Brass Monkey Half Marathon – 13th January 2019

img_2194The Brass Monkey Half Marathon first came to my attention in about 2007 or 2008 when it was voted Runners’ World’s Best UK Race. I tried to get into it for several years, always getting my entry form and unpaid cheque returned in the post despite sending it in on the day it opened. Now, in the days of online entries, all you need to do is get up at a ridiculously early hour on a weekend morning and hope you are one of the lucky ones in the randomised queuing system. I was one of those lucky ones this year. Organised by York Knavesmire Harriers, the reasons why it was voted the UK’s best probably haven’t changed. Fast, flat, an excellent indoor base at York Racecourse with lots of toilets, a huge number of friendly marshalls, a quality field and nice countryside along the route that is mainly closed to traffic.

cannonballsYou do need to be lucky with the weather. It was cancelled in 2013 due to snow and the name itself is reference to the cold conditions you should expect in early to mid-January. A ‘monkey’ was the brass tray that held cannonballs on warships in years gone by. In very cold temperatures, the metal of the tray would contract to the extent that the cannonballs would fall off. The weather this time was nothing like that. Dry, a perfect running temperature of 10 degrees, but with a stiff wind sweeping in from the west. The course takes you south-west for 6 miles, a right turn, west for a bit and then back north-east with the first 3.5 miles and the last 3.5 on the same road. Due to the wind, the first half would be a bit trickier than the second.

Being completely truthful, I have run over ten miles all of three times in the last year and a half and was completely undercooked for the distance. I fully expected the last three miles to be a bit of a struggle. When asked what time I was hoping for, my answer was sub-1:30 without really believing I’d be able to achieve it. But I’d go for it anyway.

A 5:45 alarm call was not the start I was looking for. York is just under 2 hours’ drive from Newcastle and I wanted to be there at least an hour and a half before the race, having had a decent breakfast before I left. I arrived in the excellent, free car park at the racecourse at 8:20 and promptly had a kip for half an hour in the car. I felt so much better afterwards and raring to go. I met up with some colleagues from work and clubmates in the Ebor Stand at the racecourse – a warm place to change and shelter from the wind. A few stretches, half a banana and then outside for some strides and a few more stretches. Strip down to running vest and shorts, dump the bag in the baggage area, a last wee and out to the start area with two clubmates with five minutes before the off.

The start was marked out by finishing time and, certainly forward of the 1:45 marker, almost everyone was wearing a club vest. I recognised a lot of people from the northeast running scene. Without any delay, we were off. It was a little crowded at first, which is never a bad thing at the very start. A look at my watch after 200m and it said 6:05. Too fast – a common theme. Slow down. After 400m, I was bang on my target pace of 6:45. That would bring me in just under 1:30 with a minute or so to spare. If I could hold on. It was going to be critical to pace this really evenly to stand a chance.

The first mile was up and over a road bridge which turned out to be the steepest hill on the course and into the village of Bishopsthorpe. Even though this part was sheltered, you could feel the wind coming at you from the side. Extremely supportive marshalls lined the route, giving encouragement even though we were only a mile into the race. This was to continue the whole 13 miles. Thanks to them all. Of course, by this point, I needed a wee again. No I didn’t, I said to myself. I’ve just been and haven’t drunk much this morning. It was just psychosomatic. Eventually, by about halfway, the feeling disappeared.

Once in open countryside, you could really feel the wind. All the time, I was trying to find larger runners to shelter behind. I was less hopeful now of beating 1:30 as 6:51 is the exact pace to hit for that and miles 2 and 3 were 6:51 and 6:50. Would the wind be any more behind us coming back? Or was it a swirly one where you feel it is against you the whole way?

