Great North Run 2017

Every year after the Great North Run, the invitation comes through, normally with an increased price, to enter next year’s event. Every year I think twice about it. It’s crowded, it’s not a very picturesque course and it’s overpriced. And every year, I enter again. Why? It’s the event that got me into running; 2006 was my first year and I have run it every year since; the atmosphere on the course is amazing; it’s a challenge with inclines that seem to go on forever; I can run and socialise with friends, before, during and after; it has people from all over the world competing; it is the biggest event of the year, bar none, not just for athletics, in the Northeast of England; it is a whole weekend event with good quality junior races around the Quayside on the Saturday, in which my children take part; because I live only 3 miles from the start, my family can watch me run in a big, televised event without having to travel long distances. For all its detractors, and there are plenty, it’s still my favourite event of the year.

In the past, most years, my training has been focussed to peak at the Great North Run. This year was different. The London Marathon was my main event of the year and I haven’t been 100% physically since, so I was not expecting great things. My target was anything under 1hr30m, compared to a personal best of 1hr24m39s and 1hr28m02s last year. That meant an average pace of about 6m45s per mile to make sure. I followed my usual preparation during the week leading up to it and that seemed to go well, but I wasn’t overly confident of achieving my target. It would take a huge effort to do so, heavily reliant on my left leg holding out. I had done a couple of half-marathon distances in training, but slowed significantly towards the end in both. Hopefully, that would not be the case today.

Meeting up with clubmates beforehand, we did a warm-up together and entered Zone B at about 10.10, half an hour before the race start. I was nervous about my left knee, which seemed to be locking randomly, and about my left hip flexor which has been weak for some time. Grouped together, we applauded the elites, wished each other a good run and, before we knew it, the gun had gone to start the race. I crossed the line about 1m40s after the gun, a little bit longer than normal. The first mile is always crowded, but that normally stops you from starting too quickly as it’s mainly downhill. The Tyne Bridge comes upon you very quickly. While crossing it, I passed Rob Deering, a comedian who presents a runner-oriented podcast called Running Commentary with another comedian, Paul Tonkinson. It’s funny, informative and entertaining wherever you listen to it and recommended for all runners, whether on the run or not. I got a cheer by name from a spectating clubmate just after the bridge which is always good to hear, and the left turn onto the Felling Bypass was accompanied by a band playing the Blaydon Races. Brilliant.

It continued to be crowded along the Felling Bypass towards Gateshead Stadium, but it didn’t slow me down at all. I wanted to ensure that my splits were more controlled than normal as that was the only way I was going to hit my target, so I was more conscious than usual about looking at my Garmin to ensure I was in the range. I was trying to make sure miles 2 to 8 were between 6m30s and 6m50s per mile, accommodating the inclines and declines of the route. I was achieving that, but I wasn’t finding it easy. There is always a lot of discussion whether there are any actual hills on the Great North Run. Some years I don’t notice them at all. Other years, they can feel as bad as the steepest hills imaginable. Really, they are best described as inclines. They are certainly not steep, but they go on for a long time and can sap your strength. At the top of the mile 5 hill at Heworth roundabout, the highest point on the course, I was promising myself I would never do another half marathon or marathon again. Then I passed a clubmate guiding a blind runner and, after giving them both encouragement, I took one of my two gels, this one with a caffeine boost, and pushed on. The Great North Run is the second biggest event of the year in Britain for charities after the London Marathon. There was a woman in front of me wearing angel wings running for Pancreatic Cancer Research. This was the disease that took my father-in-law, which was why I noticed it. She was running at a very similar pace as me and had a vest with her name in big letters so all I could hear from the crowd was “Well done Lindsay”. I must have heard her name at least a hundred times because we were never more than about 10 yards from each other between mile 5 and the finish! In fact, look closely at the header picture of this blog, taken in the last mile and you can see her in the background.

The stretch approaching halfway is normally a bit of a deadzone support-wise, but not this year. Seeing another two friends cheering us on was great. By mile 8, I was having to dig really deep to maintain the pace. The chimp in my brain was telling me to just take it easy, forget about my target, stop and walk for a while and drift to the finish and it was very tempting. I consciously removed those thoughts and gritted my teeth as I passed a band playing Mr Brightside by The Killers which never fails to get me going. I can always tell when I am at the limit physically when my head starts feeling slightly fuzzy and I had hit that point. I had my second energy gel and needed water which came at the mile 9 water station. Every year, I take a bottle from Tanni Grey-Thompson, winner of 11 Paralympic gold medals and a Baroness no less. She is there every year at the same water station on the same side of the road. “Thanks Tanni”, I shouted as I grabbed the bottle from her hand and she responded “Well done Neil!”. How did she know my name, I wondered in my confused state. I was wearing my Gosforth Harriers vest; not the vest with my name on it. Did she remember me from previous years? Yeah, right! It took a few minutes for me to realise that our number bibs have our names on them and, because Neil is only four letters long, it was printed in quite large letters. I was conscious that miles 9 and 10 saw my splits drift slightly outside the 6m50s pace range. Not far, but enough to get me worried about hitting my target. It was going to be tight. I started trying to work out what I needed to do over the last 5k; 3.1 miles; a parkrun. 7.00 minute mile pace would do it with a bit to spare. I caught up with a clubmate. We gave each other encouragement and I’m sure we both found a little bit of extra speed as we urged each other on. I then passed a partially-sighted clubmate who was being guided and shouted encouragement to him as well. Blind and partially-sighted runners start with the elite women, so, together with their guides, they have a clear course to run for at least some of the way. I have several good friends who act as guides, both inside and outside the club, and it’s a very positive and admirable thing to do. Kudos to them all.

I always find miles 10 and 11 to be the toughest. They are predominantly uphill when you are already flagging. My pace had drifted well outside 7 minute mile pace now. At about 11 miles, a fellow runner asked me “Is that the end of the hills?” to which I answered “Yes, all downhill from here”, probably a little prematurely! I hope it gave him a boost anyway! The right time to say “Yes” to that question would coincide with one of the greatest sights in world sport as the sea comes into view for the first time. For me, that is the start of the finish. Then, all the height you have gained since mile 8 is lost in a single steep downhill into Marsden Grotto before the left turn onto the home straight, or the longest mile in the world as I call it. You’re effectively home, but you still have about a mile and a quarter to go. IMG_1507Another glance at my watch and a futile attempt to make a complex calculation of adding a quarter of 7 to 7 and then adding that answer to the elapsed time on my watch. I gave up and just ran as fast as my legs would carry me. The 800m to go banner came into view. Half a mile. I should be able to do that in 3m30s. My watch was on 1hr26mXXs. I couldn’t read the seconds as the numbers were too small. I must beat 1hr30m. The 400m to go banner arrived after what seemed like an eternity, well, 600m anyway. I didn’t look at my watch anymore; I wasn’t able to change the outcome now; I was running as fast as I could. I turned right onto the grass, with the finish line about 30m away. Another look at the watch – 1hr28m50-odd seconds. Blimey, a whole minute underneath 1hr30m. Even better, a sprint would get me under 1hr29m. I crossed the line and stopped my watch at 1hr28m58s, an average pace of 6m45s per mile. Result!

