North East Harrier League – Herrington Park – 7th January 2017

With the Christmas break nothing more than a distant memory, the first Saturday in January saw the Harrier League congregate at Herrington Park in Sunderland for the fourth race of the season. I had never run here before, but I had seen videos on YouTube of the National Cross-Country championships held there in driving snow a few years before. It’s fairly exposed, a few hills, but nothing extreme. However, despite a comparatively dry winter so far, the mud in many places was pretty deep, perhaps due to a lake nearby and the subsequent high local water table. Weather conditions were pleasant – no rain, a light wind and not especially cold. The top 10% of finishers in each race are promoted to the next fastest pack: slow to medium and medium to fast. After a few near misses for promotion to the medium pack, I was once again starting from slow. Having got over a Christmas cold and off the back of some great weeks’ training, this was my race to give it everything and score as low as possible for the club, which would hopefully mean personal promotion to the medium pack if all went well. Certainly my club colleagues were telling me it was going to be my day.
I managed to claim a place at the front of the mass start and was leading for the first hundred metres or so. I found my rhythm and was passed by eight or so speedsters as the field started to stretch. It’s good to start at the front, so that you can count your position in the field – important for the mental pack promotion calculations. You can never be certain how many will be promoted as it is a percentage of the field, but it’s good to know. The course took us through a gate and onto a narrow trail which was going to cause a bit of havoc when the bulk of a very big field of 532 runners tried to squeeze through it so early on. A good race to be at the front. After the first mile, I was in about 14th place when the first hill came into view; a long, steady climb. Remembering words of wisdom from a club colleague, I didn’t bust the gut, and use a lot of energy, to get up it. I took it easy, was overtaken by one other, much younger athlete in particular who was powering up it. Over the crest, there was a downhill, equally long and steady when I opened up, came steaming down it, overtaking the athlete who had passed me on the hill and putting 20 yards between us. The next hill, the same thing happened.
My favourite part of the course was through the woods. The entry to the path was blocked by two fallen trees very close to each other. Taking the fastest route, if you jumped to get over the first tree, you were likely to hit your head on the second, so the best course of action was to do a weird jump and duck at the same time. At the end of the woods, you hurdled a low stile, took a sharp left past the main bulk of spectators and onto the second lap. I was in about 16th place, still felt good and was not losing any more places to the other slow pack runners. The club’s head coach was on the first hill, encouraging me to relax, try to get in touch with a couple of runners 10 yards in front of me and stretch out going down the hill towards the worst of the mud.
fb_img_1483831785525Words of support always spur me on, although today, there weren’t too many spectators on this part of the course as it was a long way from the tents, so his presence was very much appreciated.
Through the woods again and onto the third lap. The club secretary was taking photos on the narrow trail. When I saw the one she took of me afterwards, I was shocked. It was a fairly long distance shot, but there was no one else in the picture, either in front or behind me, just proving how much the field had stretched out. I was starting to feel the pace. Going up the hills, I was passed by some medium and fast pack runners who had made up their 2.30 and 5.00 minute handicaps respectively. My legs were labouring up the hills and I could feel my shoulders and neck tensing up. I was losing ground to, and being overtaken by, the odd slow pack runner as well. I used the downhill to loosen up, get a bit of momentum back and stem the tide, and I only lost another couple of places. As I was on my final lap, I turned right out of the woods instead of left and into the last quarter mile or so to the finish, slightly uphill. Going into the last 200 metres I kicked, but was still overtaken by the same athlete I was battling with up and down the hills on lap 1 – so annoying. I could hear someone else closing on me in the last 100 metres, so I kicked again and managed to hold them off – a fast pack runner as it turned out. My, by-now-usual, action after crossing the finish line – retching my guts up – happened, but nothing came out this time. I finished in 27th place, my best Harrier League finish by quite a distance and the first Gosforth Harrier home. It meant certain promotion to the medium pack for me for the rest of this season and the whole of next.
A quick analysis of the results afterwards was interesting. I had put big chunks of time between myself and some other runners normally quite close to me, but heard stories of difficulties getting so many runners through the narrow bits of the course to the extent that some had to stop at times. As I said, a good race to be out in front. Taking the pack handicap out of the equation, I was 93rd fastest overall and 6th out of 78 in my age group. The club coach made a point of saying well done to me afterwards, that he thought I had gone off too fast and wouldn’t be able to hold it together. But I did, for the most part. Had I spent too much energy on the first two laps? Would I have finished further up or further back if I had taken it slightly easier, saving more for lap 3? How do I avoid retching at the end? I’ll never know the answers to the first two questions, but I’ll do more investigation on the third. The personal tactical and strategic intricacies of distance running are an uncertain science with so many variables. It’s one of the things about it that I love. Opposing the elements, the terrain, other athletes, your own head and the fallibility of your own body, you have your natural running ability and style, the training you have done and pure guts and determination.
Our next outing is the Durham Cathedral Relays next weekend. A totally different event, with exactly the same variables as above, but perhaps in a different order!