At 3.5 miles, I saw the sign for a water station. I quickly downed my caffeine gel and grabbed a plastic cup from one of the helpers. Squeezing it into a spout, I got a few good gulps and threw it to the side for the cup collectors to pick up. Despite the wind, miles 4 and 5 were 6:48 and 6:49. Miles 5 and 6 were the windiest of all – farm fields either side of us without even a hedge for shelter. Everyone was running on the left-hand side of the road, mainly because we were being blown that way. Mile 6 was 6:57, although at some points, my Garmin was saying over 7-minute miling. I dug in. We turned west, directly into the wind, although the trees either side of the road now offered some shelter. Mile 7 was a little faster – 6:46. Beyond halfway now. How long could I last at this pace?

Another water stop and then we took a sharp right through the small village of Appleton Roebuck. Music, supporters, applause. The villagers were having a bit of a party for our benefit and it certainly gave me a big boost. At the same time, we turned northeast. The wind was definitely a little behind us now. Still mainly from the side, but the difference was palpable. That, along with a jelly baby from my back pocket, gave me the impetus to bang out a 6:36 mile 8.

Along with two North Shields Poly runners, I was now finding myself starting to pass people quite regularly. I needed another gel, which I took and looked for a marshall to hand the wrapper to rather than just drop it. It turned out to be the only part of the course where there didn’t seem to be a marshall stationed, so I carried it in my hands for about a mile. Maybe that was the reason why that mile, mile 9, was 6:50. It wasn’t because I was starting to struggle. Mile 10 was back on track at 6:42, my second fastest mile so far and the final water station.

We were now back on the road that we had run before in the opposite direction. The mile markers the whole way were absolutely spot on with my Garmin, within 20 or so metres. At the 10-mile mark, you can start telling yourself that it is just a parkrun to the finish. A few mental calculations told me that 22 minutes for the last 5k would get me in under 1:30. That’s about 7 minutes per mile. I just had to keep my pace under 7 minutes per mile for the last 3 miles to get a sub-1:30. But these are the hard miles, where your legs are started to complain. Your running rhythm isn’t so smooth and the drive off each step is less powerful. At least that’s what it is normally like. I still felt fine. When I say fine, it wasn’t like I could have stepped it up, but I was able to maintain this pace. I was passing people who obviously were starting to struggle. I kept looking at my Garmin, expecting to see a 7 at the start of the pace field, but it wasn’t happening. Mile 11 was 6:48 and mile 12 was 6:44.

Into the last 1.1 miles. I now knew I was going to get the sub-1:30. Now my legs were starting to moan. But when you only have 8 or so minutes of running left, you can put up with the discomfort. You can keep pushing yourself. That last mile also had the opposite of the bridge over the road that we had done in the first mile. An uphill at that point wasn’t exactly welcomed, but I told myself there was a downhill just on the other side. The 800m to go sign. I was still passing people. Could I get in under 1:29? I knew that we turned into the racecourse at the 400m to go sign. I was looking into the distance and saw the turning. I pushed on, lengthening my stride. Faster. Turn left. 400m to go. Boom! Right into the wind.

Then a final right turn with 200m to go. I can’t say I really sprinted, but I absolutely was running as fast as I could. One more runner that I can pass, which I did. I’m still competitive, even when it doesn’t really matter. I crossed the line and stopped my watch at 1:29:07, although my official race time was 1:29:03. A few seconds of light-headedness as I stopped and wobbled through the finish area to get a bottle of water, catch my breath and get some blood back into my head.

I met up with a clubmate a few metres further and was given my finishers’ medal, made of wood, interestingly. Very eco-friendly. The T-shirt was long sleeved, perfect for winter training, but a very feminine colour and a bit on the small side. Probably the only downside of the whole event for me. We did a slow, half-mile cooldown. If there is one piece of advice that any novice runner should take, it is to make sure you do a cooldown. It takes five minutes and loosens the legs up immeasurably compared to how they feel without a cooldown. I did some stretching as well, wary that I had a 2-hour drive back home, before getting my free chocolate shortbread from the selection of cakes on offer and a protein bar back in the warm race HQ of the Ebor Stand at York Racecourse.