I slowly gathered myself as I walked through the finishing funnel. The clubmate I passed at mile 10 slapped me on the back. He had been only 10-15 seconds behind me for the last 3 miles. Water was being handed out. I did a double-take as I recognised the person giving me the bottle. It was only Sally Gunnell, British Olympic 400m hurdles champion from 1992 and former world record holder! Getting water from Tanni Grey-Thompson and Sally Gunnell on the same day! That’s the Great North Run for you. I bumped into another clubmate while getting my medal. We congratulated each other, collected our goody bags with the t-shirt inside and I then wandered around the sponsors’ tents seeing what freebies were being given out.

Getting back to Newcastle after finishing is never an issue for me as I finish well in advance of the crowds. When retrieving my bag from the baggage bus, I saw a woman with angel wings and Lindsay on her Pancreatic Cancer Research vest. She recognised me as well and we had a chat about the run. A quick change of clothes and I managed a warm-down jog to the metro station where I met another clubmate. We went to the pre-arranged, post-run meeting place, a pub in South Gosforth where we waited for all the other club runners to convene, rehydrate, share experiences and celebrate some outstanding performances! Final stats showed I came 736th overall out of 43,065 (top 1.7%) and I was 84th in my age group out of 5,550 (top 1.5%). After some recent performances that left me down-hearted, this has revived my running spirit. Another excellent Great North Run day. I’ll receive the reminder to sign up for the 2018 run within the next few days. Will I? Absolutely!

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Great North Run Preparations

The Great North Run was the event that got me into running. This year will be the 12th time I have run it. It’s a mass participation event, which covers both a serious elite race at the sharp end and a fundraising walk at the other. In between, you have every type of runner / jogger / walker: good club runners verging on the elite; people like me who would describe themselves as decent runners who regard this as one of many races throughout the year; regular, leisure runners, probably aiming for a certain time or to beat their personal bests for the half marathon, whatever it may be; people who are not regular runners, but take the challenge seriously; people who thought it would be a good idea to sign up and run for charity and for whom a half-marathon will be a major physical challenge; to people who are looking for a day out and will probably still be out on the course 3 1/2 hours after they cross the start line, walking most of the way.

A half-marathon is a distance that is achievable for most. It does not hold the intense physical challenge that a marathon does, but it stretches most human bodies, especially if they want to do the best they can. For many who do the Great North Run, this may be their only annual foray into racing and will probably be their most intense physical challenge of the year, so I wanted to share my normal final week preparation process which may be useful to some. It works for me, but every runner is different. It is probably mainly geared to the type of runner that wants to do the best they can on the day, whether that be 1.30 or 3 hours. Anyone under 1hour30 will probably have their own preparation process. Anyone over 3 hours for a half marathon probably isn’t so focussed on doing the best they can for this to be so important.

So, with one week to go, the training is done. It’s taper time for the race on Sunday. There’s no point doing any more long or hard runs as it would affect your performance negatively if you did. You should do a couple of short runs during the week to keep the legs ticking over, at least one part of which should be at your target race pace to remind your body what that pace feels like. For me, this means 5 miles on Monday night, mainly easy with a couple of miles at race pace, 2 easy miles on Wednesday as a loosener and a couple of miles on Friday, two days before the run, at race pace. This year, that will be about 6.40 mile pace.

Start eating more carbs from about Thursday. You want to fill up your muscles and liver with glycogen, easily accessible fuel that will be used during the first half of the race. Pasta is a popular way of doing this, but stick to tomato-based sauces rather than creamy sauces which normally have a high fat content. For me, I have a small bowl of pasta Bolognese on Thursday, Friday and Saturday as an additional meal. You will expend at least 1,500 calories during a half-marathon. Use this as a gauge to how much extra food you need to take in during these last couple of days. You certainly don’t want to eat so much that you put on extra weight beforehand and you don’t want to regard the race as an opportunity to lose a few pounds, but most people should have something extra to their normal meals rather than just eat pasta instead of other food.

Get the in-race fuel that you want use from the shops, such as gels, jelly babies and an energy drink for the start if you want it. Your body will run out of easily accessible fuel after about an hour. After that, it starts using the next most easily accessible fuel source, which, if you are pushing yourself,  is your muscles. That’s when running can start hurting physically and is to be avoided, so make sure you have your in-race fuel. Ideally, you will be getting the same fuel that you have used on your training runs or the fuel given out during the race.

Equally as important as fuel is hydration. You should start increasing the amount of fluids you take in during the week before. Your urine should be almost clear by Saturday and the additional fluids will have been absorbed by your body. This means that on Sunday morning, race day, you don’t actually need to drink much at all between getting up and the race itself, meaning less time spent in toilet queues / in bushes / side of road etc. I stay away from water, tea or coffee completely on the morning of the race and just sip slowly about half a bottle of energy / electrolyte drink. Nothing else until you are on the start line when a few swigs of water help to moisten the mouth and throat immediately before the gun. There is bottled water available at the start, but you definitely do not want the discomfort of needing to pee during the race. Been there, done that, no thanks.

Make sure you have all your provisions and have packed your race bag by Saturday night. For example, banana, energy bar, bottle of water, bag of jelly babies, energy gels / drink, clothes for before the race, clothes for after the race, deodorant, towel, wipes, money, phone and your running kit etc. Fill out your contact information on your bib and pin your number to your shirt before you go to bed. You don’t want to be thinking about those sorts of things on race day morning. Look at the weather forecast. If it may be chilly or wet at the start, think about taking old clothes you don’t mind throwing away or, my preference, a black rubbish bag to wear at the start with a hole for your head and two for your arms. It keeps you surprisingly warm and dry if needed. For ladies who can’t be bothered queuing for the toilets, it also provides a modesty cover while squatting in the bushes. Most men generally don’t care about modesty in that situation! Charge your Garmin (other GPS or distance measuring devices are available)! If there’s the option, turn off the auto-stop setting. You may go under bridges / underpasses in the GNR. You don’t want the watch to stop or distance to be incorrect because it can’t get satellites for a couple of minutes. You may also want to clear some data, just to make sure you have enough memory.

Race Day – The race starts at 10.40. I will normally have breakfast at 7.30 to 8.00. A couple of wholemeal pancakes or porridge with honey are my preference. Chew well – it will help with digestion. Timing is important for breakfast. You don’t want to run on a full stomach, but you don’t want to start a run feeling hungry either. It doesn’t have to be a big breakfast, but preferably carb-based, and try to avoid anything acidic such as orange juice or dairy as they can both cause problems down under. As mentioned already, go light on the fluids. Some people may prefer to eat earlier than this to avoid getting a stitch. Obviously, the distance you need to travel to the start may affect the time and what you can eat.

