NEHL #3 – Gosforth Park – 27th October 2018

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

Gosforth Park elevation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gosforth splits

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

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

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

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Yorkshire Marathon Corporate Relay – 14th October 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NEHL #2 Druridge Bay – 7th October 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Druridge Splits

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

NEHL Wrekenton – 29th September 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Darlington 10k – August 12th 2018

It’s always good to do different races rather than the same ones year after year. Despite it being a well-renowned event, I had never done the Darlington 10k. It is about an hour’s drive from home for me, but close to where I work, so there were several work colleagues running as well, which would be good. The company I work for has a running group which meets at lunchtimes and offers some excellent, free, strength and conditioning classes, specifically for runners, through a local gym, as well as pilates, yoga and cut-price gym membership. It’s a superb perk that quite a few employees take full advantage of, creating a healthier and happier workforce and at fairly minimal cost as well.

I had done some research on the Darlington 10k course. The elevation profile didn’t seem that bad and the hearsay was that it was fast. But then the race blurb said that the course was ‘undulating’. Most races tend to try to downplay any hills unless that is the distinctive characteristic. The best elevation description I have seen is a race called the Fruit Bowl 10k around the beautiful Georgian landscape gardens of the Gibside estate not far from me. The blurb says that it is ‘not flat’. One particular hill is so steep, you are almost on all fours getting up it. So when a race is described as ‘undulating’, I was expecting some proper hills rather than just mere undulations!

I had done my usual preparations, packing the night before, being up and breakfasted in good time and arrived at race HQ to collect my number. This is a fairly big race with over a couple of thousand entrants, including a mixture of very fast and very slow with a fair few using it as preparation for the Great North Run in three weeks’ time. It was raining when I did my first warm-up, but the forecast was for it to clear up just in time for the race. I met up with my colleagues and discussed target times. I had decided to set off at PB pace, about 6:15 per mile, and see where it took me. I have felt myself getting fitter over the summer, so I thought I wouldn’t be too far away from it.

With the final warm-up done and the rain stopped, we wished each other luck and headed into the very well-behaved and set-out starting pen at 10:15, only then realizing I had forgotten to take my caffeine gel which was back in my bag at the baggage area. Then, for some reason, I had it in my mind that it was a 10:40 start. It was only when the race director said ‘Two minutes to go’ just before 10:30 that I realized it was a 10:30 start. I hurriedly switched on my Garmin, which, of course, struggled to get a GPS signal, so I was a bit flustered and annoyed with myself when the race started, passing over the chip mat a few seconds after the klaxon went to set us off. Nevertheless, I found a good rhythm, felt strong and my first mile, although slightly uphill, hovered around 6:10 pace. A couple of other athletes running at pretty much the same pace as me were handy guides, although I was super-conscious not to go off too fast. After heavy rain the night before, it was wet underfoot, humid and quite warm. The two-lap course had inclines and declines, nothing steep, but enough to need some concentration to moderate effort on the uphills and try to claw the time back on the downhills.

Then, just before two miles, disaster! My lace came undone. Immediately rejecting the crazy idea of trying to run the rest of the race with it untied, I veered off the road onto the pavement and quickly retied it. I had the presence of mind to ensure I didn’t tie it too tight, a risk with the shoes I was wearing, and double knotted the lace again, as I had done before. I started off again and tried to work out how much time I had lost. The two people I had been running with, and from whom I had pulled away a bit before I stopped, were now about 50 yards ahead of me. I had probably lost about 15 seconds. I was annoyed and, whereas I was calm before the stop, I felt my breathing was now more laboured. I was now alongside someone from Easingwold Running Club who was trying to chase a clubmate a few metres ahead. He was running at the same pace as me, but only as an average, speeding up and slowing down quite a bit.

