NEHL #3 – Gosforth Park – 27th October 2018

Home. Course. Advantage. Surely it’s worth something? For the first time in decades, the Harrier League was coming home. Well, our home anyway. The ever-growing popularity of cross-country running, and the North East Harrier League in particular, means that new venues are regularly required. And a new venue needs a new host. And that host, helped out by Heaton Harriers and Tyne Bridge Harriers, was us, Gosforth Harriers. The men’s Team Captain was the main instigator, plotting the course, opening discussions with the owners of the land and proposing the new venue to the Harrier League committee. The date was chosen and so, at 07:30 on Saturday morning, about 30 brave souls ventured out into a late October sleet storm to mark out the course. A couple of hours later, drenched to the skin and with fingers numb from the wet and cold, most of us took shelter, our job done, and waited for the first club tents to start appearing.

Gosforth Park elevation

In my humble opinion, the course was a cracker with a bit of everything: woods – every cross-country runner’s favourite – with tree root trip hazards to watch out for; undulating fields, nothing too daunting in terms of hills, although there weren’t really any flat bits on the whole course – it was either uphill or downhill; some water in the swampy far corner; some narrow bits that would test the elbows; and a gravel path that would challenge the choice of footwear.

Tent City would be right next to the start and finish as well as providing the opportunity to cheer each competitor up an incline each time they started a new lap. The location was also great for accessibility. Straight off the A1, the main road through the North-East, plenty of car parking, lots of paths and trails through the woods away from the course on which to warm up and a pub for essential rehydration afterwards. Even better, I could walk there from my house! The horrible thunder sleet from the morning had given way to deep blue skies and minimal wind. Perfect conditions as the club tents started to arrive.

I had volunteered to marshall, but there were so many volunteers, most of those who were running were relieved of their duties before the first race began. So, I was able to concentrate on the junior races and my own preparation. I took a position by the water jump for some photo opportunities and saw a combination of those jumping it (too wide to avoid getting at least one foot wet) and those just running straight through the six-inch deep pool. One of the jobs we did while setting out the course was to remove as many branches from the route as we could, including a few submerged in the muddy water, that could have turned a few ankles otherwise.

For the first time this season, we had full teams out in every age group and gender. Maybe only three or four clubs can boast that at any single meet and it was noticed and commented on by representatives of other clubs as well. Lots of Gosforth vests drew encouragement from the many club members, friends and family, and maybe even a few Gosforth inhabitants enjoying a day out at our local park and popular dog-walking location. The marshalls, as ever, were super-supportive, encouraging everyone, but obviously giving special encouragement for those in green and white vests. Our ladies’ team looked to be putting in another really good performance, eventually finishing a strong second in their division.

Returning to the tent, I started focussing on myself and my own run. I hadn’t had the best preparation. I had pulled a stomach muscle sneezing of all things a couple of days earlier, although I was hoping it wouldn’t affect my running, but the main thing was tired legs, having been on my feet constantly for six hours between setting up the course and the start of my run. My ankles were very stiff, so my main warm-up was focussing on loosening them up. Some days, everything feels good. This wasn’t one of those days.

We had a men’s team photo and headed to the start line, making sure we had a good position in what looked to be a very big field. A row of Gosforth vests at the front of our home meet was very satisfying. With another runner promoted at the last meet, it was great to have another couple of potential counters doing their first run of the season. That’s the trick to surviving in Division One and something that, as a comparatively small club, compared to others in Division One (and most in Division Two), we suffer from. A third of our regular senior men are now running from fast pack and, therefore, unlikely to finish in the top 100.

I lined up next to and chatted with the North Shields Poly runner who normally finishes very close to me and we waited for the gun to go. There’s no ‘On your marks, Get Set…’. You line up and then you hear the gun go off. I thought the starter was to my right. He wasn’t. He was about two yards to my left and the gun scared the pants off me! And we were off. After the first 100m, there was a bend to the left, so it was important to get good position into that bend. Two runners shot off in front of the rest of the field. One looked like a runner. The other didn’t. They reached the first turn about 10 yards in front of anyone else and carried on at that pace. Around the bend and up the uphill gravel path, which was the reason why I had chosen to wear trail shoes rather than spikes again, past the supporters cheering you on. A left turn, more uphill before a right and a quick left into the woods for the next three quarters of a mile.

