NEHL Wrekenton – 29th September 2018

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.

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Darlington 10k – August 12th 2018

It’s always good to do different races rather than the same ones year after year. Despite it being a well-renowned event, I had never done the Darlington 10k. It is about an hour’s drive from home for me, but close to where I work, so there were several work colleagues running as well, which would be good. The company I work for has a running group which meets at lunchtimes and offers some excellent, free, strength and conditioning classes, specifically for runners, through a local gym, as well as pilates, yoga and cut-price gym membership. It’s a superb perk that quite a few employees take full advantage of, creating a healthier and happier workforce and at fairly minimal cost as well.

I had done some research on the Darlington 10k course. The elevation profile didn’t seem that bad and the hearsay was that it was fast. But then the race blurb said that the course was ‘undulating’. Most races tend to try to downplay any hills unless that is the distinctive characteristic. The best elevation description I have seen is a race called the Fruit Bowl 10k around the beautiful Georgian landscape gardens of the Gibside estate not far from me. The blurb says that it is ‘not flat’. One particular hill is so steep, you are almost on all fours getting up it. So when a race is described as ‘undulating’, I was expecting some proper hills rather than just mere undulations!

I had done my usual preparations, packing the night before, being up and breakfasted in good time and arrived at race HQ to collect my number. This is a fairly big race with over a couple of thousand entrants, including a mixture of very fast and very slow with a fair few using it as preparation for the Great North Run in three weeks’ time. It was raining when I did my first warm-up, but the forecast was for it to clear up just in time for the race. I met up with my colleagues and discussed target times. I had decided to set off at PB pace, about 6:15 per mile, and see where it took me. I have felt myself getting fitter over the summer, so I thought I wouldn’t be too far away from it.

With the final warm-up done and the rain stopped, we wished each other luck and headed into the very well-behaved and set-out starting pen at 10:15, only then realizing I had forgotten to take my caffeine gel which was back in my bag at the baggage area. Then, for some reason, I had it in my mind that it was a 10:40 start. It was only when the race director said ‘Two minutes to go’ just before 10:30 that I realized it was a 10:30 start. I hurriedly switched on my Garmin, which, of course, struggled to get a GPS signal, so I was a bit flustered and annoyed with myself when the race started, passing over the chip mat a few seconds after the klaxon went to set us off. Nevertheless, I found a good rhythm, felt strong and my first mile, although slightly uphill, hovered around 6:10 pace. A couple of other athletes running at pretty much the same pace as me were handy guides, although I was super-conscious not to go off too fast. After heavy rain the night before, it was wet underfoot, humid and quite warm. The two-lap course had inclines and declines, nothing steep, but enough to need some concentration to moderate effort on the uphills and try to claw the time back on the downhills.

Then, just before two miles, disaster! My lace came undone. Immediately rejecting the crazy idea of trying to run the rest of the race with it untied, I veered off the road onto the pavement and quickly retied it. I had the presence of mind to ensure I didn’t tie it too tight, a risk with the shoes I was wearing, and double knotted the lace again, as I had done before. I started off again and tried to work out how much time I had lost. The two people I had been running with, and from whom I had pulled away a bit before I stopped, were now about 50 yards ahead of me. I had probably lost about 15 seconds. I was annoyed and, whereas I was calm before the stop, I felt my breathing was now more laboured. I was now alongside someone from Easingwold Running Club who was trying to chase a clubmate a few metres ahead. He was running at the same pace as me, but only as an average, speeding up and slowing down quite a bit.

I looked at my Garmin to get a pace gauge, only to see that it had switched itself off. How had that happened? I fiddled with it to get it back on, but it always takes time to get a GPS signal when you are moving. Mentally, my thoughts were all over the place. I was thinking about the things that had gone wrong rather than concentrating on the race and my form. Any thoughts of a PB were gone. Maybe even sub-40 was gone as well. I didn’t have a clue how far we had gone – there were no distance markers – and I was hurting, despite my Garmin, which was now back on, showing a mile pace of 6:48 on it. Was it even worth carrying on at this level of intensity? Why not just take it easy for once? But that’s just not me. Not knowing the distance to go was a big thing, but it could have been more a mental barrier than actually impacted my running. By the middle of lap 2, I had caught and passed one of the athletes who had gone 50 yards ahead while I stopped to tie my lace and I was keeping tabs with the Easingwold athlete. Sometimes he was ahead of me, sometimes I was ahead of him, although whenever I did go ahead of him, he seemed to put on a burst to get in front of me again.

By now, we were lapping the back-markers and then we were split into two lanes – those on their first lap on the left, those on their second lap on the right. Did that mean we were close to the finish? Apparently not, as the road stretched out in front of us for quite a distance. We probably still had well over a mile to go. The Easingwold athlete pushed on to about 5 yards in front of me. I wasn’t too worried. I would get him in the final sprint. We entered the City Centre area and then a sharp left on a quite slippery paved area. I remembered from the route map that meant we had less than a quarter of a mile to go. I ramped up the pace a bit. A sharp right and I caught and breezed past the Easingwold runner, taking him on the inside. One more sharp right and I could see the finish banner – 50 metres to go. I saw the race clock. 39:something. Blimey, that’s faster than I thought. There was one more runner in front of me. All-out sprint!