I looked at my Garmin to get a pace gauge, only to see that it had switched itself off. How had that happened? I fiddled with it to get it back on, but it always takes time to get a GPS signal when you are moving. Mentally, my thoughts were all over the place. I was thinking about the things that had gone wrong rather than concentrating on the race and my form. Any thoughts of a PB were gone. Maybe even sub-40 was gone as well. I didn’t have a clue how far we had gone – there were no distance markers – and I was hurting, despite my Garmin, which was now back on, showing a mile pace of 6:48 on it. Was it even worth carrying on at this level of intensity? Why not just take it easy for once? But that’s just not me. Not knowing the distance to go was a big thing, but it could have been more a mental barrier than actually impacted my running. By the middle of lap 2, I had caught and passed one of the athletes who had gone 50 yards ahead while I stopped to tie my lace and I was keeping tabs with the Easingwold athlete. Sometimes he was ahead of me, sometimes I was ahead of him, although whenever I did go ahead of him, he seemed to put on a burst to get in front of me again.

By now, we were lapping the back-markers and then we were split into two lanes – those on their first lap on the left, those on their second lap on the right. Did that mean we were close to the finish? Apparently not, as the road stretched out in front of us for quite a distance. We probably still had well over a mile to go. The Easingwold athlete pushed on to about 5 yards in front of me. I wasn’t too worried. I would get him in the final sprint. We entered the City Centre area and then a sharp left on a quite slippery paved area. I remembered from the route map that meant we had less than a quarter of a mile to go. I ramped up the pace a bit. A sharp right and I caught and breezed past the Easingwold runner, taking him on the inside. One more sharp right and I could see the finish banner – 50 metres to go. I saw the race clock. 39:something. Blimey, that’s faster than I thought. There was one more runner in front of me. All-out sprint!

A97T4810.JPG.gallery

I took him about 15 metres before the line and then heard the race commentator on the PA saying something like “Is he going to get him?” I took that to mean there was someone else (#580) closing in behind me and I just managed to hold him on the line. Compared to other gurners, I don’t look like I’m trying hard in these finishing straight photos, but I was all-out here. I’ve come close to vomiting at the finish of several races in my running career, but probably not as close as this time. Spectators lined either side of the finish funnel as I retched. It would not have been pretty, but my breakfast did stay down. The clock was about 39:24 when I passed under it at the finish and my chip time turned out to be 39:18. I was absolutely shattered and was very grateful for the bottle of water and the bench to sit down to recover and think about the race. I finished 111th by chip time out of 1892 and 19th in my age group out of 138.

Three schoolboy errors – you’d think I was beyond those now – and one technology malfunction. Take 15 seconds off for the lace and maybe another 5-10 for knowing the distance and pace. Perhaps another 5-10 to do with my mental state and missed caffeine kick and I would have more than likely got sub-39 minutes, but that’s all irrelevant. I met two of my work colleagues as they finished, one recording a very nice PB, and then we went to claim our T-shirts.

Using the cursed compliment sandwich technique, I liked the size and the quality of the field, as well as the start and finish setups. The race HQ was excellent, as were the baggage facilities. However, the water bottles on the run were open tops, not sports caps, whereas the bottle you received at the end was a sports cap bottle. That’s the wrong way round! The lack of distance markers was poor. Even if my Garmin hadn’t malfunctioned, there were plenty of people running who don’t have GPS watches for whom distance markers would be useful. The yellow T-shirts, although ‘technical’, are made from really rough material. Aside from being a magnet to insects due to the colour, there will be some serious nipple bleeds for wearers if they don’t wear appropriate PPE (plasters!). Back to the good, the race was organised by the local authority which is unusual these days, which led to a really good community atmosphere and the photos were published on the local newspaper’s website and downloadable for free rather than the extortionate amounts charged at most mass events. Overall, I enjoyed it. Summer 10k’s are probably my favourite race.

It’s holiday time now – another of my favourite times of the year to run. I get out early in the morning before it gets too hot and normally get a good few miles in while I’m away. September sees the end of summer and the start of the cross-country season. I think I might try and get one more road race in and then treat myself to a new pair of cross-country spikes!

