tent and receiving shouts of encouragement and urging from both my own teammates who had already finished and the other members of the Gosforth contingent not out on the course. I was also now right behind the runner ahead of me from Gateshead.

I passed both the start finish line and the Gateshead athlete at the same time. One place up; up to 6th. Now, can I hold this? Within 50 metres of starting lap 2, the answer came back. An Elswick Harrier came bombing passed me with a strange, but highly effective, running style. He had started 26 seconds behind me, so he was a class runner, and disappeared off into the distance. Strava showed me his profile after the race. His average weekly distance is 65 miles. I do about 20. There’s the difference. As I took the long, sweeping left hand turn, it gave me an opportunity to look back and see if there were any others teams closing in. It didn’t look like it, but I refocussed, ran through the puddle and proceeded down the slight downhill with the wind. It was starting to hurt, as it should. You should never finish a race and feel like it’s been easy. A short race means more intense pain over a shorter period of time! I didn’t feel like I was losing speed, although I wasn’t picking it up either. Another long, sweeping left turn with 300m to go gave me another opportunity to see if there was any danger of losing a place. There was a Morpeth runner catching, but too far back to be a danger. Entering into the home straight, passing the tents, my teammates urged me to finish strong, which I did, even though there was no chance of either gaining or losing a place.

We finished in 31:47 in 7th place, the same placing as last year. A really good team effort. That time would have been good enough for 2nd place at last year’s race. If we had run last year’s time at this year’s race, it would only have been good enough for 12th, so a marked improvement in the competition. I came home in 11:19 for the 1.87 miles, an average pace of 6:01 per mile. The first lap done in 5:38, the second in 5:41. That was only 14 seconds slower than last year. I say ‘only’ as I had feared it could have been a bigger difference given my comparative state of fitness between then and now. The team in 6th finished 37 seconds ahead of us, so, even if I had matched my time from last year, it wouldn’t have made any difference place-wise. I walked back to the tent to get some warm clothes on, my hands now hurting with the cold, tired, but happy. I cheered home the other Gosforth teams in the vets race and the first leg runner of our ladies team in their race. With those and the senior men’s team later on, it was another excellent turn-out and set of performances from Gosforth Harriers. The drugs were starting to wear off now and my nose tap had turned itself on again, so I made my way back to the car to head home, hoping to grab a couple of hours in bed, feeling poorly on a lazy, Sunday afternoon. We have a weekend off racing next week, so an opportunity for some good training. And then it will be one of the toughest races on the calendar, the Northern Cross-country Championships in Leeds the weekend after.

NEHL Herrington Park – 6th January 2018

“Bring wellies!”

“It’s like a swamp!”

After a fairly dry winter so far, we had had two weeks of wet weather with the preceding three days of fairly heavy rain. The first three Harrier League events had been remarkably dry. We wanted mud; we got it this time. In abundance.

I had had four weeks off running due to surgery and I was amazed at how much fitness I had lost in those four weeks. In my three training runs on the comeback trail, I was struggling to post a sub-7-minute mile and my heartrate was through the roof. So this Harrier League event couldn’t have come at a worse time to put in a good performance and the conditions were going to make it doubly hard.

In previous race blogs, I often talk about identifying target runners to beat or keep up with. Today, there would be no targets. The main competition for me would be the course and myself. This was the course at which I posted my best ever Harrier League finish of 27th last year. The course at which I was promoted to the medium pack. I could remember plenty of mud then, some hills, an excellent stretch through the woods and a remarkably clear run due to being at the front of the slow pack. The course had changed slightly this year, making it a bit longer and, I’m sure, hillier. And I would be starting in the medium pack, meaning a clear run would not be had.