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I took him about 15 metres before the line and then heard the race commentator on the PA saying something like “Is he going to get him?” I took that to mean there was someone else (#580) closing in behind me and I just managed to hold him on the line. Compared to other gurners, I don’t look like I’m trying hard in these finishing straight photos, but I was all-out here. I’ve come close to vomiting at the finish of several races in my running career, but probably not as close as this time. Spectators lined either side of the finish funnel as I retched. It would not have been pretty, but my breakfast did stay down. The clock was about 39:24 when I passed under it at the finish and my chip time turned out to be 39:18. I was absolutely shattered and was very grateful for the bottle of water and the bench to sit down to recover and think about the race. I finished 111th by chip time out of 1892 and 19th in my age group out of 138.

Three schoolboy errors – you’d think I was beyond those now – and one technology malfunction. Take 15 seconds off for the lace and maybe another 5-10 for knowing the distance and pace. Perhaps another 5-10 to do with my mental state and missed caffeine kick and I would have more than likely got sub-39 minutes, but that’s all irrelevant. I met two of my work colleagues as they finished, one recording a very nice PB, and then we went to claim our T-shirts.

Using the cursed compliment sandwich technique, I liked the size and the quality of the field, as well as the start and finish setups. The race HQ was excellent, as were the baggage facilities. However, the water bottles on the run were open tops, not sports caps, whereas the bottle you received at the end was a sports cap bottle. That’s the wrong way round! The lack of distance markers was poor. Even if my Garmin hadn’t malfunctioned, there were plenty of people running who don’t have GPS watches for whom distance markers would be useful. The yellow T-shirts, although ‘technical’, are made from really rough material. Aside from being a magnet to insects due to the colour, there will be some serious nipple bleeds for wearers if they don’t wear appropriate PPE (plasters!). Back to the good, the race was organised by the local authority which is unusual these days, which led to a really good community atmosphere and the photos were published on the local newspaper’s website and downloadable for free rather than the extortionate amounts charged at most mass events. Overall, I enjoyed it. Summer 10k’s are probably my favourite race.

It’s holiday time now – another of my favourite times of the year to run. I get out early in the morning before it gets too hot and normally get a good few miles in while I’m away. September sees the end of summer and the start of the cross-country season. I think I might try and get one more road race in and then treat myself to a new pair of cross-country spikes!

Gosforth Harriers Club Mile Championship – 18th July 2018

One event I always look forward to is the club mile championship, called the Sparvarger Mile after a Swedish athletics club which visited Gosforth many years ago. It is one of only a couple of times a year when club colleagues become rivals and prestigious club trophies are up for grabs. There are races within races and benchmarks laid down for the next year both in time and good-natured banter. It is when the hard laps covered in track training sessions really pay dividends. It’s quite simple. The more of those sessions you attend, working on your speed and stamina, the faster you will be able to run. And that is where I have been lacking this year. I have been putting in plenty of longer intervals on the road, but not the 12x400m track sessions and the like that enable you to post good times over a mile.

There are four races on the evening. I was in the race containing the vet men, vet women and senior women. Each are separate races within the same race. There were some noticeable absentees, especially two from the club who were in Estonia representing Great Britain in the European Triathlon Championships. After registering and picking up our numbers, the presentation for the Winter Grand Prix is made. I think I only missed four out of about twenty races in the whole grand prix, but I wasn’t in the top three, which shows the dedication required to win that event. Good effort by those picking up the trophies.

After a warm-up and then some stretching and strides while watching and supporting those in the first two races, it was then time for ours. We lined up, ready to take on the 4 laps and 9 metres making up the mile. A quick photo and then we were off. Each lap is different. The first is critical to achieve the right pace. Garmins are fairly useless in these events. You are running too fast and at close quarters with your competitors to really look at them and your timing is done in laps rather than mile pace. Simple maths tell you that 90 second laps get you a 6 minute mile. 80 second laps will give you about a 5:20 mile. 75 second laps would be 5 minutes and so on. You only know your lap pace when you complete a lap and the timekeeper announces your time. You therefore need to know your body, speed and perceived effort to judge the right pace to run from the outset. Going off too fast will mean you run a slower time overall. Not going off fast enough will also mean you run a slower time overall. My lack of track training meant that I didn’t really have that tuned perception of pace needed, so there was a little uncertainty in my mind. I was first to react at the start and found myself leading round the first bend. At least that meant I wasn’t going off too slow, I thought to myself. In the field, there were two athletes definitely faster than me, one of them a male vet, and at least three other vets around the same time as me, depending on our relative fitness. Halfway down the back straight, one of the faster athletes overtook me. I tucked in behind her for the rest of the straight and the top bend and felt comfortable. The first lap should always feel comfortable, otherwise you definitely have gone off too fast. She was about two yards ahead of me as we completed the first lap. I was expecting / hoping to hear a number starting with a 7 as I crossed the line, but it was an 83. Slower than I expected.