Onto more personal matters, I don’t use deodorant before a race. Your body needs to sweat. If you do use it, you may get white smears around your armpits and possibly chaffing as well. Apply whatever anti-chaffing mechanisms you want wherever you need to. As a man, I always put standard water-resistant plasters over my nipples, although Vaseline is another option. I’ve seen too many men with nipple blood seeping through the front of their shirts, especially if the weather is hot or wet. Not a pretty sight and very painful. You may also want to take an Imodium to ensure you don’t need to do a number 2 at any point. If already tried in training with no ill-effects, some people also take a painkiller closer to the start time to numb any pain they may suffer. Ibuprofen is frowned upon for this because it impacts on kidney function.

I like to get the start for about 9.15 and have half a banana. The atmosphere is as sociable or as personal as you want it to be and will probably already be fairly crowded. There’s the voice of local radio’s Alan Robson over the loud speaker, some good tunes being played, maybe some celebrity or elite spotting, meeting friends and then, at about 9.30, Abide With Me is played – very emotional for some – to remember those who have left us in the past year. After that, I find some space to do a warm-up, some jogs, strides and dynamic stretching. You need to do it now as there’s no room in the pens. At 9.50, I strip off to my running gear and put my bag on the baggage bus, have a last wee and get into my pen by about 10 am. It sounds early, but the time passes really quickly. I have the rest of my banana, find my spot, cheer the wheels of steel and the elite ladies’ starts, do the mass warm-up and try to find a square metre for some static stretches. Static stretching is a very personal thing. Some people do it, some people don’t. I find I have to do it otherwise I cramp after a few miles. Just don’t do it from cold.

Don’t forget to turn your Garmin on to give it time to acquire satellites, but not so early that it goes to sleep again. I find the last minutes before the start are quite tense. You are about to put your body through an intense physical challenge. You haven’t run a step yet, but your heart rate is probably close to twice what it is at rest. Try focussing, taking deep breaths to reduce your heart rate and chat to the people around you. Eat a few jelly babies, take a swig or two of water and then you’re off.

As for the run itself, I just have one plea. Please leave your headphones at home for this particular run. You will miss a large part of the amazing atmosphere and you’ll be oblivious to the runners trying to pass you (and, wherever you start, there will be many). I guarantee, this will be one long run on which you will not be bored, and require music to keep you going.

I hope someone does find this useful. Happy taper everyone. See you on the start line.

 

Farringdon Relays – 2nd September 2017

A week before the Great North Run, we have the precursor to the Northeast cross-country season, the Farringdon Relays, for which you should be swapping your summer track spikes for longer, cross-country pins. The men’s event comprises teams of four with each leg being 1.8 miles around a lovely park on the outskirts of Sunderland.

The last couple of months have not been good, running-wise. Following on from my underwhelming performances in the London Marathon and the Hadrian’s Wall Half Marathon, my mojo is just not quite there, possibly because, at the moment, running is not the pleasure it normally is. I’m not what you would call injured, but aches and pains are lingering, especially in my lower back and left leg. Running in the evening, my favourite time to run, is now invariably followed by a restless night’s sleep because my legs are hot and calves cramping. Most runs seem to have to be followed by half an hour of stretching, foam-rolling, self-massage and other recovery manoeuvers involving spiky objects more associated with torture or other deviances. I am doing more strength and conditioning and have also just started a pilates class. The instructor, a consultant physiotherapist, has already pointed out that a lack of mobility in my shoulder, caused by having a frozen shoulder a few years ago, will be impacting my mobility, flexibility and biomechanics all the way down my legs.

It has been quite a busy summer socially, which has resulted in a bit too much beer, leading to missing hard, Saturday club sessions and easy, Sunday morning long runs. My food choices have also left much to be desired recently, meaning I have put on a few pounds and life is busy, juggling jobs in the house and garden, work and the duties of being a parent of two very active, sporty children. I have noticed it all impact my speed and endurance. To add to all this, I have had a huge year mileage-wise compared to normal. Call me sad, but I have tracked and charted my running for almost 11 years, going back to 2007 when I got my first Garmin. Prior to 2017, my highest mileage year was 2011 when I covered 784 miles. Annual TotalsI have already surpassed that number this year with 4 months left to go. Continuing at my current weekly mileage, I would pass 1,000 miles for the year in early November and finish the year at about 1,130 miles. Doing so much more than my body has been used to may be having an effect. After all, I am not getting any younger. So I am not expecting great things for either the Farringdon Relays or the Great North Run. Maybe a good, short, relay blast is just what I need.

Arriving early for my son’s race, we inspected the course and worked out the quickest way of getting over the main obstacle, a stream just before the half-way point. It was a two-foot drop into about 12 inches of water and about 6 foot across. The upward slope would become slippery as the day progressed. A foot narrower and it would be very jumpable. How much time would you save by jumping it? What were the dangers? Even after pondering, I still wasn’t entirely sure what I was going to do. I’ll see how I feel at the time. There were various photographers setting up their equipment and a few spectators already gathering there, so it must be an entertaining place to watch when the racing started.

It was an fantastic turnout by Gosforth Harriers with good representation in every age group and senior and veteran men’s and women’s races. After a few victories and podium places as well as many other excellent performances, it was time for the men’s race, the last race of the day. I was third leg in the senior B team rather than a veteran team, although it was comprised of two seniors and two veterans. Out of 43 teams, our first leg runner came home in an excellent 9th place, 3 places behind the Gosforth senior A team. Our 2nd leg runner, the other veteran, coming back from a long term injury, took off with 6 other teams very close together. In a very competitive leg, with much overtaking, he came home in 10th, another excellent performance.

Handing over to me, there was quite a big gap between me and the team in front and a much smaller gap to a couple of teams behind me. It was going to be a big ask to overtake anyone. The challenge was to ensure I didn’t get overtaken and to give everything, even if I was going to be running on my own for much of the race. I took off, full of adrenalin and purpose. After a couple of hundred yards or so, a quick look at my Garmin showed 5:11 per mile pace – a bit too quick. By the half mile mark, I had moderated to just under 6 minute mile pace. There were almost no flat bits on the course. The first mile or so was mainly downhill with some decent uphills on the second mile. Here was the quandary: normally, I push on the downhills and ease up the hills. With most of the downhills in the first half of the race, was that still a sensible tactic? I could get into oxygen deficit early on and, even though it was a short race, it is then tough to maintain that effort level throughout. Then again, try slowing down when you are already going pretty much flat-out down a hill! I was wearing cross-country spikes which have very limited cushioning. I could both feel and hear the soles slapping against the firm ground, indicating a lack of control and strength through the hips, legs and ankles and probable over-striding, landing too far back on my heels. I didn’t feel in control and, even though I was conscious of it, I didn’t know what to do to regain the control without slowing down. In hindsight, maybe that’s what I should have done, but coming up to half-way in a race, the brain isn’t thinking that way.