Another big, strong team from Gosforth Harriers was out in force, supporting the juniors and the ladies, who put in an especially brave performance, before lining up at the start. It was windy and cold, with a few spots of rain in the air. The weather forecast had threatened sleet showers at race time, but at least those didn’t arise. From the warm-up, my feet were already wet and cold, but all this would be the same for everyone. The whistle went to set off the ever-growing-in-size medium pack. My normal target was not there, so I felt no pressure to stick with him which would have resulted in me burning myself out early. I ran at my own pace. The first half mile is all downhill with a stretch on a packed gravel path. I could barely feel my feet, they were so cold. A left turn and a jump over a trench that would no doubt have caught a few out in the crowds of the main pack, before a grassy stretch to the first uphill of the day covering the best part of a mile in thick, brown, ankle deep mud. I wasn’t doing too bad, probably a little better than I thought. My heart rate was under control and I was in the midst of the medium pack rather than struggling to keep up with it. The first mile done in 7 minutes exactly.

There were still a few grassier patches allowing you to take a slightly longer, but less muddy route, the outside of a bend for example. Then all the height that you have expended so much effort gaining is lost in a downhill stretch, starting off with a steep, still very muddy, part which had you slipping and sliding down it. The human body’s ability to maintain balance never ceases to amaze me. By all rights, the slipperiness and speed should have caused many tumbles, and maybe there were a few, but I didn’t see any. Then a good, packed gravel path with a grass option to the side, through some big puddles of mud20180107_091145470824767.jpg, still all downhill, before a sharp turn into the forest section. The marshall’s warning of “Watch out for the logs!” was well-timed. Three, maybe four, fallen trees were across the path and had to be jumped or ran round. I was now right in the middle of the slow pack meaning plenty of congestion, especially getting over the logs and the prime route through the forest, on the left of the path, was already taken by a long stream of runners. I found myself being slowed down several times due to the traffic. And then I started being overtaken by fast pack runners. I hadn’t even completed the first lap and I was being overtaken by fast pack runners! They had made up the 2 minutes 40 second handicap they had on me in the space of just under 2 miles. I had slowed though and it wasn’t just due to the traffic. The second mile, even though it was mainly downhill, was in 8.03.

Exiting the forest is where all the spectators are. Encouraging shouts from the Gosforth supporters spur you on, give you a little burst of speed. A sharp left turn and onto the second lap, jumping the trench again. Whereas on the first lap you could find some less muddy routes, that was no longer the case. 20180107_0913111136896491.jpgThe course markings were also a little sparse. It was pretty obvious which side of the posts you should run on (i.e. the right side of them on the long, sweeping left hand bend), but there were a lot, and I mean a lot, of runners running on the grassier, left hand side of the posts. Some must have been all of ten yards left of the posts, basically cutting the corner. I would have been more annoyed had I not been starting to really struggle myself. I felt I was barely moving on the steepest parts of the uphills. My legs had nothing. The medium packers that I had been keeping up with on the first lap were now well ahead of me and I was just focussing on myself, maintaining whatever momentum I had. The uphill mile 3 wasn’t too bad at 8.01, but the downhill mile 4, the second part of the second lap, was 8.18. My lack of fitness and strength was telling and I was starting to cramp in my hamstrings.

Lap 3 was even tougher, but I was digging in as well as I could through the strength-sapping hills and mud. I was passing a few Gosforth runners now, encouraging each one as I went, especially those who had turned out even though they were ill or injured. Mile 5 in 8.09. The last time through the forest and, instead of a left turn for another lap, we took a right to head towards the finish. That reminded me of the nightmares I have honestly had since last year’s race where I just keep on taking a left-hand turn and onto another lap, never taking the right to the finish, consigning myself to a never-ending loop of muddy, hilly hell!

The last 550 metres is all uphill. I was empty. There was a runner from Crook, another team in our division, that I made sure I passed, and then passed two more from division three clubs, with whatever burst of speed I could muster – you definitely couldn’t call it a sprint finish. The next runner from Elswick was just too far away. I crossed the line in a bit of a daze, although I do remember that even the finish funnel was ankle deep mud. I’ve never seen that before! I met up with the rest of the team and quickly shuffled off to get some warm clothes on and get my spikes off to put a dry pair of socks and my wellies on. My feet never really warmed up on the run and I couldn’t feel my toes. With my recuperating hand preventing me doing any lifting or even getting it muddy, I was not going be any use helping to put the club tent away, so I said my goodbyes and went to the nearest well-known fast food outlet to get a strawberry milkshake. There are probably better ways of getting a protein fix that don’t also contain 400 calories, but it was exactly what my body was craving at the time! And it was gorgeous!