Lap 2 is where the hard work begins. After 500m, I was starting to breathe heavier. I tried briefly to stay with the leader, but thought better of it and she pulled away. She sped up rather than I slowed down, so I thought, but I probably wasn’t brave enough here. I could hear a number of sets of footsteps right behind me. I didn’t know who was there. One rule of track running is you never look behind. 

Sparvarger Mile 2

The club’s fastest vet is fastest by quite a way, but he was doubling up in the senior race after this one, so was running tactically. Even so, I was expecting him to pass me any moment. It didn’t happen. I was at the front of the little group, taking whatever wind there was as we entered the home straight for the second time. Crossing the finish line, I heard the words ‘two fifty’. That meant an 87 second lap. I had slowed down by quite a bit.

Lap 3 – Do I speed up? Or rather, could I speed up? Do I run tactically and wait for a fast finish? While I was at the front, I decided on the latter and maintained my pace. Halfway down the back straight, the fastest vet eased alongside me and then showed his considerable speed as we went round the top bend, opening up a gap of about 20 yards pretty quickly. I could still hear at least one pair of feet immediately behind me. Realistically, it was always going to be a race for second anyway, so I still maintained the pace. I didn’t register the time called out as we crossed the finish line, taking the bell – yes there was a proper bell. It turned out to be 4:17, another 87 second lap.

Final lap – The fact that we were on the final lap came as a bit of a surprise to me! Not sure why. Every other race I do is at least twice as long as this one. It is almost instinct to increase pace at the start of the last lap. Approaching the back straight, I realised there was only 300 metres to go and I had plenty left inside me. I increased the pace some more. So did the footsteps behind me. I increased a bit more. So did the footsteps behind me. Starting the top bend, the footsteps that were behind me drew level with me on the outside, squeezing me onto the inside of my lane. I couldn’t allow him to get his arm in front of my arm as I might then have to brake and go around the outside. I kicked. Our arms touched and I managed to squeeze slightly in front of him again. 150 metres to go. A long way out for a full-on sprint. I kicked again. Not quite full speed but enough to give a hint of daylight between us. 100 metres to go. Afterburners on. More daylight between us. Arms pumping as hard as I could. Full-on sprint down the home straight. The leader had already finished. The vet in second was about 30 yards ahead of me. I was never going to pass him, but I was catching him. I crossed the line in 5:32 after a last lap of 75 seconds. Third place in the race and second place in the vets, but 9 seconds outside my time last year when I was fitter, but poorly with a cold. Then again, given the paltry amount of track training I have done, it was probably all I deserved. Also, I had too much left in the final 100 metres, indicating I should probably have gone faster on laps 2 and 3. I may have been able to sneak under 5:30, that being the case.

Sparvarger Pace

After recovering, there were plenty of laughs, hand-shaking between the entire field, admission of tactics, congratulations when a good time was posted or commiserations when injury or something else meant a not-so-good time was posted. Most importantly, it was great fun and, on the way home, after watching the senior men’s race, I promised myself that I would go to track training more often. That being the case, my mile PB should be eminently beatable next year.

 

Tynedale 10k – 4th July 2018

It’s been a while since my last blog. Some serious family health problems have been more important than running. With these hopefully over, I entered the Tynedale 10k with the promise of a fast, flat course. My training has been on-and-off for the last few months, but a few weeks of increased mileage and hard efforts have got me back on track. While maybe not at PB level, I was hopeful of a good time, despite consuming a few more beers than I was expecting while watching England battle through the penalty shoot-out against Colombia in the World Cup the previous night. It was a gorgeous mid-summer evening, maybe a bit warm for a really good time, when I arrived at the Riverside Country Park at Ovington, near Prudhoe in Northumberland.

Not having done this race before, it was good to get chatting to an Elswick Harrier beforehand who gave me an idea of the course. The ‘fast’ description on the race blurb was mostly due to the first two miles being downhill. Indeed, the first half mile was quite steeply downhill. In most races, what goes down must come up, but not this one. The start was up one side of the Tyne River valley and the finish was down by the river. Despite my intermittent training and warm conditions, it got me thinking that maybe a PB wasn’t out of the question after all.

I met up with the other four Gosforth Harriers doing this race and we jogged the 1.5 miles, from Riverside Park where the car parking, race HQ and finish were, up the hill to the start. It was a good warm-up and I got a decent position near the front of the pack of the 300+ runners, mostly club runners, but a few non-club as well. There looked to be some good runners in the field. I picked out a couple that I recognized as around my level and it wasn’t long before the race director was giving the final instructions and we were off.

So, here are the quandaries. A downhill at the start is good because your legs are still fresh, meaning you can control your pace and foot strike without landing too heavily and jarring every muscle in your legs which generates fatigue. It’s also time in the bank for the latter stages of the race. On the other hand, it’s difficult to know what the right pace is. Running a downhill hard will still require effort. Judging the right level of effort is critical. And the other hand (yes, I know that makes three), is that you don’t want to lose the opportunity of using the downhill to your advantage by going off too slowly, even though that slowly may still be faster than your normal flat pace. It would be interesting.

