Northeastern Cross-Country Championships – 14th December 2019 – Alnwick
It started with a sneeze! Cue three weeks fighting a virus. That was the last week of November and the first two weeks of December with no running whatsoever. So it was no surprise that the Northeastern Cross-Country Championships as my first run back was a very underwhelming result. It was on one of my favourite cross-country courses, modified and extended for the championship race distance. I probably shouldn’t have been running at all to be honest, but not wanting to let my club down and an internal drive to fulfil promises I had made spurred me on to do it.
I didn’t do a full course recce. If I had, I would have chosen trail shoes rather than spikes. I started off at a pace I thought I could maintain, slower than my normal pace. Less than a mile in, people started passing me. Every time someone passed me, I mentally told myself to hang onto the back of them. Every time, I failed. I had neither the strength in my body nor the oxygen in my lungs to stay with them. It was so demoralising. I started hating parts of a course that I loved. I was frustrated that I hadn’t inspected the half mile or so of the course that was totally unsuitable for spikes, going over on my ankle a couple of times. But I stuck at it. All the way. Including a sprint finish with a Darlington athlete that I won even though we recorded the same time.
I finished, went straight back to the tent, collected my bag and headed home, trying to forget a bad day at the office. I only checked the result when writing this blog over a month later. I was about three and a half minutes slower than a fully fit me would have been. It felt a lot slower. More importantly, I was the club’s sixth counter. Without me, we would have dropped two places in the rankings. It somehow became all worthwhile!
Sherman Cup – 4th January 2020 – Temple Park, South Shields
In the last two weeks of 2019, I only managed another two training runs, both really social and enjoyable events. Importantly, by the New Year, my infection had gone and I was in a much better state for the Sherman Cup cross-country in South Shields, even though I was sorely lacking in fitness. This is an important event for Gosforth Harriers with the winners being the club that performs best across all age groups. We normally do very well at it.
Temple Park is often derided as a course, especially compared to some of the other courses we have in this part of the world, but I quite like it. As an urban park, it does have a long, tarmac path when spike-wearers have to run on the grass verge, which was why I opted for trail shoes. Once again, I didn’t do a full recce and, on this day, maybe spikes would have been the better option, but it was a close call. It has a couple of long hills and one particularly nasty steep bit. On the first lap, I went up the middle of that hill and struggled to get grip. On the second and third laps, I made sure to go up the side where there was a small amount of grass and got much better grip.
It was a windy day and you were most exposed running around the field at the end of each lap. I do like a sprint finish and, even though I was on my last legs, I was metaphorically licking my lips when three of us entered the field together for the last half mile of the race. The pace noticeably increased. One dropped back, so it was myself and another runner from one of the several clubs in blue vests. The first half of the lap was mainly into the wind. I stuck behind the other runner, still running hard, but blatantly drafted him. 300m to go and around the penultimate right-hand bend. Now the wind was across us. I drew level with him, starting to ramp it up. 200m to go. Faster still. Now almost flat out for an extended run-in, and I could tell I was pulling ahead slightly. “That’s it! I’m done!” said the other runner, effectively announcing he was conceding our little race within a race, and he dropped back. ‘Victory!’ I thought to myself, a little disappointed it wasn’t going to come down to an all-out sprint down the home straight.
I didn’t slack off the pace for the last 100m though. After all, he could have been bluffing. I could still hear multiple pairs of footsteps behind me. I crossed the line and promptly threw up. A South Shields Harrier joined me in doing so. In a weird way, retching or throwing up at the end of a race or training session has a certain satisfaction about it. It shows that you have put everything in. It certainly isn’t anything to fear.
We had full teams out in every age group in both genders – one of only two clubs on the day from the whole Northeast to manage that. We finished third in both the women’s and the men’s competition. As the third counter for the vets’ team, I think that’s earned me a medal, which is always nice to get. I was probably at least 30 seconds down on some of my targets, but I’m getting there.
Northern Cross-Country Championships – 25th January 2020 – Bedale
I’ve never quite managed to complete a championship race as well as I would have wanted to. I have either got my preparation or the race itself wrong or been unwell. I was determined the Northerns would be the first one I would get right. It was held at a new location in Bedale, North Yorkshire. Surely that meant hilly?
The club bus arrived early, in good time for the junior races starting at 11:30am. With the senior men not going off until 3pm, that gave us plenty of time for a full course recce around probably the flattest cross-country course I’ve ever seen. There were some smooth, grassy bits and some boggy bits, which were obviously going to deteriorate as the day went on, and, bizarrely, the wreckage of an airplane on the furthest part of the course! Despite the lack of hills, it was a nice course with lots of trees. The longer distance of 12.5k would need careful effort management. I mentally noted where I could push on, some narrow parts of the course that may be bottlenecks and when I should start my increase in pace on the last lap for the finish.
There is a significant elevation in class at these regional events. A top 10 runner in the Northeast may be only top 40 in the North in field sizes not much bigger. I would normally come in the top third in the Northeast events. In past championship events, I haven’t been in the top half.
Some of our juniors were coming back commenting on a section through the forest that was particularly muddy underfoot. Definitely a spikes day. I changed my pins to 15mm, wondering if that was overkill.