NorthEast Harrier League Thornley Hall Farm 2 – 11th February 2017

Having grown up on the clay soil of South-east England, mud and cross-country go hand in hand. However, add a biting north-easterly and a wintry mix of rain, sleet and hail throughout the whole day, the going on Saturday for the fifth Northeast Harrier League race was ‘challenging’. Add the hills and valleys of the beautiful Thornley Hall Farm and the word most used on Saturday was ‘brutal’. With the tent up, marshalls in place, including several Gosforth Harriers, the first junior races got under way. First aid provider and spike retriever were added to the marshall job description as runners slid and splashed their way around the tough course. Several sprained ankles and even a broken leg kept the first aiders more than busy. The route went straight through the middle of Tent City – a brilliant concept that benefitted both supporters and runners. The grit and determination showing on the face of every athlete in the smaller than usual fields was evident and an absolute requirement just to get round the course.

And so, time for the men’s race came around. A quick five minute warm-up replaced the usual half hour of striding and stretching and I took my place in the medium pack for the first time. This meant starting two and a half minutes after the actual start of the race. You could sense a higher than normal level of tension in the field as we stood waiting for the whistle to set us off, with gusty showers of freezing rain hosing down on us. I identified my target to beat – another vet runner from a club at the wrong end of Division 1 who generally finishes very close to me in every race. Sometimes I win; sometimes he wins; let’s see what happens today. And then we were off. I was feeling pretty good actually; strong, hitting the right pace and effort levels quickly as I got to the first hill, right alongside my target. Yes, the mud was thick, but in some places there were still options less thick than others, although this was only the first lap. I love running downhill, just letting go and letting gravity help you down. At the bottom of one particular downhill, a left hand turn through a gate, I was struggling to slow down so grabbed the gatepost to help me turn and maybe get a slingshot effect as well. Note to self: don’t do that when there is barbed wire on the post. Result – blood pouring from quite a deep cut on my finger. My target pulled away as a monkey on my back told me that this would be a good excuse to drop out, head back to the tent and put some nice warm clothes on. It got worse as I started climbing the hill heading back towards the tent. But then I was hit by a wall of noise on both sides. Supporters cheering, shouting, encouraging, driving you up and over the crest. I heard my name several times from the  non-running supporters, as well as Gosforth ladies and juniors, who had stayed behind after their race was finished to cheer us on. No more thoughts of pulling out, just to get back in touch with my target.

Lap 2 was tougher. Fewer escape routes after another 380 or so pairs of feet had been through it. I caught my target on the hill up the side of the field after he chose a much longer, albeit less muddy route; passed him and didn’t see him again. I was in a good place, powered up the hill into the woods and once again through Tent City to more support.

Into lap 3, and perhaps due to the effort, perhaps the exposure, or a combination of both, I started feeling light-headed. Not the wake up in the first aid tent type of light-headedness, but light-headed nevertheless. I felt like there was no way I could have stopped myself falling over if I encountered a bad skid. The wind and rain had picked up on the most exposed part of the course and my post-run analysis showed that I slowed down by a good 30 seconds for mile 5. Mile 6 started by getting a traditional gentle bum-rap from a fast pack Gosforth senior as he passed me. A first for me which, in a funny way, spurred me on. Two big climbs to go, through an even more raucous Tent City for the last time and then a long drag to the finish line. Time to extract the last dregs of energy down the home straight with words of encouragement from another club colleague walking back to the tent having already finished. At this point, I’d normally be scanning who was in front of me; any Division One runners within striking distance? There was no sprint finish left in me today though. I looked back to make sure I wasn’t going to be overtaken and crossed the line, completely exhausted. No waiting around for other Gosforth teammates to finish at this race; straight back to the tent, via First Aid to get my hand cleaned up.

So many people ask me why I do this. Incredulous at the thought of what we put ourselves through, the conditions we run in, for enjoyment. But even on days like today, especially on days like today, the sense of satisfaction, pride in yourself and every member of your team who turned up, ran and finished shines through the dark skies and the endorphins last long into the night. Scanning the results, I was happy with my efforts. 80th position overall out of 378, and that with the handicap from medium pack. I beat my target, got close to some people who are normally a lot faster than me and I know that I gave everything. Probably our best performance as a team all season as well. Unfortunately, other teams around us in the table also had very good days, so we actually ended up losing ground. We’ll meet again in Alnwick on March 4th for another run amid more spectacular scenery. Looking forward to it.

My Running Blog

I’ve been meaning to do this for a while; just not got round to it. A very personal blog of my races, a record of achievements and non-achievements and a reminder of how I have felt before, during and after each race. It may be a bit too personal for a true blog, perhaps it’s more of a diary. I go to the extent of not using names as I know that some people don’t like to be recognised. Those described would know themselves without needing to be named.

Running is a bit more than a hobby for me, but not quite a passion. My family is my passion. Work comes second and running third. I average about 20 miles a week when going well. I’d love to do more, but it would be at the expense of time with my family, which I don’t want to do, and work, which I can’t do.

I run for Gosforth Harriers, a small, but competitive running club in the North-east of England. Most races I do are for the club, with a few public races thrown in. It’s a fantastic club, with good people and a great atmosphere. We like to think we punch above our weight in north-east competition and have fun doing it too.

I enjoy reading race reports from other runners in the same races as I enter. I hope any readers of this blog enjoy and can relate to my own personal thoughts and experiences and can perhaps contribute as well. Thanks for visiting and onto the first race report…