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. In 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. I 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.
Division 2 title CHECK
Let the celebrations commence.