Gosforth Harriers Club Mile Championship – 18th July 2018

One event I always look forward to is the club mile championship, called the Sparvarger Mile after a Swedish athletics club which visited Gosforth many years ago. It is one of only a couple of times a year when club colleagues become rivals and prestigious club trophies are up for grabs. There are races within races and benchmarks laid down for the next year both in time and good-natured banter. It is when the hard laps covered in track training sessions really pay dividends. It’s quite simple. The more of those sessions you attend, working on your speed and stamina, the faster you will be able to run. And that is where I have been lacking this year. I have been putting in plenty of longer intervals on the road, but not the 12x400m track sessions and the like that enable you to post good times over a mile.

There are four races on the evening. I was in the race containing the vet men, vet women and senior women. Each are separate races within the same race. There were some noticeable absentees, especially two from the club who were in Estonia representing Great Britain in the European Triathlon Championships. After registering and picking up our numbers, the presentation for the Winter Grand Prix is made. I think I only missed four out of about twenty races in the whole grand prix, but I wasn’t in the top three, which shows the dedication required to win that event. Good effort by those picking up the trophies.

After a warm-up and then some stretching and strides while watching and supporting those in the first two races, it was then time for ours. We lined up, ready to take on the 4 laps and 9 metres making up the mile. A quick photo and then we were off. Each lap is different. The first is critical to achieve the right pace. Garmins are fairly useless in these events. You are running too fast and at close quarters with your competitors to really look at them and your timing is done in laps rather than mile pace. Simple maths tell you that 90 second laps get you a 6 minute mile. 80 second laps will give you about a 5:20 mile. 75 second laps would be 5 minutes and so on. You only know your lap pace when you complete a lap and the timekeeper announces your time. You therefore need to know your body, speed and perceived effort to judge the right pace to run from the outset. Going off too fast will mean you run a slower time overall. Not going off fast enough will also mean you run a slower time overall. My lack of track training meant that I didn’t really have that tuned perception of pace needed, so there was a little uncertainty in my mind. I was first to react at the start and found myself leading round the first bend. At least that meant I wasn’t going off too slow, I thought to myself. In the field, there were two athletes definitely faster than me, one of them a male vet, and at least three other vets around the same time as me, depending on our relative fitness. Halfway down the back straight, one of the faster athletes overtook me. I tucked in behind her for the rest of the straight and the top bend and felt comfortable. The first lap should always feel comfortable, otherwise you definitely have gone off too fast. She was about two yards ahead of me as we completed the first lap. I was expecting / hoping to hear a number starting with a 7 as I crossed the line, but it was an 83. Slower than I expected.

Lap 2 is where the hard work begins. After 500m, I was starting to breathe heavier. I tried briefly to stay with the leader, but thought better of it and she pulled away. She sped up rather than I slowed down, so I thought, but I probably wasn’t brave enough here. I could hear a number of sets of footsteps right behind me. I didn’t know who was there. One rule of track running is you never look behind. 

Sparvarger Mile 2

The club’s fastest vet is fastest by quite a way, but he was doubling up in the senior race after this one, so was running tactically. Even so, I was expecting him to pass me any moment. It didn’t happen. I was at the front of the little group, taking whatever wind there was as we entered the home straight for the second time. Crossing the finish line, I heard the words ‘two fifty’. That meant an 87 second lap. I had slowed down by quite a bit.

Lap 3 – Do I speed up? Or rather, could I speed up? Do I run tactically and wait for a fast finish? While I was at the front, I decided on the latter and maintained my pace. Halfway down the back straight, the fastest vet eased alongside me and then showed his considerable speed as we went round the top bend, opening up a gap of about 20 yards pretty quickly. I could still hear at least one pair of feet immediately behind me. Realistically, it was always going to be a race for second anyway, so I still maintained the pace. I didn’t register the time called out as we crossed the finish line, taking the bell – yes there was a proper bell. It turned out to be 4:17, another 87 second lap.