So, the results are out. Another good day for Gosforth. A third-place finish in the division, with no one promoted, means we are now five points clear at the top with two rounds to go. As for me, my pre-race expectations were well-founded. Finishing in 45:30, I came 253rd, easily my worst Harrier League result, and I would have been 142nd without the handicap. My average pace was 7:53, compared to an average on this course last year of 7:08.

So, I now have some hard work to do to get back to full fitness. More regular attendance of training sessions, getting some of these excess pounds off and putting a race plan together for 2018. The first one of these is next weekend at the Durham Relays.

Blyth Sands 5 Mile Race – 3rd December 2017

groyne noun /ɡrɔɪn (US: groin) plural: groynes; (US: groins)

  1. a low wall or sturdy timber barrier built out into the sea from a beach to check erosion and drifting.

I started my last blog with something along the lines of ‘no two races are the same’. That couldn’t be more true with the final instalment in my 5 week raceathon. The Blyth Sands 5 Mile Race is run entirely along the sandy beach of Blyth, a port town on the North Sea. Not only do runners have to cope with the sand, notoriously difficult to run on, but it is also a handicap race, with different start times dictated by age and gender. Women over 60 have a 13 minute head start over senior men, for example. This makes it a very attractive race for veterans to enter. Not only that, but there are several beach barriers that need to be negotiated. There is one above-ground water pipe and three groynes that provide various challenges and, as it is an out and back race, they each have to be negotiated twice. Finally, each year, the tide determines how wet the runners will get. We were getting off lightly this year with the tide mostly out. It also dawned an absolutely glorious morning in the Northeast with not a cloud in the sky, not at all cold for December and only a slight breeze that you will always get at the coast. We are very lucky in this part of the world. Our beaches are amazing. If only it was 10 degrees warmer in the summer…

After an appalling night’s sleep, I arrived in good time to collect my number and meet up with the other Gosforth Harriers doing this particular race, another in the club’s Winter Grand Prix competition. I did a recce of the groynes. The height ranged from steeplechase barrier height upwards. There was also a noticeable difference in the sand level on either side of each groyne, so, on the outward leg, you would be landing on sand a good foot or so lower than that from which you were taking off. It was clear that the exact section of the groyne I chose as my crossing point would determine whether I could jump them or not. Only a few were actually jumpable. Others were far too high. For these, it would be a clamber over, with rough wood and barnacles providing hazards if you chose that method. Unusually, I decided to wear sunglasses, because the glare of the low sun off the standing water along the beach was blinding. That turned out to be a good decision.

An entertaining pre-race briefing by the race director was given and the first starters lined up on the beach heading north. Now, I had done a recce heading south; I hadn’t done a recce to the north and only then realised that the water pipe on the northern section was probably going to be a more tricky obstacle than the groynes. No time to check it out though. I’ll just have to wing it. Each group was given a round of applause as they took off and it finally was time for the 23-strong men’s M45 group, 10 minutes after the first group and with a 3 minute head start on the senior men. The first section was half a mile heading north. Five of the M45 group hit the front very early, me included and one other Gosforth Harrier. I recognised one of my targets from the Aykley Heads cross-country, who had beaten me by about 45 seconds the week after I had beaten him by about 20 seconds in the Memorial 10k. Another was a runner from Blyth, the hosting club. We headed to the water line that would provide the shortest distance to cover to the turning point due to the curve of the beach. The sand was fairly firm, but, similar to cross-country, runners who seemed to glide would benefit from this sort of surface. One of the leading quintet moved away. He was in a different league and eventually finished 4th overall. Two others, my previous target and a Blyth runner, were also going faster than I was willing to go at this time, so I let them go about 10 yards ahead. I didn’t want to get into oxygen deficit early, as 5 miles on sand would be tough going even if it was fairly firm. Even then, I was conscious I was probably going a bit too fast.

