Alnwick has to be my favourite Harrier League destination. It was where I made my Harrier League debut and has the most amazing backdrop of the imposing Alnwick Castle. At the same time, it has deep mud, a hill that seems to go on forever, upwards of course, a classic forest section and a downhill so steep that skis would be preferable to spikes. And all of this three times.
I think marathon training is starting to take its toll on both my body and motivation. And with other things going on at work and at home, an important race on this particular day was not great timing. And that dictated my mood and mental focus on Saturday 4th March. With relegation from Harrier League Division 1 all but certain, there was still an impressive turnout from the Gosforth Harriers men’s team. Just prior to the race, we witnessed the boys u-13s win their title and the senior women gain a well-earned promotion to Division 1 in addition to a load of other fantastic performances, so we went into the race with heads held high. My 3rd and 4th toes on my right foot, on the other hand, were less than impressed at putting on a tight and not so comfortable pair of spikes and running 6.2 miles on a wet and rough surface. I have had a pressure sore on my 4th toe of my right foot for a few years now. It always rubs against the bony part of my particularly bony 3rd toe whether I am running or walking and it is particularly bad at the moment. I have plasters, gels etc., but nothing seems to cure it. Running with pain creates all sorts of issues in your gait and running style, so I was hoping the pain would, as usual, be consumed by the effort of the race and disappear, at least subconsciously.
My warm-up reflected my mood and I was just hoping the race itself would spark the motivation. With torrential rain the previous night, the fear was that the course would resemble something like Knowsley or Thornley Hall Farm, but that was not the case. The ground had held up remarkably well, although there was still plenty of sloshing and squelching. The weather was mild with no wind. Perfect conditions, you might say. A last-minute issue of my Garmin not picking up a satellite signal until the second before the whistle went to set off the medium pack was the least of my worries as I struggled to cope with the early pace. My heart rate was off the charts, indicating an inadequate warm-up, and I struggled to control it even though I didn’t feel like I was going at breakneck speed. I used the first downhill to the lowest point on the course to both pick up the pace and get into a rhythm. As usual, I picked my targets, a younger runner from Heaton and an older runner from Sedgefield. That definitely provided the motivation to maintain a decent pace.
Unlike other cross-country events, there were few markers that you had to keep within, which meant a wide course providing plenty of less muddy route options. Surprisingly, most runners kept on the main path that was increasingly cut-up. Starting from medium pack, the first lap was very congested, especially through the fairly narrow forest track, as I picked my way through the slow pack of the 500+ field. A few fallen trees to hurdle, over-hanging branches to avoid and decisions whether to take slightly longer routes off to the side to avoid the worst of the mud. Through the forest, a sharp right, jump down a few natural steps avoiding trees and roots, a sharp left and onto the downhill section. I think I am pretty good at running downhill, but it amazed me how some people were speeding past me on the really steep section. Past the start/finish area and onto lap 2. Less congestion now and a clearer run. One of my targets was now slightly ahead of me, but I caught him on the first downhill and the three of us remained very close throughout lap 2. The Sedgefield runner was continually breaking about the only rule of cross-country – to stay on the course where the markers instruct you to do so. This meant he gained an advantage by having a smoother run and cutting a few bends. A Saltwell Harrier shouted at him to stay on the course, but he continued to do it. Nevertheless, I felt good throughout lap 2; no pain from my toes and making decent progress through the field.
Lap 3 is where true strength, stamina and conditioning shine through, but this was where I failed to keep up with both my targets. It was on the second part of the long uphill that I lost them. Passed and encouraged onwards by a Gosforth fast-packer, I tried to pick the pace up going through the forest when this photo was taken, but my Garmin indicated that lap 3 was 30 seconds slower than lap 2, which was 20 seconds slower than lap 1, even though I felt lap 1 was a struggle. Out of the forest and onto the final steep descent before a 100 yards or so to the finish line, I put everything into it. I was only overtaken by a fast-pack runner and managed to get within two seconds of one of my targets and nine seconds of the other. Going down the finishing funnel, my eyes were scanning those already finished for the green and white stripes of the Gosforth team. I counted six already finished, meaning that, for the first time in my Harrier League career, as the seventh runner back, I didn’t count for the team. At first I was disappointed, but then realised that the team must have put in a really strong performance. Some slow-packers that I had passed at Thornley had stayed ahead of me here. All credit to them. Indeed, as a team, we had our third 6th-place finish of the six races this season, which was not enough to avoid relegation from the division of ten teams with two going down. Despite our consistency, indicative of a core group of athletes who turn out race after race, it shows that we are a small club compared to the big boys in Division 1 who can put out several teams and still have some really fast guys starting their first Harrier League race from slow pack to post a low score. We have the highest average number of appearances per runner of any team in Division 1 (3.4 out of 6) from the fewest number of individual runners (25). A tribute to both the team and the team captain. The Harrier League and the various regional and national cross-country events are a main element of the year for Gosforth Harriers with encouragement for everyone to participate and we do better than our size suggests we should. The ladies and girls are Davison Shield Champions; the men and boys came second in the Sherman Cup; top 5 performances in almost every age group for both girls and boys teams in the Harrier League; senior and vet women promoted to Division 1; senior and vet men have spent a season in Division 1.
And so, the cross-country season comes to an end. Cross-country seems to be my best surface for some reason. I can beat some athletes who beat me easily on the road or track. Does that indicate that I don’t have the speed to compete on better surfaces, or that I am of a size or cadence that helps running through mud? Comparisons indicate that the tougher the conditions, the better my performance. There’ll be some mental aspect to it as well. I’m not phased by diabolical conditions, perhaps a result of running school cross-countries in equally diabolical conditions. And also, I always give my all, the most likely reason for retching at the end of most races. The combination of these might give me a mental edge over others when the going is tough. I am also very proud of my son for taking part and showing the same sort of desire to excel through the elements. It will stay with him for the rest of his life, as it has mine.
Back to marathon training now. Six weeks to go until London.