It’s amazing how quickly the field sorts itself out and I found myself running alongside a lady with whom I had had a good battle, but ultimately lost, at the Kirkley 10 Miler back in November last year. I’m sure she clocked me as well and maybe used me as a pace guide, just like I was using her! While a normal 10k PB pace for me would be about 6:15-6:20 per mile, my Garmin indicated that I was covering the first mile in 5:38, an indication of the downhill. Was that too fast? Too slow? I didn’t have a clue! The second mile was also mostly downhill, but not as steep. Pace was still high, but my running partner had pulled about 10 metres ahead. At about 2.5 miles, I was starting to blow a bit. I had moderated my pace, but it was feeling tougher than it should have been. 10k is a perfect distance for an evening race. More physically challenging than a 5k, but over much quicker than a half marathon. But if you go off too fast, it is a long way to go while suffering. My mouth was really dry and I was hot. The promise of a water station shortly after halfway couldn’t come soon enough.

The country lanes and villages were providing a nice backdrop, but I wasn’t looking left or right at the views. There were quite a few spectators on the course, giving generous applause. Each pub we passed seemed to have its occupants outside enjoying the evening sunshine and watching the runners pass. The first ladies in the race always get specific applause and encouragement from spectators and I was running in between first and second. The course was pretty flat by now, the odd uphill, although sometimes quite sharp, being matched by the odd downhill. At last, the water station arrived, closer to 4 miles than halfway and I greedily took a couple of gulps and poured most of the rest of the bottle over my head, back and legs before discarding it in a place that would be easy for the volunteers to collect.

The country lanes turned to park footpaths. A Low Fell athlete had, maddeningly, been about 10 metres in front of me for the last mile. I wanted to bridge the gap, but, by this time, I was hanging on, unable to increase the pace and trying everything to avoid slowing down which was the only thing my brain was telling me to do. My heart was thumping out of my chest. I was getting light headed, indicating I was at my physical limit. Realising I was tense and my gait didn’t feel quite right, I tried relaxation techniques. Rather than clenching fists, I imagined gently holding a crisp between my first finger and thumb of each hand. I focussed on controlling my foot strike and increasing my cadence slightly. And tried to hold my head and shoulders higher and slightly further forward than I was. It seemed to work. Mile 4 seemed to go by quicker and I had closed the gap to the Low Fell runner by a few metres, but still not enough to be ‘in touch’.

At the 5 mile mark, I was telling myself only just over a mile to go. 2000 metres. 5 laps of the track. Just over 7 minutes of running. A quick look at the lap pace on my Garmin showed 6:40. All the gains from the downhill in the first mile were lost on the flat of this mile. No PB today. I was passed by a Heaton Harrier who always seems to beat me and a North Shields Poly athlete who looked so smooth and effortless. They had both obviously paced themselves much better than I had done. Most of the last mile was along the banks of the Tyne. As each tenth of a mile ticked by, I was calculating how many metres was left and converting it to laps of the track. 0.6 miles, 1000 metres, 2.5 laps. The distance between me and the Low Fell athlete had gone back to the 10 metres. Did I have anything left to close that over the last 400m? In a word, no! We took a slight left and saw the finish line a couple of hundred metres away. Unsure whether there was anyone closing in on me – I had resisted the temptation to look back – I pushed on to the finish as fast as I could, hearing my name shouted, presumably from a clubmate who had already finished. I heard the official say “Eighteen” as I crossed the line. 18th position – that’s not bad. Much better than I thought. It was half an hour later, when the fuzz of exhaustion in my brain had dissipated that I realised, with my gun time recorded as 39:18, that it was the seconds he was recording rather than my finishing position. My chip time was 4 seconds faster at 39:14 and I finished in 31st place, 5th in my age group.

I was spent, completely. It had been a lot harder than it should have been. The last 3.5 miles were pure suffering and I finished 35 seconds outside my PB, but at least still sub-40. A half a bottle of water later, and a few handshakes, including with the Low Fell runner who always managed to stay just ahead of me, I was still bent double trying to recover for a lot longer than normal. After catching up with a couple of people I hadn’t seen in a while, we headed off to the pub, where the pie and peas supper was being served. Getting there early was a good move as we were able to grab a table outside under the clear evening skies of this amazing summer we are having and missed the queues that formed both for the food and the bar as the bulk of the runners finished. The general consensus was that it had been a hard run. The early downhill seemed to have made it harder rather than easier, but my level of fitness is still not where I want it to be either. All in all, it was a very well-organised race. A scenic, challenging course, plenty of direction signs and supportive marshalls, chip timing and a supper at the end. What more could you want? Well, maybe a PB! Maybe next year.

NEHL #6 – Alnwick Castle – 17th March 2018

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Hills CHECK

Forest CHECK

Support CHECK

Scenery CHECK

Welcome to Alnwick Castle.

The Beast from the East weather system that hit the UK in early March caused the postponement of the last episode of the Northeast Harrier League due to travel concerns, but, happily, only for two weeks. Despite an awful forecast of strong winds, snow, sub-zero temperatures, even harsher with an easterly wind chill, and adding a couple of inches of rainfall during the week leading up to it, the North East’s hardiest cross-country runners gathered at Alnwick Castle for most people’s favourite course on the NEHL circuit. We arrived expecting the worst underfoot conditions, but they turned out to be amazingly good – the best conditions of the whole season. Whoever put in the drainage solution for the pastures around Alnwick Castle, please apply to Herrington Park to sort that out.