Exiting a woody copse, there was a downhill stretch of about 150 yards heading towards the water jump, with spectators and photographers waiting on the other side hoping to see some sort of mishap that could get them £250 from You’ve Been Framed. That 150 yards gave you ample opportunity to decide how you were going to get over the jump. And then to change your mind. And then change it again! To jump it, you needed speed and the leg and hip strength to cushion the landing and stride on. While I am normally a good jumper, my hips just didn’t feel up to it today. I could see myself not quite making the distance, crumbling on the impact on the opposite side and falling back into the water. So, with about 5 yards to go, I decided to take a step into the water and get up the other side. With the final step, I found myself going two-footed into the middle of the water and taking a couple of big steps up the bank on the other side. Seamless! Barely breaking stride! As if I had planned it that way all along! Sorry spectators, no £250 on my part today! In hindsight, I doubt there was much gain from jumping the water, but a lot more to lose. Here’s a quick video clip… Farringdon Relays Water Jump

I wasn’t making any headway on the team in front of me, although I hadn’t lost ground either. However, I could sense someone getting closer behind me throughout the second half of the race and three uphills, including one brute. I have to admit, I struggled up that hill, and, although I did manage to hold him off going up, he overtook me on the downhill afterwards and moved away from me. In one of the relays I had done previously, where I didn’t have a target to race in the final stages, I felt afterwards that I maybe could have put in a bit more of a sprint finish. Maybe that would have cut my time by a couple of seconds. Our final leg runner that day finished a second behind the runner in front of him. It just shows how much of a team game these relays are. I was determined that was not going to happen again. The finish was over the crest of a hill with about 50 yards flat to the line. I gave everything I had left, finishing in 11th place, 7 seconds behind the guy who had overtaken me, in a time of 10:42, maybe 20 seconds slower than I would have hoped. I handed over to our final leg runner who had a 39 second cushion on the team behind. He was pitted against a seriously quick runner, so lost one place, meaning a very respectable 12th place finish for the team overall.

I have to say, I thoroughly enjoyed the whole day. It was a beautiful course, plenty of laughs were had and, for the first time, my son, in his race over the same course, posted a faster time than me. I knew it was coming! It was probably his best running performance yet. Kudos to Sunderland Harriers for organising the event. I’ll be back next year. Fast forward a week and it will be Great North Run time. One of the highlights of my running year. A couple of runs early this week and then take it easy leading up to it with the obligatory stretches, self-massage and weird hip, glute and hamstring strength exercises mostly done standing on one leg!

 

Running Away and Roosevelt Island parkrun – 13th August 2017

Wherever I go, no matter how long I go for, my suitcase will always contain my running gear. I am lucky enough to have lived in several and visited many other countries for work and pleasure. Running is an amazing way to explore new places, see the sights and get a real feel for the place that you are in, as well as to keep your fitness and mileage up. If I am staying over a weekend, I will check out what races are taking place and enter one if possible. It’s true that travel broadens the mind. It also looks great on Strava when you do a run in an exotic place!

One thing for which I will always be grateful is to live in a country where running is so accessible and, more importantly, safe. There are many parts of the world where it is simply not safe to run outside. I will always remember a work trip to Honduras where I was being driven through some beautiful hills by my host not far from the city of San Pedro Sula. Naively, I asked whether the hills were good to run in. My host looked at me as if I was stupid. “You can’t go up there. You’ll get kidnapped by bandits!” While it is a wonderful country, India is another place that is not quite been smitten with the running bug yet. On my first of many fantastic visits to Bangalore, I ventured out on a run. Rather than be a victim of crime, I was more likely than not to do myself an injury on the treacherous or non-existent pavements. In many places, the hotel treadmill is the only option. It’s just not quite the same!

Living in the north-east of England, running in the heat is something I rarely get to do, but, it is a challenge I am more than willing to take on when the opportunity presents itself. Running along the beachside running track from Burj Al Arab in Dubai with the thermometer hitting 40°C (104°F for my American readers) was a challenge and, although I took water with me, the petrol station selling ice cold Powerade at three-quarter distance was a lifesaver. Summer holidays are when I normally cover a significant number of miles early in the morning before the rest of the family has woken from their slumber. I leave just as the sun is rising, take in the coastal views and maybe have a cheeky swim in the sea on my way back to wash off the sweat. The hotel’s buffet breakfast is ideal to replace the carbs and get my fill of protein. Occasionally, you find a willing running partner in the same hotel. One of you may have to sacrifice a bit of pace if there is a mismatch in speed, but running with someone is a welcome diversion. It’s even better if the place you are staying puts on a race or a social run at set times. This was the case when I was staying at a campsite on Spain’s Costa Brava. Germans, Poles, Dutch, British, Spanish, Danes etc. pitting their fitness against each other in a 10k race at 7am was excellent. It was a shame I was only just coming back from a long-term injury and so couldn’t perform my best. That’s probably the closest I will get to representing my country!

Running next to water is special for some reason, whether it be the sea, ocean, lake or river. Taking an early morning canter around the wide bends of the River Moskva in Moscow past the Stalinist architecture of the Hotel Ukraina was memorable. The bridges over the River Waal in Nijmegen in the Netherlands, steeped in history of the Second World War Operation Market Garden are a great route if you are staying in a city centre hotel. I went for a barefoot run on an empty beach with a friend from the town of Sodwana in South Africa just south of the Mozambican border. The sandy beach there goes on for miles and miles and we ran for an hour in each direction without seeing another human being.

I don’t live in the flattest place on earth, but there are not many serious hills within running distance of my house. So, when I stay in a place with some big ones, I make sure I take full advantage to get some hill training in. The road up to an Orthodox monastery on the Greek island of Rhodes was a real tough one. The hills outside Olu Deniz in Turkey at 35°C at 7am were sweaty and certainly woke me up. The views were spectacular down to Butterfly Valley, but perhaps not worth the plantar fasciitis I suffered with for the next nine months. Another memorable bit of hill running was when I was staying in an Austrian mountain resort for work during the summer. I ran up the mountain during a beautiful, sunny evening after work. While having a breather and taking in the views down the valley by a little hut just off the path, I heard voices and laughter of people coming out of the hut. It was then I realised that it was a sauna and, being Austria, everybody, men and women, was naked, steam rising from their sweaty bodies as they came out for a rest and a cool-down in the evening sunshine. I was tempted to join them, but, well, you know, I had to finish my run! Another memorable hill run was a race I entered while staying in Los Angeles. The Malibu Canyon Trail Run was a 25k circular route which gave the option of doubling up to a 50k run. I was wondering why everyone had water bottles or camelbaks at the start. I soon found out why. I vastly underestimated how tough this would be, especially as the first water station was at the lowest point of the course at 4k and the second was at 13k, almost at the highest point on the elevation chart below. Malibu Creek Trail Run Elevation Profile

The views of Southern California under a cloudless sky were spectacular though and a 13th placed finish made up for the (very) hard work.

