Home. Course. Advantage. Surely it’s worth something? For the first time in decades, the Harrier League was coming home. Well, our home anyway. The ever-growing popularity of cross-country running, and the North East Harrier League in particular, means that new venues are regularly required. And a new venue needs a new host. And that host, helped out by Heaton Harriers and Tyne Bridge Harriers, was us, Gosforth Harriers. The men’s Team Captain was the main instigator, plotting the course, opening discussions with the owners of the land and proposing the new venue to the Harrier League committee. The date was chosen and so, at 07:30 on Saturday morning, about 30 brave souls ventured out into a late October sleet storm to mark out the course. A couple of hours later, drenched to the skin and with fingers numb from the wet and cold, most of us took shelter, our job done, and waited for the first club tents to start appearing.
In my humble opinion, the course was a cracker with a bit of everything: woods – every cross-country runner’s favourite – with tree root trip hazards to watch out for; undulating fields, nothing too daunting in terms of hills, although there weren’t really any flat bits on the whole course – it was either uphill or downhill; some water in the swampy far corner; some narrow bits that would test the elbows; and a gravel path that would challenge the choice of footwear.
Tent City would be right next to the start and finish as well as providing the opportunity to cheer each competitor up an incline each time they started a new lap. The location was also great for accessibility. Straight off the A1, the main road through the North-East, plenty of car parking, lots of paths and trails through the woods away from the course on which to warm up and a pub for essential rehydration afterwards. Even better, I could walk there from my house! The horrible thunder sleet from the morning had given way to deep blue skies and minimal wind. Perfect conditions as the club tents started to arrive.
I had volunteered to marshall, but there were so many volunteers, most of those who were running were relieved of their duties before the first race began. So, I was able to concentrate on the junior races and my own preparation. I took a position by the water jump for some photo opportunities and saw a combination of those jumping it (too wide to avoid getting at least one foot wet) and those just running straight through the six-inch deep pool. One of the jobs we did while setting out the course was to remove as many branches from the route as we could, including a few submerged in the muddy water, that could have turned a few ankles otherwise.
For the first time this season, we had full teams out in every age group and gender. Maybe only three or four clubs can boast that at any single meet and it was noticed and commented on by representatives of other clubs as well. Lots of Gosforth vests drew encouragement from the many club members, friends and family, and maybe even a few Gosforth inhabitants enjoying a day out at our local park and popular dog-walking location. The marshalls, as ever, were super-supportive, encouraging everyone, but obviously giving special encouragement for those in green and white vests. Our ladies’ team looked to be putting in another really good performance, eventually finishing a strong second in their division.
Returning to the tent, I started focussing on myself and my own run. I hadn’t had the best preparation. I had pulled a stomach muscle sneezing of all things a couple of days earlier, although I was hoping it wouldn’t affect my running, but the main thing was tired legs, having been on my feet constantly for six hours between setting up the course and the start of my run. My ankles were very stiff, so my main warm-up was focussing on loosening them up. Some days, everything feels good. This wasn’t one of those days.
We had a men’s team photo and headed to the start line, making sure we had a good position in what looked to be a very big field. A row of Gosforth vests at the front of our home meet was very satisfying. With another runner promoted at the last meet, it was great to have another couple of potential counters doing their first run of the season. That’s the trick to surviving in Division One and something that, as a comparatively small club, compared to others in Division One (and most in Division Two), we suffer from. A third of our regular senior men are now running from fast pack and, therefore, unlikely to finish in the top 100.
I lined up next to and chatted with the North Shields Poly runner who normally finishes very close to me and we waited for the gun to go. There’s no ‘On your marks, Get Set…’. You line up and then you hear the gun go off. I thought the starter was to my right. He wasn’t. He was about two yards to my left and the gun scared the pants off me! And we were off. After the first 100m, there was a bend to the left, so it was important to get good position into that bend. Two runners shot off in front of the rest of the field. One looked like a runner. The other didn’t. They reached the first turn about 10 yards in front of anyone else and carried on at that pace. Around the bend and up the uphill gravel path, which was the reason why I had chosen to wear trail shoes rather than spikes again, past the supporters cheering you on. A left turn, more uphill before a right and a quick left into the woods for the next three quarters of a mile.
This was our terrain. We train on these paths, through these woods, most weeks. The route we were taking was part of our 700 metre loop. I know the boggy bits and the firm bits and how to take the sharp left-hand corner without losing speed. I felt my pace was good. Challenging, but good. Not too fast. Not too slow. I was in about 40th place and had three clubmates ahead of me. A good team position. Downhill now towards the water. Not worth jumping – it was too crowded on the first lap anyway. A very sharp, very narrow left-hand turn next. I made sure I got good position for that. Plenty of Gosforth support, driving you on. Out of the woods and up the main hill on the course – we run this in training as well, normally the other way, but I knew the tricky undulations of this grass – and then the steep downhill at the top into the next field. I passed one of the two guys who shot off at the start – the one who didn’t look like a runner. Maybe he was trying to get in the photos! More Gosforth support, including information on your position in the field. It’s so important to know that. Down a hill along a hedge, up another hill, then down a hill and we were onto the second lap of three. A touch under 2 miles per lap. I have to say, the course marking was excellent! I was level with the Poly runner. I knew I was pretty much at my limit, ten seconds behind a clubmate I am normally very close to, but whose form has been getting markedly better over the last few weeks with a good sequence of regular, consistent, injury-free training.