Gosforth Harriers’ men’s team were in pole position to take the Division 2 title and secure promotion to Division 1 next season. We just needed to get a full team of six out to ensure promotion and finish in sixth place or higher to guarantee the title. There were a few injuries and other absences meaning we fielded our smallest team of the season, but we hoped it would still be good enough. Pushing for promotion or avoiding relegation tends to encourage clubs to pull out all the stops and field big teams in the last event of the season, no more so than the relegation bun-fight in Division 1 where any two of seven of the division’s ten teams could end up going down.

After some excellent performances by Gosforth’s juniors, securing a first and two second places on the day, it was time for the senior men. I was cold warming up in three layers, so I decided to wear a base layer for the run. Then took it off, then put it back on, finally deciding to take it off. Vest and shorts for me and several of the Gosforth team, in contrast to most other runners. I did wear gloves and ear band though. My ears always get cold and, since my hand operation in December, my hands really suffer to the extent that it is distracting from my running. My warm-up went really well. Learning my lesson from the Nationals, I limbered up my ankles ready for the battering they would take on the uneven surfaces around the course.

I had read through my blog from last season’s Alnwick fixture and remembered that I died somewhat on the last lap. I didn’t want that to happen again, although that was when my body was pretty tired from marathon training. My recent training has been intermittent, mainly due to work requirements and also partly down to the weather, but at least I was fully healthy. The heavy snow flurry at the slow pack start had passed over by the time of the medium pack start. I was surprised how many runners had turned out. Yes, the field was smaller than usual, but still a decent size. This would be the last time I would start from medium pack. Having failed to secure my spot in that pack for next season, I would be starting in October from slow pack and, hopefully, able to score well for the club again. I looked around for any targets and couldn’t see any in the melee, but I was feeling good and ready for action. The whistle went and off we set, heading downhill towards the castle. There were a few sploshy bits in the first half mile, but, taking a right turn onto the long uphill section of the lap, we were, by and large, running on grass rather than mud. I picked out an Alnwick Harrier around my age, as my target. Alnwick also had a chance of promotion from division 2 and had a big team out, especially as this was their home fixture. No sooner had I identified him, then he powered up the hill, leaving me standing. I resisted the urge to chase him down. I felt my effort levels were spot on, although the biting wind was at its worst on this, the most exposed part of the course.

A right hand turn at the top of the hill and onto the forest section. 20180318_230507788892837.jpgIn previous years, this had been very rutted, but not really at all this year, enabling me to power on. The smaller field was helping as I was now passing large numbers of slow pack runners, but still had plenty of room to pick my route, only once being slowed down. Another sharp right and the biggest, steepest downhill of any cross-country course with a 100ft drop in less than a quarter of a mile came into view. You just have to let go and hope that your footing is sure. You can lose a lot of time and places on that hill if you don’t throw caution to the wind. A final right turn, through the start / finish area and onto the second lap. I was amazed how good I was feeling. I didn’t have the lap-two-lethargy that normally afflicts me when I start to tire, but am still so far from the finish. Turning onto the long climb again, I saw the Alnwick Harrier who had surged ahead of me at the same place on lap 1. I caught him and passed him half way up the hill, thinking that he had gone off too fast and also the fact that I was maintaining my speed well. My watch said I did slow a little on that second lap, but only by a few seconds.

Passing the start / finish area to start the third lap, I saw I was catching one of my usual medium pack targets whom I had not seen at the start, but who had been well ahead of me on lap one from pictures I saw after the race. He has a very distinctive running style and provides a real benchmark to how I am doing. He is in the same age group as me and we often finish very close in all sorts of races, although he beat me by over a minute at Thornley Hall Farm, the last Harrier League meeting. This provided a real incentive for me to give everything on this last lap. I caught up with him on the bottom straight, and ran behind him up the first part of the hill. I took the inside line on a left hand turn, drawing level. He clocked me and I’m sure he put on a burst as he then pulled away a couple of yards. I responded and tucked in behind him for the rest of the hill. I love these little in-race battles. Approaching the top of the hill, I moved to the right, drawing level with him again, giving me the inside line for the next turn and a clear run through the narrow, single-file only, 30-yard stretch of the course. He tucked in behind me and overtook me again as soon as he could when we started on the forest path. I had felt really good on the first two laps through the forest and felt confident to accelerate. I overtook him again and floored it down the very slight decline. With less than a mile to go, including the big downhill, I told myself this was like the home-straight and gave it everything I dared. He couldn’t respond and I pulled away. 20180318_2304231184367487.jpgI was blowing a bit by the time I turned right for the big downhill but tried to relax and, without much traffic to pass, I followed the trodden path down, which was probably the fastest and safest route. As the hill levelled out and with maybe a quarter of a mile to go, I started scanning for division two team runners to pass. There were two Saltwell Harriers about thirty and forty yards in front of me. It would be tough, but I’d give it a go. I was catching them with every stride. I turned into the home straight and saw the finish a good hundred metres away. Going hard from a long way out, I passed the first Saltwell Harrier, was passed by a Wallsend fast packer and just managed to hold off a Durham City fast packer in an all-out sprint for the line.