After about a quarter of a mile, I focussed on the water pipe about 100 metres ahead. The group that had started a minute ahead of us were now there. What were they doing? Some were rolling underneath it – there was maybe a two foot gap between the pipe and the sand. Others were clambering over it. No one seemed to be hurdling it. Why? As I approached it, I saw it was about waist high. I can jump that, I told myself, full of confidence in my own jumping ability. It was a bit of a melee but I managed to pick a section free from runners, climbers or rollers, increased my pace, judged my run-up and sailed over it, barely breaking stride. The two from the quintet that I had let go ahead were now behind me. They must have decided to adopt the roll or clamber method. I was buzzing! The first turning point was about 200 metres ahead. By then, a Blyth runner, maybe two, had caught back up and passed me again.

We turned around the flag in quick succession and started heading south, back towards the water pipe. The same tactics were in my mind and that’s exactly what I did. Once again, a Blyth runner took the less risky, but significantly slower option. He didn’t catch up with me again. I thought that put me 2nd in the M45 category. Each hurdle took a noticeable effort to increase the pace, launch yourself, land and push on. I knew that I had used a lot of energy in the first mile and I hoped that wasn’t going to haunt me in the second half of the race. We went past the start finish line and continued southwards towards the groynes, receiving applause and encouragement from spectators, including a few non-running Gosforth Harriers.

I was more certain about hurdling the groynes. I had hurdled all of them in my recce in both directions. I knew which sections I had to aim for and was just hoping they were going to be free of runners clambering over them at that time. The great thing about a handicap race is that the field is spread from the start, so I had no issues there. Energy was still spent increasing the pace, judging the stride and launching over them, but the buzz I was getting from doing it was amazing. The sand underfoot was changing all the time. After the groynes, it became very ridged, tricky to manage your foot strike to avoid turning your ankle.
Then we went through a couple of streams heading down to the water line. They were no more than ankle deep today. There was also a section of soft, gravelly sand where your foot sank further. Always something to keep it interesting. I was also regularly passing people, encouraging any Gosforth runner I passed.

About half a mile from the turn, the leaders started passing me, running in the opposite direction. An Elswick Harriers M70 athlete was miles in front. He would be the eventual winner. I was looking forward to the turn as we were running against the admittedly light wind and I was breathing hard. When the turn came, I couldn’t believe it. I was still running against the wind. How does that happen? The next mile was tough. I was paying for the fast first mile. I was passed by one M40, a clubmate who went on to win his age group, and one senior male who recorded the fastest time overall. I heard four miles beep on my Garmin. I looked at it for the first and only time in the race. That last mile was 7:04. Time is almost inconsequential in a race like this. You have nothing to judge it against, except afterwards against other people’s times. That was hopefully the hardest mile over.

The field was well stretched out and I was only occasionally passing people now. When the groynes came back into view, I felt like I was almost home. I would now be jumping from a lower level and landing a foot or so higher. As I hurdled the second one, the marshals stationed there gave me cheers for doing so. I waved in appreciation as I tried to ratchet up the pace in the final half mile, the finish line tantalisingly in view. With the final groyne cleared, I now had 200 metres left. An F60 lady was just ahead of me. I was able to pass her, but the next athlete was another 20 or so metres in front, too far, so I cruised into the finish, no sprint required today.

I finished in 32:32 in 22nd place out of 176 and was 12th fastest on the day, passing 109 other runners in total. In my age category I was surprised to see myself only 5th. It was tough, but I loved it. And that was the general consensus as each Gosforth Harrier came home, despite several battle scars on knees, hands and, yes, groins, from the groynes, or maybe the water pipe or possibly the barnacles that call the water pipe their home. The organisation of the event was excellent, with free tea, coffee, biscuits, mince pies and even a shot of sherry in the life guard station doubling as race HQ afterwards. All this for an entry fee of only £6. Bargain. And certainly another one to add to the list for next year again. My last three races have all been completely different experiences in totally different environments, but all of them were running. That’s one of the reasons why I love this sport so much. The buzz of the hurdling has encouraged me to enter the track steeplechase events next summer. There may be a few of us vying for the title of club steeplechase champion!