Some countries are very well set up for runners. While staying in Gothenburg, Sweden, I asked at my hotel where a good place for running was. They told me to go to a place called Skatos, an outdoor activity area just outside of the city which had trails ranging from 2.5k to 21k. Large numbers of runners and Nordic walkers congregated there after work, but the place was so vast, you rarely saw anyone on your route. I hear a parkrun is just about to start there. Generally, the USA has a huge number of accessible running opportunities. The floodlit Memorial Park Fitness Trail in Houston will have someone on the 2.9 mile loop 24 hours a day, which I found out at stupid o’clock during a sleepless, jetlagged night. Amsterdam has many city parks if you are sick of canals. I was surprised to come across a cricket ground and batting nets in one such park near Amsterdam Zuid. You quickly find out how open and sociable other nationalities are when on a run. As you pass someone else running in the opposite direction in the UK, it is more likely than not that you will exchange some sort of greeting or acknowledgement, whether it be the mutual nod of respect, raising your hand for a semi-wave or a cheery “Good morning!”. I find that not to be the case in many other countries though. 

Some of the world’s great cities should be on all runners’ bucket lists. Just a few of mine that I have done: crossing the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and negotiating some of the steep city hills; the beach and Olympic Stadium complex in Barcelona; running up Table Mountain and Signal Hill in Cape Town; meandering around the city centre in Prague and seeing a parade at Prague Castle; doing the same in Berlin, enjoying the Tiergarten, Brandenburg Gate and the new Parliament building by the River Spree; Copacabana and Ipanema Beaches in Rio – no more needs to be said about that one. How can you pick a favourite out of those? Rome, however, was disappointing, but perhaps down to lack of opportunity and time. The hotel in which I was staying for a conference was encircled on all sides by uncrossable multi-lane highways, so I didn’t get to see any of the landmarks and cut the interval training short due to the traffic fumes. Of course, another option these days in many parts of the world is parkrun. With well over a thousand weekly, timed runs happening from New Zealand to Canada and Russia to South Africa, the accessibility of an organised 5k is almost commonplace if you are in a major city in many countries on a Saturday morning. I had the pleasure of doing the Green Point parkrun in Cape Town under the spectacular shadow of Table Mountain and had the good fortune to win it. 

My latest sojourn abroad was on holiday to the United States, specifically to Charlotte, North Carolina and Washington, DC. Being the height of summer, and with Charlotte being a very warm place in summer,  there were not too many race options apart from charity fun runs, but I managed to find a casual half marathon early on a Saturday morning, hosted by Charlotte Running Club, along the McMullen Creek Greenway. The ice pops given out at quarter and half way were very welcome. Good training for the Great North Run coming up in a few weeks time.

As for Washington, my previous running experience there was getting hopelessly lost (pre-GPS days) in weather conditions that deterioriated from chilly winter’s day to heavy sleet during the run. I did take in all the sights (several times) while trying to find my hotel again, learning a harsh lesson about nipple chafing along the way! This time, I had set my sights on some more parkrun tourism and made my way to Roosevelt Island parkrun. Leaving my hotel at 8am, it was already quite warm and extremely muggy. I was sweating after about half a mile and by timg_0697-1he time I had arrived at the parkrun start, 3.5 miles later, it was like I had just got out of the shower. Roosevelt Island is an inspired place to hold a parkrun. Essentially, it is an island in the middle of the Potomac River, named after Theodore Roosevelt, president of the United States early in the 20th century. The monument to Roosevelt on the island is wonderful and also forms part of the run. There were a lot of other parkrun tourists there from all over the UK and we gave the usual plaudits to the volunteers, first timers and tourists before setting off.

Starting at the front, I took the lead, but was quickly overtaken by two men and one lady. A quick look at my Garmin indicated 5.15 pace – too quick – not one I could live with for 5k. I settled into a rhythm closer to 6 minute mile pace as we ran down a good-quality, loose-pebble path, surrounded by thick forest with a close, muggy and damp atmosphere. As we left the path and headed across a boardwalk standing a few feet above the swamp that made up the interior of the island, I was no longer losing ground on the front three and realised that they had probably all gone off too fast. The boardwalk was, surprising, not that slippy given the damp atmosphere and the heavy overnight rain we had had. I pushed on a bit, although I was fully aware the humidity was not going to make for an easy race, and overtook the lady in third. The front two were about 30 yards ahead of me as we finished mile 1 and went back onto path. The overnight thunderstorm had brought down quite a big tree right across the path. That, and plenty of puddles and muddy patches, made for a good bit of practice for the upcoming cross-country season. Vaulting the fallen tree, we approached half-way as I overhauled the second-placed runner and, soon after, overtook the other runner to take the lead.

I now had the challenge of navigating an unknown course without anyone to follow, but it was exceptionally well marked with placards or marshalls at all the necessary junctions. Shortly after taking the lead, at about 2 miles, we joined the back part of the out and back course, when you are passing people coming in the opposite direction. At one point, just after turning a corner, another runner heading towards me took the same evasive action that I took to avoid each other meaning that we crashed headlong into each other. A quick, gasped apology, no damage done, and we carried on our opposite ways. I fully expected to get overtaken by the second placed runner at that point as I had come to a complete stop, but I must have been a few yards further ahead than I thought as I remained in the lead. As I ran back over the boardwalk, I was starting to feel the pace, the humidity, the 3.5 miles I had run to the start and the 15 miles of walking we had done over the last couple days sightseeing. I couldn’t hear footsteps or breathing behind me, but didn’t dare look back. Not only can it be seen as a sign of tiredness by your challenger which can give them renewed heart to pick up the pace, but I could also have fallen off the narrow boardwalk into the swamp which would not have been good! A bit more sightseeing was done as we ran past the Roosevelt Memorial, but the last half mile was really tough. The heavy tree cover meant I couldn’t trust the distance on my Garmin to tell me how far was left and I could feel myself slowing. Expecting to see the finish with each corner turned, it finally appeared and I mustered a sprint to ensure I recorded my second parkrun victory in 20.15 according to my Garmin.

After thanking the volunteers, chatting with some other runners and hearing that it was 94% humidity, I made my way the 3.5 miles back to the hotel at a much slower pace. Another excellent run abroad and the last of this trip as the flight home would be later that day. I look forward to many more in the future.