I’d given everything and felt like I’d had a really good run. I was the eighth Gosforth runner home and there were some stand-out performances in the top six counters. Surely we had done enough to secure the title and promotion, but we needed to wait for the results. I finished in 119th place out of 345 in 43:45 and 6th in my age group by time out of 46. If I hadn’t had the handicapped start, I would have finished in 29th place and been promoted. Easily my best run of the season. I beat my time on this course from last season by 23 seconds and my mile splits varied between 6:55 and 7:10. An incredibly even run for any 10k, let alone a hilly cross-country. Of the four segments on Strava, I had three PRs on the final lap. More importantly, when the results came through, the team had finished fourth on the day, thereby winning the division two title by four points from Jarrow and Hebburn in second place.

For its size, Gosforth Harriers punches above its weight in cross-country. Of the 49 competing clubs, 16 other clubs had more senior male athletes than Gosforth who turned out for at least one event. But each Gosforth runner took part in an average of 3.5 out of the 6 events, which is much higher than all but one other club and by far the highest in the top two divisions. Of the 59 runners from all clubs who turned out for all six events, there were 5 runners from Gosforth, again, more than from any other club. Dedication, consistency, coaching, training, captaincy and team spirit are all there in abundance. And maybe a little bit of talent as well.

And so, the 2017/18 cross-country season comes to an end. It’s been a long, cold winter and I think we are all looking forward to some nice warm evenings on the track. Kudos to the NEHL organising team for the whole season and to Alnwick Harriers for putting on the final event in testing conditions.

Promotion CHECK

Division 2 title CHECK

Let the celebrations commence.

National Cross-Country Championships – Parliament Hill, London – 24th February 2018

Most races with big fields, like major marathons, half marathons or big 10ks have a lot of fun runners, joggers and walkers. In the Great North Run, for example, I normally post a time in the top 5%. There are not many races with participants in the thousands with a high quality field across the board. The National Cross-country Championships is one of those events. Over 1,700 finished the senior men’s race last year. You can only race if you are a member of a running club, so almost everyone is at least a fairly serious runner, and, obviously, the entry is from all over the country, well, England anyway. It was my first time running this event and my expectations were to hopefully finish in the top half, bearing in mind that I finished in the 61st percentile of the Northerns when I was still recovering from illness and I was at a better level of fitness for this one.

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Driving down the night before and getting a train for the last part of the journey, I arrived at Hampstead Heath in good time for the junior events and we chose a prime position for our tent which gave us an outstanding view of both the mass start and the start of each lap, although not before encountering unbelievable levels of ignorance from Wimbourne Running Club when they tried to place their tent pretty much on top of ours! It was sunny but with a very chilly wind. The underfoot conditions looked fantastic but word from those doing an early course recce was that there were some parts that were brown, wet and very slippery. This was only going to deteriorate as the big fields in the earlier races made their mark. There was another excellent turnout from Gosforth, bearing in mind we probably had about the furthest to travel of all teams to get there. The fraternity of northeastern clubs played out again as athletes from Jarrow and Hebburn and Sunderland Harriers were made very welcome to use our club tent.

As the junior races were finishing, the number of runners finishing with fewer than two spikes on their feet was noticeable! Some shoes were still out on the course, others were being carried, but it showed that conditions were pretty tough out there. I didn’t want to run the whole 6k lap as a warm-up, but I went for a look and, yes, there were some parts that were filthy. I wasn’t too happy with my warm-up. My ankles felt stiff. It might be a consequence of driving five hours the evening before and being on my feet for the six hours before my race, but whatever I did, they didn’t seem to loosen up. I hoped it wouldn’t affect me too much. I’d been thinking how to run this race. It was a 12k race and I wanted to make sure I wasn’t dying on my feet during the latter stages and haemorrhaging places. A steady pace was needed and I’m sure the crowds at the start would prevent me from going off too fast anyway.

During the women’s race, the announcer on the tannoy explained that the men’s race was no longer two 6k laps. It was to be one medium lap and two long laps and, pretty soon, it was time to gather at the bottom of the hill for the start, laces tied tight and spikes taped onto our feet. As a team, we were probably a bit late getting to the start as several other clubs also assigned to that pen were already in place. The start line must have been 300 metres wide, but I was still probably five people back in the pack waiting for the gun and there would have been five people behind me as well. This would be a mass start. No packs or distinction between seniors and veterans. Everyone started together. The gun went off and the charge began – a pretty impressive sight from the videos.

The first third of a mile is uphill, going from a very wide start and getting narrower as we climbed towards the right hand turn at the top. About half way up, we were basically walking, such were the crowds and the bottleneck at the top of the hill. Turning right, it opened out again for a downhill to the worst part of the course and a sharp left. The juniors had warned us that it was slippery there and I stayed on the outside of the bend and really benefited from it. It was like a skating rink on the inside. A couple of fallers and a few people retrieving spikes sucked off by the mud, but I managed to avoid the carnage. Then a wide, 200 meter stretch of slippery, sloppy mud before a left hand turn and a long uphill. At this point, I saw one of our seniors with one of his spikes in his hand, stopping to put it back on. Not a good sign with still 11k to go.