Then I saw something that was a first for me while running cross-country. About 200 metres into lap 2, still passing the spectators around tent city, there it was, lying on the gravel path in front of me. A crisp, plastic £10 note, folded in two. The thoughts, decisons and assessment of the consequences of the obvious instinctive action that went through my mind in the split second after seeing it would have blown many a powerful computer. If I stopped to pick it up, I would lose five, six seconds, maybe. Nothing in the scheme of things. But those five or six seconds would be five or six places. What would my clubmates say? That I had valued a measly tenner over the success of my team. So what if I did stop to pick it up? Have you ever had anyone in a race stop right in front of you? I have, and it’s not pretty. I was about half a mile into the Great North Run about 5 years ago and the woman immediately in front of me hadn’t done the zip of her pocket at the rear of her shorts up. Out flowed keys, coins and a credit card. She stopped to pick it all up and caused absolute carnage with people crashing into her as she had to force her way upstream to pick up the important things up. I managed to avoid her only by almost taking out the person to my right. Maybe the carnage wouldn’t have been quite so drastic as then, but it would still not have been pretty. By the time my brain had processed all these thoughts, I was well passed the tenner anyway and my decison was made for me. It would be somebody else’s lucky day. It wasn’t there next time I passed!
I started struggling with a tight chest on the second lap, unable to take as deep a breath as I wanted. Often that means the onset of a cold or chest infection. We’ll see next week. I was now tracking closely behind the Poly runner, staying with him, but no more, throughout the second lap, in 45th place, according to the Gosforth marshalls giving the information. I reckon at least the top 60 would be promoted today, but the fastest medium and fast packers would soon start coming past me.
Onto lap 3. It was now a case of hanging on, using the downhills as best I could, maintaining my pace on the uphills, but there was a steady number of runners passing me. 80th place at the halfway point of the lap. The Poly runner was about 5 yards ahead of me, but I made that up on the steep downhill, drawing level with him. Could I maintain that? If I could, I was confident I would beat him in a sprint finish. The tightness in my chest was getting worse though, like I was wearing a very tight heart rate monitor.
The finish wasn’t coming soon enough and I started losing ground again without being able to respond. It was time to really dig in with each grassy stretch. Round the penultimate bend. The Poly runner was now more like 10 yards ahead. I wasn’t going to make that up. All I could do was ensure I wasn’t going to lose any more places, especially not to runners from Division One teams. Every point and, therefore, every place, may count in a close divisional race. The last bend and then a good 120 metres to the finish line. Uphill, of course. I had a Heaton Harrier – a Division One club – maybe four yards in front of me giving everything he had. Over the last 20 metres, I put on my usual strong finishing burst, passed him and crossed the line just in front of him.
I hate finishing funnels. All you want to do is stop and/or collapse, but you have to keep moving, instructed to do so firmly, and necessarily so, by the funnel marshalls. The Heaton Harrier I had just passed patted me on the arm from behind to shake my hand and the Poly runner was waiting for me to shake hands at the funnel exit. I just beat him last time out. He just beat me this time. Fantastic competition between the two of us though and I look forward to our next meeting. I was the fourth Gosforth runner home. The fifth came in shortly after me, but we then waited a long time for the sixth and last counter. That could be crucial in the standings for today’s results.
While recovering, I listened out for chat amongst the runners from other clubs about what they thought about the course. Without exception, it was positive. ‘A good test’, ‘Nice course’, ‘Deceptively tough’, ‘Loved it’, ‘Hope this is a regular venue’. It also turned out to be popular in numbers. An all-time Harrier League record attendance for the senior men with 625 finishers. That also meant the top 62 finishers would be promoted. We had two runners in that category which will make the rest of the season even tougher in the fight against relegation.
I came 94th. Not my best performance, but not my worst either. Probably about 20 seconds slower than what I was hoping for based on my comparative placings at the last meet at Druridge Bay where I thought I had run pretty well. I was quite happy with my splits. Miles 3 and 5 and miles 2, 4 and 6 were all pretty consistent times, aligned with the more uphill first half of each lap and the more downhill second half. The incentive I had to stay with the Poly runner was important mentally. It kept me focussed, despite the tightness in my chest making it a more painful run than most. By Wednesday of the following week, I was coughing and spluttering with a full-on chesty cold. Having a target or anchor is an important tactic to gauge how you are doing. Pick them wisely, stay close and then see how you feel in the last portion of the race.
As a team, we came 8th in the division, missing 7th place by a measly 9 points (258 v 249). In the division, we are one place above the relegation zone. It’s going to be a tight one. With so many runners now in the medium and fast packs, and in addition to regular training, we may need reinforcements, although, unlike other clubs, we don’t have too many members who haven’t run cross-country yet this season.
While the volunteers took down the course, the runners did our cool-down before some of us retired to the pub for a liquid debrief and to reminisce about a long, but thoroughly enjoyable day while watching the results come in online. It felt like it had gone really well and, hopefully, will become a regular event in the Harrier League calendar. Once again, huge thanks must go those closely involved in preparing and staging the successful event. Some upcoming travel means I have a couple of weeks away from competition, which I hope will give me a chance to get healthy again.