Looking at the analysis of my run, it probably has to go down as one of my best. 11 of the 13 mile splits were between 6:42 and 6:51. The two outliers, if you can call them that, were 6:36, when we had the wind pretty much behind us in mile 8, and 6:57 in mile 6, when we had no protection at all from the wind. My first half was 44:36. My second half was 44:31. Even better – a negative split by 5 seconds! Although the wind may have had something to do with that. It has put me in the frame of mind that, if I can do that with barely any half-marathon-specific training, just think what I can do with a full spring and summer’s training for my next half, perhaps the Great North Run in September.

The quality of the field was obvious from the results. In the GNR, I am normally in the top 2% of finishers and the top 2% in my age group. In this race, out of 1,553 confirmed finishers, I was 294th – the 19th percentile. In my age group, MV45, I was 44th out of 202, the 21st percentile.

A massive thanks to York Knavesmire Harriers for putting on the race. It was obvious that every member and, probably, their family and friends as well, were drafted in to help out on the day. I certainly didn’t see any of their famous quad vests on any runners on the course. All in all, an excellent event and I shall certainly be back.


Sherman Cup – 5th January 2019

The Sherman Cup for men and Davison Shield for women are unique in the Northeast cross-country calendar as the final standings take into account results through all the age groups for each individual club. Because Gosforth Harriers has such a strong junior section, it is a competition in which we often do quite well. The ladies have won the Davison Shield for the last two years. The men are regularly placed in the top three in the Sherman Cup. The pre-requisite is to have three runners in every race, including both veterans and seniors. That’s no mean feat, especially in the U-17s sections when there are many other attractions vying for the attention of that age group. It’s also our club cross-country championships. The winners of each age group will receive a trophy, with their names engraved on it, at the club prize-giving night later in the year.

This would be my first race since October. A chest infection and some household responsibilities had stopped me doing much in the way of running, either training or racing, for the best part of two months. I had done a surprisingly fast 10k in training a few days earlier, which told me I hadn’t completely lost my fitness and gave me a bit of confidence. I checked my time on the only previous occasion I had run this course two seasons ago as a marker to beat.

The morning broke clear, calm and with just a little chill in the air – the best that can be expected for early January. Perfect running conditions. It hadn’t rained for almost two weeks, so the ground was as dry as it was going to be. Shoe choice was a no-brainer for me. Not so much for the ground conditions, but for the tarmac path that stretches for the best part of a quarter of a mile on one part of the course. You can run to the side on spikes, but the extra pace I can get running on tarmac compared to grass is quite considerable. A course recce confirmed this decision. Even the short, very steep hill we have to run up was firm enough under foot to wear trail shoes.

My warm-up went well, stretching and striding nicely as I watched the ladies’ race. In the lead by a significant margin was Laura Weightman, local lady and double Olympic 1500m finalist. Seeing elite athletes glide along, seemingly effortlessly, at a pace us mere mortals can only dream of, is a joy to behold. This picture is taken barely half a mile into the race and there are a lot of very good athletes in the chasing pack. Our girls and ladies were doing stunningly well, in the lead in the team competition by quite a way after three of the four races. Unfortunately, we only had two senior competitors and three are required for a team, so no third Davison Cup win in a row.

I heard the whistle for the men’s race and was actually first in the pen. I sort of saved an area for the faster Gosforth athletes when they turned up a few minutes later after the team photo, so we got a good club starting position. I looked around for my usual targets but didn’t see any. There was no real hanging around and it wasn’t long before the gun went to set us off. There are no packs in the Sherman Cup, so it’s a mass start, meaning there will be a lot of fast athletes shooting off. I made sure I didn’t make the mistake of trying to follow them, although I’m not sure how accurate my new Garmin is over short distances. After 200m, it was saying I was running at 5-minute mile pace. I slowed down, but I didn’t think I was going that fast.

Up the hill at the start, down the other side and out to the far end of the course on fairly uneven ground. There were a couple of muddy bits among the few undulations which were easy to avoid. The course is by no means the toughest on the circuit, but interest is maintained with some short, sharp hills, a couple of fast descents and a ditch to negotiate. I found myself running with a Morpeth Harrier, also, as I found out from his supporters, called Neil. He has beaten me once when I couldn’t stay with him in the last half mile and I beat him once in a sprint finish. Psychologically, I decided that every “Go on Neil!” or “Well done Neil!” for him was actually a cheer for me, in addition to the excellent support from the Gosforth ladies who stayed on to cheer us men. Believe me, it worked!