The course turned right and then down a dip to a very narrow bridge over a little stream. The whole field ground to a halt as we patiently waited our turn to cross and start running again.28377972_1725372694192961_8550889472496832774_n I was taking a bend quite tight, passing close to one of the white poles holding the course marker tape in place. The guy in front flicked it with his hip as he passed it. It sprang back at me, caught the material of my shorts and, with a loud rip, took the entire side of my shorts off. A nervous glance down revealed my modesty was still intact, although now everyone could see that I wasn’t running commando!

It became apparent that we would be doing the medium lap first. We started passing a few ladies who were still out on the course. If we had done a long lap first, then we wouldn’t have passed them. I felt really sorry for them to have to suddenly endure thousands of men streaming past them at speed as they made their way to the finish. One idiot barged in between two women, telling them to get off the course. He was politely told to f%@* off, quite rightly so. I tried to see to which club he belonged, but he disappeared into the crowds again. We took a long sweeping left and passed our tent to start the second lap. I was feeling alright, but not as fluid in my downhills. The stiffness in my ankles meant that I was heel-striking more than my normal mid-foot striking. This meant that I didn’t have as much cushioning or spring in the transition into my next stride. Short of stopping to stretch out and flex my ankles more, I didn’t really know what to do to improve it.

In a field this big, I found it impossible to judge how I was doing. I didn’t have a clue if I was better or worse than expected. I didn’t see another Gosforth Harrier during the whole race. There were so many different terrains and routes being taken that individuals were surging ahead and falling back all the time. About a third of the way into the second lap on a part of the course that was good underfoot, the runner next to me said hello. Looking to my left, I recognised him from chatting in the start pen at the London Marathon last year. We exchanged a few pleasantries and went on our way. I made a note to use him as a gauge of how I was doing. There were still quite a few falling over, slipping headfirst into the mud. One guy about five yards in front took a tumble and I had to take evasive action, calling a “Man down!” warning to those behind me. On the longer laps, there were a couple of wooded bits. Normally, I like them, but the ground was so much firmer there and I wasn’t enjoying that today. I went over on my left ankle at one point which threw me for a bit. A little over half-way, I started feeling feint. In some races, you get a light-headed feeling that is an indication of the effort you are putting in, but that is different to feeling feint and you don’t have to let up. This time, I was feeling properly feint, breaking into a cold sweat, and suddenly feeling very loose down below. Then I got a stitch in my side. I had to ease off even though I didn’t feel like I was running at the limit anyway. A flood of runners went passed me for the next mile and I lost contact with my London Marathon mate. This coincided with the worst time mentally for me of any race – the third quarter. You are already tired, probably in pain due to the exertion and you are not close enough to the finish to take that as any source of comfort. The first half of lap three was a bit of a blur and I don’t remember too much of it, but the bad feelings gradually wore off and I was able to speed up and started passing people again. I drove myself to increase the pace markedly when I recognised a part of the course that told me we had less than a mile to go and mostly downhill.

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As we exited a wooded area, we could see the finish, about a third of a mile away, around a long left curve, the crowd held back by barriers. I was ramping the pace up further and further, looking to win a mini race down the home straight, the runners around me no doubt doing the same. 150 meters to go and I passed our men’s team captain, not running due to injury, cheering us on. He urged me to beat the two runners in front. One of them was from Nottingham-based Holme Pierrepoint RC, of which my friend is a member, about five yards ahead. 100 meters to go. We were running at exactly the same pace. I was just behind him. An early sprint would give me the momentum and that’s just what I did. He tried to respond, but I passed him and the other runner from Tonbridge in a flat-out sprint for the line. I heard my chip being recorded as my foot landed on the mat and eased down to a walk as I went through the finish funnel.

It looked like I was the third Gosforth Harrier to finish. We shook hands and had a good laugh at what was left of my shorts. I greeted my London Marathon mate as well. He finished almost a minute ahead of me, having been level before my wobble. Several other Gosforth runners came home in quick succession and we congratulated each one before the cold started biting and we made our way up to the tent to get some warm clothes on. I finished in 1,225th position out of 2,328. That’s the 52nd percentile, better than the 61st percentile of the Northerns but just outside my target of finishing in the top half by about 33 seconds. As an experience, the running was excellent with so many different vests out there on the course. The bottlenecks almost have to be expected for a field so large, but it was only in two or three places. I was surprised at the lack of catering facilities and the late course changes and felt sorry for the poor ladies caught up in the men’s field. It’s due to be held at Harewood Hall near Leeds next year where the Northerns were held this year, so that will be easier for us to get to and is a definite in the calendar for next year.

Next up is the last cross-country of the season and the climax to the NorthEast Harrier League in Alnwick. A sixth place team finish or better will give us the Division 2 title, and promotion, regardless of what the other teams do. All eyes on that now. And with the weather forecast for the next few days to be snow, snow and more snow, I honestly cannot wait!

