National Cross Country Championships – Harewood House, Leeds – 23rd February 2019

December and January were a bit of a disaster for me running-wise. One chest infection seemed to follow another, although I did manage to squeeze in one cross-country and the Brass Monkey Half Marathon in a brief, mid-January hiatus to my unhealth.

Then we had a couple of weeks of icy conditions. That’s the one type of weather in which I do generally try to avoid running outside. Wind and rain are no problem. I love the heat. Snow is the best of all. But ice? It’s just dangerous unless you can run on grass, avoiding pavements altogether. When it’s icy outside, I resort to the treaded dreadmill.

In my humble opinion, just running mono-paced on a treadmill is quite possibly the most life-sapping activity known to humankind. So, I try to mix things up a bit. I have a couple of sets that I enjoy. With the incline at 2% to reflect running outside, I do 5 minutes at 12 kph, 10 minutes at 14kph and another 5 minutes at 16kph. That’s about 4.6km, so, if I have anything left, I try to make it up to 5km as fast as I can, up to 20 kph if the treadmill can go that fast.

The other set is more like a track session. 400m repeats at about 20kph followed by 60-90 seconds recovery. Most gym treadmills are occupied by people jogging along at a rather sedate pace, or even walking, holding onto the front rail. What’s the point in that? A treadmill going at 20kph actually makes quite a racket and you get a few weird looks as well. Follow up either of those sets with 2000m on a rowing machine and you have an excellent cardio session when you would otherwise be doing a good impression of Bambi on the pavements outside.

Anyway, the National Cross-Country Championships… I’ll try not to repeat much of my report on last year’s race in London. With the race being held in Leeds this year, we were able to get there and back by coach in a day and without a ridiculously early start either. So, at 8am, about twenty-five Gosforth Harriers and supporters clambered aboard and we made our way down to Leeds. The first race started at about 11am, so we had to be there well before then, making for a long day, with the senior men’s race not starting until 3pm.

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With the tent erected, we went on a recce of the course to see if there were any differences from the Northerns last year, held at the same venue, and to decide upon footwear. It was a 2-lapper of 6k per lap and it was, indeed, exactly the same course. Despite a slightly chilly, misty start, it was turning into the most gorgeous February day there has ever been. 15 degrees, not a cloud in the sky. Not a patch of mud either, in contrast to last year. As the day wore on, the ice cream van was doing a roaring trade.

The most important find on the recce was the underfoot conditions on one particular downhill. The right-hand side of the course was really badly rutted. The left-hand side of the course was as flat as anything. You could make some time and places by sticking left and, perhaps, avoid an injury. I also decided that spikes were the most appropriate for today. There were several parts of the course where you traverse across a slope, so you were running on a camber. For this, my tighter-fitting spikes would avoid my feet rolling around inside my looser fitting trail shoes. After some dithering, and changing twice, I decided upon 9mm pins which proved to be perfect.

The Nationals really is an fantastic event, with clubs from every corner of England setting up their tents alongside each other. The competition is obviously a step up from other events in all age groups, seeing some potential future Olympians winning their races. With still more than three hours before my race, I treated myself to a baguette filled to the brim with pulled pork. It was a bit bigger than I was expecting, but absolutely superb. In hindsight though, a high fat, high protein meal may not have been the best. The rest of the time was passed mostly sitting on the chair that I had brought, relaxing, chatting and enjoying the sunshine.

Onto racetime. My warm-up was pretty good. I felt fairly loose, and we were in our pen much earlier this year, getting our fastest runners to the front. We didn’t have a great draw, being on the far right-hand side and the first bend being a long, sweeping left-hander, but it must have been quite a sight to see 2000-plus runners streaming up the starting straight. The runner behind me may have been making a video as he was giving a running commentary about what an awesome experience it was to be part of it, as well as geeing up the crowd to cheer as we went past.

Space was a bit tight, as you’d expect, with the field still sorting itself out into natural order for the first mile which was slightly uphill. I saw a Saltwell Harrier whom I normally expect to beat by quite a way and was struggling to keep pace with him. Thinking back on it, I should have been aware that he was running much faster than he should have been, and hung back. But, with adrenalin and all that, I kept pace with him and went too fast up the course’s main hill on the second mile, a drag of a full half a mile. It was one of those occasions when I knew I was going too fast (6:35 for the first mile and 7:06 for the uphill second), but just didn’t slow down enough. I’d pay for that later.

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At the top of the hill, you take a right-hand turn and start a full mile of downhill. This was where the uneven ground was, so I stuck to the left and noticeably overtook quite a few runners down that stretch. Whereas I think I have lost a few yards of pace going uphill over the last couple of years, I think I’m quite a good downhill runner and tried to take advantage of it. Once again, probably going too fast with a third mile of 6:08. Running right behind the runner in front, I almost lost it on a narrow path on one of the sections with a difficult camber as I didn’t see the edge of the path and tripped up it, but just managed to stay upright.