When we got to the path, I found myself overtaking six or seven runners on that stretch – the benefit of trail shoes on tarmac as opposed to spikes on grass. Some overtook me back when we got back onto the grass, but, I told myself, I’d get them again on the next lap. I felt good, but the first lap seemed a long way. Back to the start area with the main bulk of the support, a sharp left around a tree, and then a circuit of a field to complete the lap.

I was very happy with my pace. I didn’t feel like it was too fast, but I was now steadily overtaking people. Would my lack of fitness make me pay on the last lap? Along with the Morpeth Harrier, I was running with a Gosforth clubmate. We gave each other encouragement whenever one overtook the other as we traded places several times. There was another clubmate in a pack about 50 yards ahead, visible by his green and white vest. Could I bridge that gap? Focussing on little things like that really helped to maintain the effort. I also made sure I took every corner right on the apex. Over five or six miles, those marginal gains will add up in terms of distance run and maintaining speed.

Taking it easy up the hills and opening up going down the hills also seemed to be paying dividends. I put on a burst of pace down the tarmac path again on the second lap and pulled away from my current pack. I could hear very heavy breathing behind me which turned out to be a blue shirted runner who had managed to stay with me. I had now joined another small group in front of me as we went up the hill past the supporters. I was on the right-hand side of the group with the sharp left coming up. Bad position. Although it was uphill, I put on a burst to get to the front of the group, hearing the shouts of support from the Gosforth ladies again, and crossed to the left of the course, giving me a perfect line to take the corner.

I was now only about 20 yards from a pack in front, including the other clubmate, which was about six strong, and I was gaining all the time. Round the field and up the hill to start the next lap. Only 10 yards between us now. Going down a hill, I put in another burst to bridge the gap and, as I drew alongside my clubmate, I let him know I was there and encouraged him to keep going, I was going to take a small breather after several recent efforts. In good communication, he told me he was starting to struggle to maintain the pace. Knowing that, rather than take the breather, I pushed on.

The short, steep uphill was now showing signs of muddiness, but the grip from my trail shoes was still sure. The heavy breather was back with me as we ran down the tarmac path. He was in trail shoes as well. We were joined by another blue-shirted runner who overtook us both as we headed towards the field for the last time. There’s a short downhill as you enter the field and I used that to gain momentum, almost sprinting down it, overtaking the heavy breather, but not making any impact on the other runner who was slowly pulling away from me. About 400m to go. I had to take the next corner on the outside of two runners still on their second lap. Hearing more shouts of encouragement for me, I went as fast as I could down the back straight, putting distance between me and those behind me, but still losing ground to the guy in front. Into the home straight. I wasn’t going to catch him. Time to focus on not being overtaken. There were at least two runners about 20 yards behind me. Did either of them have anything left to sprint? A quick glance back to check. No. Another glance back. Still nothing. 30 yards to go. No more looking back now. Just get over that line as fast as you can.

I finished in 35:54. That’s 24 seconds faster than my previous best on this course. 35th position out of 251 in the vet competition and third vet counter for the club. My pacing was pretty much perfect with only 15 seconds separating my fastest mile (net downhill) from my slowest mile (net uphill) and I had nothing left at the end. Along with Alnwick last year, it was probably my best cross-country run in terms of maximising my performance from my current level of fitness. As a team, we waited and cheered every Gosforth runner home, each one showing grit and determination down the home straight in their own mini-races. In the vets’ competition, we came third, beating some big clubs in the process. In the overall Sherman Cup, we also came third, a decent performance and one of only three clubs to field a team in every age group. But for some injuries and illness from a few of our senior runners, we would probably have come second.

The day was rounded off with a club gathering in the pub and a meal out later that evening. It made for a long, but thoroughly enjoyable day.