Royal Signals Relays – Hetton Lyons Country Park – 17th February 2018

This is one of the bigger relays in the region, doubling up as the NorthEastern Counties Athletic Association Road Relay Championships. Rather than a road, it is two laps of a paved path in a park with a couple of long, meaty hills on each lap. The combined 4-legged men’s over 50 and ladies’ race, with good performances by all Gosforth teams involved, was before the combined 6-legged men’s senior and vets’ race. It was still a little chilly, but with sunny intervals and no rain or wind, it was perfect for fast running.
I did this race a couple of years ago, my first proper race for the club. It is a tricky course as it’s very easy to go off too fast up the first hill when the adrenalin is pumping. Two years ago, I did just that and paid for it for the rest of the 2.2 miles. I was mindful not to let that happen again. This course calls for equal effort the whole way to post the best time. That does mean slightly slower on the uphills and faster on the downhills. For the first time in many weeks, I was feeling fully fit from a health point of view, although still not completely there in terms of running fitness.

I was on the second leg of the vets team in the second race. The first leg is a proper race, a mass start, often with the fastest runners of each team trying to get a good position. We also had our fastest runner on first leg and he produced a cracking time, coming in in 24th position overall and 4th vet. My job was to try to hold that position. That may be difficult against some of the senior teams, so holding our vets position would be the main aim. With 80+ teams in the race, the end of the first leg was still at close quarters with several teams coming in pretty much together. In relays, you often find yourself running somewhat alone, especially in later legs, but that wouldn’t be the case today. As I took over, four or five seniors and one vet overtook me almost immediately and disappeared into the distance. The vet who disappeared from view was from Sunderland Harriers and posted the second fastest vet time of the day, so no shame there. The vet starting immediately, literally one second, in front of me was from Gateshead and we seemed well matched. He pulled away from me a bit as we went up the first hill which was a third of a mile long. Quandary time! Do I try to stay with him as he was going faster than I wanted or do I let him go? If I let him go, would I be able to get back with him? He stretched to about 10 yards in front of me. I could have gone faster and stayed with him, but I was hopefully being prudent and keeping something in the tank. He was challenging me though, pulling me along.

There was good support around the course for both Gateshead and Gosforth, especially at the top of the first hill and the home straight by the tents. I normally make up a bit of ground on the downhills, so I was hoping I would catch him back then, but I didn’t today. He was pretty speedy there as well. On the next uphill, I could feel another runner breathing down my neck as we turned the corner into the home straight for the first time. Another downhill through the crowds of support, but again I made no impact on the Gateshead runner, still about 10 yards in front of me. Turning the corner after the start/finish zone, I was passed by a Heaton Harrier. I couldn’t tell if he was a senior or a vet at the time, although he turned out to be a senior. He also went passed the Gateshead runner who I expected to respond and stay with him, possibly widening the gap between us. But that didn’t happen. In fact, I noticed the Gateshead runner was slowing and it wasn’t long before the gap was down to a couple of yards as we were going up the first hill again. I was then passed by the Gosforth Harrier from our senior team. I noticed the Gateshead runner do a double-take as he saw a Gosforth runner overtake him, but it wasn’t me. I decided to put in a burst to show the Gateshead runner that he was being double Gosforthed, passed him and he fell back.

Knowing you’re on the last lap helps you gauge your energy reserves and release what you think you can safely release. At the bottom of the next downhill, I could see I was gaining quickly on a couple of the senior runners who had overtaken me right at the start. Also, the Heaton runner was no more than 10 yards ahead, having been 20 yards ahead at one point. FB_IMG_1519066029974I passed a Tynedale senior and a Darlington senior as I made my lungs burst going up the final hill, really ratcheting up the effort for the finish. A different Gateshead runner, a senior this time, then started drawing level with me. The last 50 yards, where these pictures were taken, were all downhill going into a narrow finish funnel. It would be difficult to overtake in the funnel. I had to go now. I turned the afterburners on, moved back in front of the Gateshead runner and very quickly made up the remaining 10 yards or so to pass the Heaton runner as well, before stretching out down into the finish funnel to hand over to our third leg runner, 7 seconds behind our Gosforth senior team.fb_img_15190196869001718799277.jpg
I had to take a knee for a couple of minutes, absolutely exhausted. I had given everything, running harder and faster than I thought I could at this stage of fitness. I stopped my watch at 13:14 for 2.2 miles, an average of 5:59 per mile on a course with long hills. I had lost net 3 senior places, one to the Gosforth senior team, and had lost one and gained one vet place, so net no change there, coming home in 4th place in the vet standings. I had paced my run well, learning from my previous mistake on this course and had beaten my time from two years ago by well over a minute. I was tired, but happy. I went on a cool-down and stayed to cheer the Gosforth runners on the later legs.
Thoughts now turn back to the mud and the National Cross-country Championships in London next weekend, with a decent Gosforth contingent in attendance, and the final Northeast Harrier League event the weekend after, in the beautiful surroundings of Alnwick Castle.