Gosforth Harriers Club Mile – 19th July 2017

One of my favourite days in my running calendar is the club mile race, held at our usual track home of Churchill Playing Fields in Whitley Bay. I had a 30 year hiatus in my track running career between school and joining Gosforth Harriers when I was 44. Track running is for serious runners, I always thought. And looking at most of the times posted in the Masters Grand Prix series, that’s definitely the case. My first foray into a track race since school was last year’s club mile and I loved it. The challenge of running a mile as fast as you can is a totally different experience to most other distance running. It has to be an all-out effort, ending with nothing left in your body after four 400m laps plus 9.34 metres to make up the imperial mile distance. The number of times I have quoted mile splits in longer races and yet, before last year, I didn’t know how fast I could run a single mile, flat-out. As it turned out, it was 5 minutes 27 seconds which grabbed third place in a very close race in the club veterans’ competition.

This year, I expected that I would be able to run faster. More track training sessions had given me a better idea of what pace I could actually run at and sustain. Mentally, I had a better idea how to run a mile race. And finally, I was in a much better physical condition than last year. Depending on who was able to turn out on the evening would determine placing, but the Veterans’ Club Mile trophy would go very nicely alongside the Veterans’ Club Cross-Country trophy at home. Gosforth Harriers has a long history and, therefore, has some outstanding trophies, engraved with the champions’ names from decades past. Knowing there would be one significant absentee due to injury and another very good runner just the younger side of the 40 years veteran age threshold, I thought I might have a sniff at victory. The veterans’ men’s race is run with the U-17, senior and veteran women, so I would have at least one significant opponent from those groups as well. 77 second laps would probably give me a 5:10 mile time and, with fair conditions and a close competitor to chase, would certainly be possible. If I had any sort of sprint finish, a couple of seconds faster on the last lap would be even better.

That was the plan. Right up until I came home six days before the race from a business trip to Germany with a stinking cold. Up until the day before, I wasn’t even sure I would be fit enough to run. On race day, I felt better than I had, but was still sniffling and had a lingering tightness in my chest. Time to revise expectations. Even beating last year’s time was going to be challenge. I donned my spikes and starting warming up with a few strides, a medium paced lap and then a 77 second lap. I would still attempt the 5:10 time even if I sort of knew I wouldn’t be able to maintain that pace. The first two junior races of the evening showed some of the top junior talent we have in the club and then it was time for mine.

I took the lead and settled into my stride, feeling comfortable. The first lap is dangerous. You should feel comfortable on the first lap and the temptation is to go a bit faster, but the risk is that you’ll pay for it on laps 3 and 4. An even pace all the way through should be the aim to get the best time. Our top U-17 lady was right up with me. We finished the first lap together in about 77 seconds. She then started slowly pulling away from me on lap 2 and I had nothing that I could respond with. What I find maddening is when I am just a few yards behind the person in front, but I just cannot pick up the pace to regain contact. This was the case here. Finishing lap 2 after an 81 second lap, I was about 3-4 yards behind. I was still able to mentally calculate my lap time from the timekeeper at this point.

Most people find lap 3 to be the hardest lap in a mile race. In this race, lap 2 held that mantle for me. I remember thinking, going into the back straight of lap 3, that there was only one more lap to go after this one. Mentally, I saw lap 3 as almost the end. It was probably that thought which enabled me to maintain that 81-82 second lap pace. I did lose more ground on the leader, to about 15 yards. A quick look back as I was turning into the home straight for the penultimate time suggested I had a 20-25 yard lead on third place and the second vet. Crossing the start finish line and taking the bell, my mind was simply unable to compute my lap time from the elapsed time said by the timekeeper. That’s not unusual!

The phrase ‘last lap’ has a good ring about it. I have done 400m repeats many times in training with very limited recovery and the last repeat in any training series should be a really fast one. That is designed to prepare you for the effort on this last lap. It is normally my legs that limit my speed. Today, that limiting factor was my aerobic capacity. I couldn’t pick up the pace at all. Going into the home straight, I managed a small kick. By this time, the leader was half the distance of the straight ahead of me. Not wanting to look back, I gave everything I had and crossed the line in 5.23. A PB by 4 seconds. Second in the race, but first vet. Not the time I was originally hoping for, but probably as good as I was going to get. The shorter the race, even if you have pushed yourself to the limit, the quicker the recovery, so within a minute or so, I was shaking hands with the other competitors.

So, here I am in my 46th year and this my second personal best of the year. Not bad. And it has got me thinking about trying to get another track race in before the end of the track calendar, which is approaching fast. I haven’t done a 1500m since school, so that would be another one to check off. Sub 5 would be my target for that. Holiday next though and I’ll see what training and races I can get while away. And then the Great North Run in early September – another big event. My PB for that is probably my best PB at 1hr 24m. I’ll be happy if I get anywhere near that.

Hadrian’s Wall Half Marathon – 25th June 2017

It was early in the year when I booked this summer race having been attracted by the promise of some stunning scenery and some serious hills. At that point, I was hoping that the strength I would have gained from marathon training would benefit me on a hard half marathon two months after London. I had done a couple of easy 10 miles, but that was the extent of my long mileage training since, having focussed more on the shorter stuff. When I read through my post-race blogs, I find that I normally mention one or other niggle that is causing me some degree of concern. Some might say that is getting my excuses in early and today is no exception! I woke on Saturday with a very stiff lower back, possibly linked to the glute / hip tightness that I had been experiencing for the last few weeks and probably also to my sleeping position the night before when the dog seemed to take over my side of the bed! My back was stiff to the extent that I was having difficulty getting into my car, so I took a couple of ibuprofen and applied an ice pack and hoped that I would wake up on Sunday morning in a better way and that the run would ease it as it so often does.

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Pre-race scenery

The weather forecast promised a cloudy, blustery day with a perfect running temperature of 12-15°C, but it was a good job I brought some sun lotion as there was a lot more sun than cloud as it turned out. I arrived quite early, and opted for staying in the car as the wind was still quite chilly at that time in the morning, only venturing out with half an hour to go, when I met up with three club mates and did a bit of a warm-up with some strides and stretches. A review of the event from a previous year described it as a race that a true fell runner would find too roady, and a true road runner would find too felly. It sounded perfect for me! It was a bit of a toss-up between road shoes or trail shoes. About a third of the race is on road, another third on grass and the other third on forest roads made up of packed gravel and loose stones. I opted for road shoes because the dry weather of recent weeks promised firm ground on the grass section, but also because my trail shoes have seen much better days! Looking at the results from previous years, I was hopeful of a top 10 finish, although that obviously depended on who turns up on the day. It came time to line up at the start and I saw one of my targets from the Blaydon Race, a lady from Alnwick. I also noticed quite a few club vests and quite a high number of senior (i.e. aged 18-39) athletes, so perhaps a top 10 finish was a bit hopeful. We’ll see how it goes anyway.

