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.