Then comes the steepest uphill on the course. About 300m long and deceptive, with a false summit. I was blowing heavily, cursing myself, telling myself to stay relaxed and to keep my head up. The last 50 metres were painful. “Accelerate off the top,” I was telling myself. Yeah, right! I was barely moving forward by the top. At least, that’s what it felt like. We then had a good 300 metres of downhill back to the start/finish section to complete the lap in about 25 minutes. I tried to recover, but was moving noticeably slower than the first lap. I was suffering. Suffering to the extent of considering giving up. Others were. Drop-outs were regular sights, walking alongside the course back to the tents. I placated my self doubts by telling myself that if there wasn’t a point in a race where the preferred option is to stop, then you probably aren’t pushing yourself hard enough. My stomach wasn’t feeling great either though. Maybe that pork baguette was eaten half an hour too late. I didn’t have stomach cramps, but I felt bloated.

At this point, I caught sight of my main target this year in the Harrier League from North Shields Poly. I’ve beaten him once and he’s beaten me twice, but there’s never been more than a few seconds between us. I could use him as a pacer. I snuck in behind him, wanting to keep out of his sight as I suspected that seeing me would encourage him to go faster and that was the last thing I needed at that point. I was still in recovery mode.

For maybe a mile and a half, I did that until he slowed going down a short downhill and I overtook him. He looked over. We exchanged a brief greeting and then he put on a spurt and pulled away about 5 metres as we started going up the main hill again. I bridged those 5 metres and he pulled away again. I caught him and he pulled away again, this time putting 10, 20, 30 metres between us quite quickly. I was also passed by another North Shields Poly runner. I could see them both in the distance, and was now resigned to not catching them.

I had no other real benchmark to how I was doing. There are so many runners in a race of this size, that you are constantly passing and being passed and with so many unfamiliar vests that your brain cannot easily take it all in and remember individuals. I guessed I was losing places as I was definitely running slower on lap 2 than lap 1, but I also sensed I was passing people as well. There was another green and white striped vest about 15 metres ahead of me. There are only three clubs with these vests. Gosforth, Tipton and Woodford Green. It wasn’t a Gosforth runner, but I could use him as another benchmark. I definitely wasn’t losing ground. I was probably gaining slowly on him.

Then came the downhill mile. For most of this mile, I was concentrating mostly on picking the best line, staying upright, relaxing and leaning forward slightly so as not to brake with each step. This meant I lost track of where I was in the field, although I remember catching and passing the green and white striped vest. I could feel myself gradually getting stronger as the second lap progressed though.

I was dreading the steep hill. I had suffered on it on the first lap. I had visions of walking up it on this lap. Maybe I was more mentally prepared for the false summit though. Maybe I was looking forward to the downhill all the way to the finish after it. Maybe I was just concentrating 100% on getting up the damn thing. Half-way up, I suddenly remembered what I tell our juniors when they are running up a hill. “Pump those arms!” I did. And what a difference it makes. I powered up the last fifty metres, around to the left and started down the hill.

5019462108708864No holding back now. Just less than half a mile to go. Steeply downhill to begin with. You can hear footsteps behind you. Everyone’s a good runner here. Could I let my sprint finish count? Should I save anything for a sprint finish? No. What’s the point? Just go as fast as I can. I was going well below 6 minute mile pace down the hill as I saw afterwards. It flattens out with 300m to go. You can see the finish arch with the sponsor’s name on it around a shallow bend to the right. No one will pass me. 200 to go. Still flat out. 100 to go. 50 to go. Who’s that passing me? It’s only the Poly runner. How did I bridge that 30 metre gap? How did I not realise that I’d bridged that gap? He had the momentum. What have I got left? 20 to go. Sprint! He sprints as well. Am I closing? No. It’s at this point that I realise I’m going to be throwing up at the end. A final effort, but I just don’t make the metre or so between me and the Poly runner. A measly 1 second between us.

I have to apologise to the little girl behind the barrier who witnessed the contents of my stomach – mostly liquid – re-appear in front of her. She moved away quite quickly as I doubled up and wretched again, being told sternly by a marshall to move on through the finishing area. I passed the medical tent, with three runners in wheelchairs looking very pale, before being able to take the chip off my ankle, throwing it in the chip bin and searching out those of the Gosforth team who had already finished.

As a team, we waited for every member to finish. It had been a long, tough course that held bad memories for some after the previous outing here, but we all finished and finished well. My time was 50:33 and I came 1,101st out of 2,006 finishers. That was the 54th percentile, about where I expected. I beat my time on this course last year by almost 5 minutes. Then again, the conditions were poles apart and that seemed to be the par time difference. There’s no data on age groupings in the Nationals. As a club, we finished 39th out of 358 in the 9 counter competition and 48th in the 6 counter, beating a lot of much bigger clubs in the process.

What is it about running, that you’ve put your body through hell and you can’t stop smiling? The relief of finishing? The self-satisfaction? Everybody enjoyed it, even more so when we saw that the our magic club tent had already dismantled itself to make a quick exit back to the bus! An in-joke there! Sorry! A few beers on the bus going back rounded off a thoroughly enjoyable day.

For me, the cross-country season is over as I cannot make the last Harrier League meet. Some relays and road races, as well as some track meets, are next on the agenda. All that remains is to thank those who organised the entry and transport and also those who supported all day. The shouts by name and by club as you pass really do help, especially when those demons are telling you to give up!

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