The first mile was all downhill on road, so my plan was to use that to get a decent first mile and then ease back on the pig of a hill which made up most of mile 2. And that’s what happened, with 5.56 on the clock for the first mile and 7.04 for the second. I was running alongside a Heaton Harrier who I recognized from Newcastle parkrun as a bit faster than me and the Alnwick athlete with whom, from our Blaydon experience, we seemed well matched pace-wise. We were 6th, 7th and 8th, with 1st to 5th starting to stretch out into the distance. The first 3 miles were road and then we switched onto grass, mostly cattle and sheep pastures, following a visible, trodden-down route across the fields. It was definitely dry – only one soggy bit – so road shoes were fine. The sheep mostly watched us run past with the odd ewe with her young getting a bit nervous and scampering away. Most field gates were open and marshalled, primed to be closed if any of the livestock thought about joining us on the run. There were two stiles at about 5 and 6 miles that we had to clamber over. No great shakes and part of the joy of running in the countryside.

My two running partners started inching away from me, slowly at first. I just wasn’t able to stick with them. Mile 6 was a big downhill mile, albeit over very uneven ground, but I couldn’t pick up the speed at all. My legs seemed unresponsive, tired. A South Shields Harrier and then a Blyth athlete passed me as we started a long, steady climb covering miles 7 and 8, moving off the grass onto stony forest road. If there was one surface where trail shoes would have been useful, it was here. I could feel every stone through the thin soles of my road shoes, whereas the thicker soles of trail shoes would have given more protection.

At the second water station, I stopped to drink water from the compostable cup provided. Being a race in a national park, you were not just asked but instructed on pain of disqualification to ensure your cups were put into the bins provided. The one bin was only about 5 yards after the water station, so you didn’t have a lot of choice but to stop! It was a welcome glug of water which washed down a gel I had just taken. On the forest road and out of the wind now, the sun was blazing down from a pretty cloudless sky. I looked for any shade provided by the trees, but I just couldn’t get any rhythm in my running. My back was aching, not majorly, but enough, and by mile 10, the IT band in my right leg was started to let me know it was there. Every now and then, another athlete passed me. Each time, I would try to stay with them, but I just didn’t have the legs today. My mile splits from 7 to 11 were generally between 7.38 and 8.18. There weren’t too many flat bits on the course – what goes up must come down in a circular route – but I struggled to pick up the pace on the downhills, especially on the stony forest road.

Just before mile 12, we moved back onto road. That helped in terms of even running, but my IT band was now playing a tune against my knee, so my pace showed no significant improvement. I was passed by two more athletes. The woman who passed me was running especially smoothly. I told myself that no one else would pass and I tried to push on. A quick look around just after going carefully over a cattle grid with about a mile to go suggested that the next person was about 75 yards back. Somehow, I suddenly found a rhythm. Perhaps it was because I could almost see the finish in the distance. Perhaps it was the challenge I set myself, or a combination of the two, but I suddenly felt as though I could run at my usual pace. I covered mile 13, albeit downhill, in 7.11. And then came the best bit of the race, indeed, one of the best bits of any race I have ever done. The last quarter mile was uphill with the finish at the top just like a mountain-top finish in the Tour de France. Spectators flanked left and right cheered and applauded wildly as you climbed the hill. It gave me a surge that, given the difficult race I had had, surprised me. My last 0.1 of a mile was at 6.04 pace. Kudos to the spectators, who had stood waiting and were giving the same vocal welcome to every single athlete as they arrived. It was inspiring.

Hadrian

The chatter on the start line was to expect between 5 and 10 minutes slower than your normal road half time. I finished in 1.36.38 according to my Garmin, although my time was a few seconds slower in the official results, in 19th position out of a field of 337 and third in my age group. It was still windy and I quickly got cold after stopping so I went to get a hoody out of my car. That meant I unfortunately missed cheering home the next two Gosforth athletes in the same way that the crowd had cheered me home, but we all made sure we cheered the fourth one home. The commemorative mug made a change to the T-shirt (I have a whole draw of running T-shirts) and another medal to add to the collection. The coup de grâce was the delicious chicken kebab before the hour long drive home and straight off to watch my children at their track meet.

I had a good start and a half-decent finish. Shame about the bit in the middle! Is it OK to say that I just didn’t have it today? After a disappointing race, the best you can do is to reflect and try to understand why it didn’t go as well as it could have. Did I go off too fast? Do I struggle on hard, uneven surfaces? Am I physically tired after some hard training recently? My back and IT band are telling me I need a bit of a rest, so it looks like I’ll have a few dates with a foam roller coming up rather than much running. I did go off quick on the first downhill mile, but I thought that I pulled back the pace enough. It may be that it is harder to gauge your effort on hilly, multi-terrain runs like this one. Perhaps I should start trying some progression runs in training where you get faster as you run further, doing negative splits rather than my usual positive splits.

On the whole though, I definitely enjoyed the Hadrian’s Wall Half Marathon and would certainly consider doing it again next year. I didn’t take in too much of the scenery – I was too busy looking down at the ground, planning my next footplants, to do that. Come to think of it, I never saw Hadrian’s Wall either! It is well organised and attracts a good mix of club and leisure runners from the north of England and Scotland. And yes, it is hard. It is a challenge in a testing environment. And that is part of the attraction.

The Blaydon Race – 9th June 2017

The Blaydon Race is one of my favourite races. For those who don’t know, it is held on the 9th of June every year, starting in Newcastle City Centre and finishing in Blaydon after the rather odd distance of 5.6 miles or 9k. Although the running race only started in 1981, it is based on the words of the nineteenth century folk song of the same name which is the unofficial anthem of Newcastle and the surrounding area. The song describes the eventful journey that spectators took to get to the horse races at Blaydon. The event is immensely popular, and, with online entry, the 4000-plus places are snapped up within minutes of release, making it probably the second biggest race in the north-east after the Great North Run. Normally about half of the places are reserved for club runners with a fair few other club runners getting some of the other half of the places as well. Hence, it is the biggest club race in the North-east by quite a way. It’s quite a sight to see thousands of club vests on a light, warm summer’s evening at the start in club groups. The atmosphere is top-notch and the quality of the race itself is very high.

After some really hard training the weekend before, I had taken a few days off and so was rested and ready to go. I had a heavy stomach during the warm-up despite not having eaten anything for three hours. This feeling normally goes as you start, so I wasn’t too worried, but I will never forget the London Marathon when someone passed me in the last few miles who had, not to put too fine a point on it, had diarrhoea during the run. It had seeped through their shorts and was running all down the backs of his legs. Nightmare! It stank as well!