I was feeling pretty good. Some decent training weeks since the New Year and some more focus on strength and conditioning from a book I got as a Christmas present had put me in a good frame of mind. After cheering on the ladies, I finished my warm-up and, perhaps a little more rushed than normal, I stripped down to my vest and shorts and headed over to the start pens with the three other Gosforth men. As a club, we seem to have been beset by injuries at the moment, so we were unfortunately down to a number that would not qualify us for the team event.
Looking around, I commented that the field seemed small, although it is difficult to tell at the penned start about 100 metres wide. There also seemed to be more seniors as opposed to veterans. I gathered my thoughts during the last few moments before the gun.
‘Equalise my effort across all three laps.’
‘Don’t go out so fast that you start haemorrhaging places in the last lap.’
‘Don’t get taken in trying to keep up with athletes you don’t know and don’t know how fast they are.’
I mentally prepared myself for the effort I am going to ask my body to give over the next hour.
‘This will hurt. Accept it.’
The gun went. The first half mile was a grassy field. Not quite cricket pitch smooth, but as good as you are going to get on a cross-country course. I felt as though I was well down the pack, maybe with three quarters of the field ahead of me. A quick look at my Garmin told me even that was too fast. I slowed down as we went past one of the areas with lots of supporters. The good thing about taking a club bus is that everyone stays for the whole event, so there are plenty of shouts of encouragement.
The smooth grass turned to soft grass. The soft grass turned to muddy patches and then we arrived at the bit everyone was talking about. Ankle deep mud for about 150 metres. Every step was an effort. The running technique on mud that thick is completely different to normal running. By going in toe first, your shoe cuts through the mud easier. You can then pull out heel first which reduces the mud’s sucking effect, reducing the effort you need to use to get your foot out and also reducing the likelihood of leaving your shoe in the mud. But it’s very tough, especially on your hamstrings.
A sharp left turn, a nice firm bit through the forest before another boggy bit. Some shouted advice from one of our coaches told me I was hunched over too much as I reached the end of that boggy bit. Good call. I absolutely was. I stood up tall and was able to push on down to the start/finish area. Two miles down. One small lap down. Only the best part of six more miles and now two large laps to go. I was already shattered. ‘So was everyone else,’ I told myself. I wasn’t concentrating on my position, but I noticed that I wasn’t being overtaken. If anything, I was gradually gaining positions.
The boggy bit on the second lap was now getting ridiculous. There were people walking. The mud had the effect of slowing you down and taking every ounce of energy you had. But then, when the mud finished, you had to consciously accelerate again, otherwise you would carry on going at that same, slow pace. That was tough, but worth it when you overtook someone. The long lap took us on a loop around the airplane wreck on decent ground. A time to recover and push on. The only hill on the course was here. About the height of our club tent! Still worth accelerating into it and down the other side though.
It was at this point that I felt something in my right shoe. Something hard. Something pointy. Note to self: when changing spike pins, don’t use the other shoe as a temporary pin storage facility. Or if you do, make sure you get them all out before you put the shoe on your foot. I managed to push the pin to the end of the shoe with my toes, but it was an unwelcome distraction as it kept moving around.
By now, there was a recognised group I was running with. A couple of Sunderland Harriers and runners from Bingley, Bury, Wetherby, East Cheshire, Sheffield and Spenborough. Sometimes one of us would push on ahead. Different runners handle different terrain at different speeds. The boggy bit on the third lap was now shin deep. My hamstrings were showing the first signs of cramping and my spikes felt so heavy as I exited it, gradually lightening as the mud came off on the grassy stretches. The Bury athlete was the strongest of our group, now about 30 metres ahead. I wasn’t going to get him back.
I took the lead of the rest of the group to get the inside track around a corner. About half a mile to go. One of the Sunderland Harriers passed me, so I increased my pace to latch onto him. I’d get him on the sprint. The home straight was about 300m long, slightly downhill on pretty firm ground. Perfect for the speedsters.
I maintained good focus as we ran alongside each other, ready to react if he kicked. Then I kicked and overtook him, ready to kick again when he came back at me. 100m to go. He dropped back. I kept going, extending the difference between us. I even felt comfortable enough to take a couple of looks behind me to make sure no one else was coming up behind me as I approached the line, hearing the reassuring beep of my ankle chip registering as I stepped onto the timing mat, telling me it hadn’t come off in the mud.
At last, a championship race that I was proud of. I’d loved it. It was tough and not everyone managed to get around without becoming more acquainted with the mud than they would have wanted! I shook hands with the Sunderland Harrier as I sat down next to him to take off my timing chip, met my team mates and then headed back to the tent as I knew the rest of the club members would have been wanting to make a sharp exit. We still made sure we did a cool down run. Sitting on the coach for an hour and a half would have been a disaster if we hadn’t done so.
When the results came out, I was a little disappointed with my position in the field. 359th out of 584 in 58:15. A much smaller field than in previous years. Possibly higher quality? Who knows? There were a couple of runners ahead of me that I would normally expect to beat. Then again, there were some runners behind me who would normally beat me. I didn’t feel like I had taken it too easy, but it’s an indication I need to work harder in training to improve.
Next up is the Harrier League and then the Nationals at the end of February in Nottingham.