Final lap – The fact that we were on the final lap came as a bit of a surprise to me! Not sure why. Every other race I do is at least twice as long as this one. It is almost instinct to increase pace at the start of the last lap. Approaching the back straight, I realised there was only 300 metres to go and I had plenty left inside me. I increased the pace some more. So did the footsteps behind me. I increased a bit more. So did the footsteps behind me. Starting the top bend, the footsteps that were behind me drew level with me on the outside, squeezing me onto the inside of my lane. I couldn’t allow him to get his arm in front of my arm as I might then have to brake and go around the outside. I kicked. Our arms touched and I managed to squeeze slightly in front of him again. 150 metres to go. A long way out for a full-on sprint. I kicked again. Not quite full speed but enough to give a hint of daylight between us. 100 metres to go. Afterburners on. More daylight between us. Arms pumping as hard as I could. Full-on sprint down the home straight. The leader had already finished. The vet in second was about 30 yards ahead of me. I was never going to pass him, but I was catching him. I crossed the line in 5:32 after a last lap of 75 seconds. Third place in the race and second place in the vets, but 9 seconds outside my time last year when I was fitter, but poorly with a cold. Then again, given the paltry amount of track training I have done, it was probably all I deserved. Also, I had too much left in the final 100 metres, indicating I should probably have gone faster on laps 2 and 3. I may have been able to sneak under 5:30, that being the case.

Sparvarger Pace

After recovering, there were plenty of laughs, hand-shaking between the entire field, admission of tactics, congratulations when a good time was posted or commiserations when injury or something else meant a not-so-good time was posted. Most importantly, it was great fun and, on the way home, after watching the senior men’s race, I promised myself that I would go to track training more often. That being the case, my mile PB should be eminently beatable next year.

 

Tynedale 10k – 4th July 2018

It’s been a while since my last blog. Some serious family health problems have been more important than running. With these hopefully over, I entered the Tynedale 10k with the promise of a fast, flat course. My training has been on-and-off for the last few months, but a few weeks of increased mileage and hard efforts have got me back on track. While maybe not at PB level, I was hopeful of a good time, despite consuming a few more beers than I was expecting while watching England battle through the penalty shoot-out against Colombia in the World Cup the previous night. It was a gorgeous mid-summer evening, maybe a bit warm for a really good time, when I arrived at the Riverside Country Park at Ovington, near Prudhoe in Northumberland.

Not having done this race before, it was good to get chatting to an Elswick Harrier beforehand who gave me an idea of the course. The ‘fast’ description on the race blurb was mostly due to the first two miles being downhill. Indeed, the first half mile was quite steeply downhill. In most races, what goes down must come up, but not this one. The start was up one side of the Tyne River valley and the finish was down by the river. Despite my intermittent training and warm conditions, it got me thinking that maybe a PB wasn’t out of the question after all.

I met up with the other four Gosforth Harriers doing this race and we jogged the 1.5 miles, from Riverside Park where the car parking, race HQ and finish were, up the hill to the start. It was a good warm-up and I got a decent position near the front of the pack of the 300+ runners, mostly club runners, but a few non-club as well. There looked to be some good runners in the field. I picked out a couple that I recognized as around my level and it wasn’t long before the race director was giving the final instructions and we were off.

So, here are the quandaries. A downhill at the start is good because your legs are still fresh, meaning you can control your pace and foot strike without landing too heavily and jarring every muscle in your legs which generates fatigue. It’s also time in the bank for the latter stages of the race. On the other hand, it’s difficult to know what the right pace is. Running a downhill hard will still require effort. Judging the right level of effort is critical. And the other hand (yes, I know that makes three), is that you don’t want to lose the opportunity of using the downhill to your advantage by going off too slowly, even though that slowly may still be faster than your normal flat pace. It would be interesting.

It’s amazing how quickly the field sorts itself out and I found myself running alongside a lady with whom I had had a good battle, but ultimately lost, at the Kirkley 10 Miler back in November last year. I’m sure she clocked me as well and maybe used me as a pace guide, just like I was using her! While a normal 10k PB pace for me would be about 6:15-6:20 per mile, my Garmin indicated that I was covering the first mile in 5:38, an indication of the downhill. Was that too fast? Too slow? I didn’t have a clue! The second mile was also mostly downhill, but not as steep. Pace was still high, but my running partner had pulled about 10 metres ahead. At about 2.5 miles, I was starting to blow a bit. I had moderated my pace, but it was feeling tougher than it should have been. 10k is a perfect distance for an evening race. More physically challenging than a 5k, but over much quicker than a half marathon. But if you go off too fast, it is a long way to go while suffering. My mouth was really dry and I was hot. The promise of a water station shortly after halfway couldn’t come soon enough.