Anyway, we were allowed into the start area with 15 minutes to go. It felt a lot longer than that as we were rammed in together. Steeped in tradition, The Blaydon Races song is blasted out on speakers by a local radio station at the start, along with other Geordie favourites. The Lord Mayor of Newcastle rings the mid-nineteenth century Town Crier’s bell to start the race and the hordes set off through the streets of Newcastle City Centre. I have mentioned that the quality of the race is very high. The first half of the course is also mainly downhill, so it is ultra-fast. If they extended the course from 5.6 miles to 10k it would be a sure-fire PB, although most repeat runners monitor their Blaydon PB as well. The two previous times I had run it, I was coming back from injury, so my Blaydon PB of 36.37 was eminently beatable this time round with the form and fitness I was in, despite a stiff headwind for most of the race.

The first half mile is a little crowded, with a few twists and turns in the road, running past a lot of pubs and people heading out for a night on the town who have no option but to give way to the tidal wave of runners. There are always a couple of already well-oiled lads who think it hilarious to shout something like “Knees up!”. This year, it was a guy waving his cigarette shouting “Do you want a drag?” as if to taunt the runners for being too healthy. A bit sad really, especially as he could barely stand himself! At the same time, there are plenty of people who stand and watch, enjoying the spectacle and many friends and family supporting individuals and clubs.

After about half a mile and well into my rhythm, a quick look at my Garmin showed just under 6 minute mile pace and I was feeling good. Given the gradient of the course, I was prepared to go out at close to 5k pace and try to hang on. There is a mental battle that takes place in my head when racing. The driven side of my brain is prepared to give everything. The other, more sensible side is telling me to look after myself and not go quite as hard. When training by myself, often that more sensible side wins. In races or club training the driven side normally wins. Having been set a really stretching challenge of beating 34 minutes in the pre-race banter, I was ready to leave everything on the road in this race, knowing that it will hurt for the whole 5.6 miles. I was running alongside a club colleague who is normally a little quicker than me and he started pulling away slowly. I could see one of our quickest ladies a few yards further ahead, but I couldn’t close the gap on either of them. As normally happens in a race, you settle into a small group running at the same pace as you. There were two men, one from Heaton and one from Evenwood and one lady from Alnwick who I recognised as usually close to the front of the ladies’ races. They were my targets to both maintain my pace and to beat. First mile done in 5.54.

During the second mile, running down the Scotswood Road, one of the spectators started an “Oggi Oggi Oggi” chant, expecting the traditional “Oi Oi Oi” response from the runners. By this time, the decent runners are running at their maximum and even normal conversation is close to impossible. So the response from the runners was deafening silence. He might have done better further back in the field. The second mile done in 5.59. I was feeling the effort, but it was manageable. In the third mile, my target from Heaton dropped away slightly and the Evenwood runner pulled away about 10 yards. I picked up the pace a notch but only managed to keep him at that distance. It was nip and tuck between me and my third target, the female runner from Alnwick, always within a short distance of each other. The third mile done in 5.59 and then 5k in 18.41, only 8 seconds outside my best this year.

Now was the time to try and hang on. The rest of the race had a net uphill gradient and this was where the mental toughness is needed to maintain the effort. We left the dual carriageway behind, crossing the River Tyne over Scotswood Bridge and started an out and back loop, passing leading runners on the way out and trailing runners on the way back. A good chance to shout words of encouragement to any club mates you pass and to get encouragement back as well. At this point, I saw that I was catching one of my targets from the Harrier League cross-countries from earlier in the year. We were always very close to each other and finished in adjacent positions in the Veteran Grand Prix standings on equal points. That gave me an extra incentive not to slow down. Better than that, I caught him and passed him. It was at this point that this picture was taken showing three of my four targets. The Evenwood runner was just in front out of shot. It’s great to see photos of yourself when running, especially an airborne one like this. Fourth mile done in 6.18, slower mainly due to the uphills. At the top of one incline was our club coach, shouting advice to each Gosforth Harrier as they passed, encouraging you to stride out down the hill the other side when it is so tempting to take a small breather after the effort of getting up the hill. As much as I could, I put in a downhill effort, putting a few yards between me and the lady from Alnwick. The man from Evenwood maintained his 10 or so yard advantage the whole time though. Mile 5 done in 6.22 and into the last 0.6.

The sprint finish is a bit of a quandary for me. I remember one of my old school PE teachers saying that you will never make up the time in a sprint finish that you have lost in the rest of the race if you still have energy left to sprint finish. Entering the last half mile, although I knew that there was not going to be much of one left in me today, I consciously tried to ramp up the pace. My lungs were bursting and a sensation in my stomach told me that there was a distinct possibility that this time, my retching at the end of the race may go a step further! A few twists and a few turns and the finish line on a grassy field came into sight with about 150 metres to go. I passed three or four in that last stretch and made absolutely sure no one was going to pass me. I could see the Evenwood runner getting closer with each step, but I just couldn’t catch him. I crossed the line in 34.18, a Blaydon PB by 2.19 with an average pace of 6.05 per mile and the last 0.6 at 5.53 pace. The race instructions you receive together with your number are written in Geordie dialect. One sentence reads “if ya feelin poorly like, divvent be sick owa the fishals” (If you are feeling poorly, please don’t be sick over the officials). I wasn’t sick but it was a close call. I heard someone else retching at the same time. It must be a strange sight for a spectator right on the finishing line to witness this sort of thing!

On recovering, I walked through the finishing area and collected my goody bag complete with a ham and pease pudding bun, a bottle of local beer and the Blaydon Race T-shirt which is always a quality shirt and a classic design that you will see people training in up and down the North-east for years to come. Once through the finish area, I scanned the field and saw the green and white hoops of the Gosforth Harriers already home. I was the fifth Gosforth athlete home and first vet. We started comparing times, race experiences and taking a much needed drink from the bottle of water in the goody bag as other Gosforth athletes started joining us. The consensus was that it had been a cracking race again with many new PBs set, despite the headwind. The plan was to make a quick getaway on the buses back to Newcastle and meet in Bacchus, a pub in the city centre, the traditional post-Blaydon meeting point for Heaton Harriers, North Shields Poly AC and Gosforth Harriers. Although I couldn’t stay long, the pub quickly became a sea of club vests and Blaydon T-shirts with good beer and delicious banana bread being passed around.

When the full results came out, I was 136th out of 4,192 runners and 23rd in the 40-49 age category out of 763. The Evenwood runner who beat me must have started 4 seconds in front, because, although he finished 2 seconds ahead, my chip time was 2 seconds faster, so a good result there. Overall, I was really happy with my run. I probably lost a few seconds in the second mile when I had a mini crisis of confidence, wondering if I had gone off too fast and also at the water station at 4 miles when it went down the wrong way, but physically I don’t think I could have given any more. Blaydon lived up to its reputation again and is so worth the difficulties that closing down the roads of the city centre of Newcastle must pose. Before we know it, February 2018 will be here and there will be another cyberspace bunfight to get a Blaydon number. At least we know what date it will be on – “Aa went to Blaydon Races, ’twas on the ninth of Joon”.