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.