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.