The country lanes and villages were providing a nice backdrop, but I wasn’t looking left or right at the views. There were quite a few spectators on the course, giving generous applause. Each pub we passed seemed to have its occupants outside enjoying the evening sunshine and watching the runners pass. The first ladies in the race always get specific applause and encouragement from spectators and I was running in between first and second. The course was pretty flat by now, the odd uphill, although sometimes quite sharp, being matched by the odd downhill. At last, the water station arrived, closer to 4 miles than halfway and I greedily took a couple of gulps and poured most of the rest of the bottle over my head, back and legs before discarding it in a place that would be easy for the volunteers to collect.

The country lanes turned to park footpaths. A Low Fell athlete had, maddeningly, been about 10 metres in front of me for the last mile. I wanted to bridge the gap, but, by this time, I was hanging on, unable to increase the pace and trying everything to avoid slowing down which was the only thing my brain was telling me to do. My heart was thumping out of my chest. I was getting light headed, indicating I was at my physical limit. Realising I was tense and my gait didn’t feel quite right, I tried relaxation techniques. Rather than clenching fists, I imagined gently holding a crisp between my first finger and thumb of each hand. I focussed on controlling my foot strike and increasing my cadence slightly. And tried to hold my head and shoulders higher and slightly further forward than I was. It seemed to work. Mile 4 seemed to go by quicker and I had closed the gap to the Low Fell runner by a few metres, but still not enough to be ‘in touch’.

At the 5 mile mark, I was telling myself only just over a mile to go. 2000 metres. 5 laps of the track. Just over 7 minutes of running. A quick look at the lap pace on my Garmin showed 6:40. All the gains from the downhill in the first mile were lost on the flat of this mile. No PB today. I was passed by a Heaton Harrier who always seems to beat me and a North Shields Poly athlete who looked so smooth and effortless. They had both obviously paced themselves much better than I had done. Most of the last mile was along the banks of the Tyne. As each tenth of a mile ticked by, I was calculating how many metres was left and converting it to laps of the track. 0.6 miles, 1000 metres, 2.5 laps. The distance between me and the Low Fell athlete had gone back to the 10 metres. Did I have anything left to close that over the last 400m? In a word, no! We took a slight left and saw the finish line a couple of hundred metres away. Unsure whether there was anyone closing in on me – I had resisted the temptation to look back – I pushed on to the finish as fast as I could, hearing my name shouted, presumably from a clubmate who had already finished. I heard the official say “Eighteen” as I crossed the line. 18th position – that’s not bad. Much better than I thought. It was half an hour later, when the fuzz of exhaustion in my brain had dissipated that I realised, with my gun time recorded as 39:18, that it was the seconds he was recording rather than my finishing position. My chip time was 4 seconds faster at 39:14 and I finished in 31st place, 5th in my age group.

I was spent, completely. It had been a lot harder than it should have been. The last 3.5 miles were pure suffering and I finished 35 seconds outside my PB, but at least still sub-40. A half a bottle of water later, and a few handshakes, including with the Low Fell runner who always managed to stay just ahead of me, I was still bent double trying to recover for a lot longer than normal. After catching up with a couple of people I hadn’t seen in a while, we headed off to the pub, where the pie and peas supper was being served. Getting there early was a good move as we were able to grab a table outside under the clear evening skies of this amazing summer we are having and missed the queues that formed both for the food and the bar as the bulk of the runners finished. The general consensus was that it had been a hard run. The early downhill seemed to have made it harder rather than easier, but my level of fitness is still not where I want it to be either. All in all, it was a very well-organised race. A scenic, challenging course, plenty of direction signs and supportive marshalls, chip timing and a supper at the end. What more could you want? Well, maybe a PB! Maybe next year.