This was our terrain. We train on these paths, through these woods, most weeks. The route we were taking was part of our 700 metre loop. I know the boggy bits and the firm bits and how to take the sharp left-hand corner without losing speed. I felt my pace was good. Challenging, but good. Not too fast. Not too slow. I was in about 40th place and had three clubmates ahead of me. A good team position. Downhill now towards the water. Not worth jumping – it was too crowded on the first lap anyway. A very sharp, very narrow left-hand turn next. I made sure I got good position for that. Plenty of Gosforth support, driving you on. Out of the woods and up the main hill on the course – we run this in training as well, normally the other way, but I knew the tricky undulations of this grass – and then the steep downhill at the top into the next field. I passed one of the two guys who shot off at the start – the one who didn’t look like a runner. Maybe he was trying to get in the photos! More Gosforth support, including information on your position in the field. It’s so important to know that. Down a hill along a hedge, up another hill, then down a hill and we were onto the second lap of three. A touch under 2 miles per lap. I have to say, the course marking was excellent! I was level with the Poly runner. I knew I was pretty much at my limit, ten seconds behind a clubmate I am normally very close to, but whose form has been getting markedly better over the last few weeks with a good sequence of regular, consistent, injury-free training.

Then I saw something that was a first for me while running cross-country. About 200 metres into lap 2, still passing the spectators around tent city, there it was, lying on the gravel path in front of me. A crisp, plastic £10 note, folded in two. The thoughts, decisons and assessment of the consequences of the obvious instinctive action that went through my mind in the split second after seeing it would have blown many a powerful computer. If I stopped to pick it up, I would lose five, six seconds, maybe. Nothing in the scheme of things. But those five or six seconds would be five or six places. What would my clubmates say? That I had valued a measly tenner over the success of my team. So what if I did stop to pick it up? Have you ever had anyone in a race stop right in front of you? I have, and it’s not pretty. I was about half a mile into the Great North Run about 5 years ago and the woman immediately in front of me hadn’t done the zip of her pocket at the rear of her shorts up. Out flowed keys, coins and a credit card. She stopped to pick it all up and caused absolute carnage with people crashing into her as she had to force her way upstream to pick up the important things up. I managed to avoid her only by almost taking out the person to my right. Maybe the carnage wouldn’t have been quite so drastic as then, but it would still not have been pretty. By the time my brain had processed all these thoughts, I was well passed the tenner anyway and my decison was made for me. It would be somebody else’s lucky day. It wasn’t there next time I passed!

I started struggling with a tight chest on the second lap, unable to take as deep a breath as I wanted. Often that means the onset of a cold or chest infection. We’ll see next week. I was now tracking closely behind the Poly runner, staying with him, but no more, throughout the second lap, in 45th place, according to the Gosforth marshalls giving the information. I reckon at least the top 60 would be promoted today, but the fastest medium and fast packers would soon start coming past me.

Onto lap 3. It was now a case of hanging on, using the downhills as best I could, maintaining my pace on the uphills, but there was a steady number of runners passing me. 80th place at the halfway point of the lap. The Poly runner was about 5 yards ahead of me, but I made that up on the steep downhill, drawing level with him. Could I maintain that? If I could, I was confident I would beat him in a sprint finish. The tightness in my chest was getting worse though, like I was wearing a very tight heart rate monitor.

The finish wasn’t coming soon enough and I started losing ground again without being able to respond. It was time to really dig in with each grassy stretch. Round the penultimate bend. The Poly runner was now more like 10 yards ahead. I wasn’t going to make that up. All I could do was ensure I wasn’t going to lose any more places, especially not to runners from Division One teams. Every point and, therefore, every place, may count in a close divisional race. The last bend and then a good 120 metres to the finish line. Uphill, of course. I had a Heaton Harrier – a Division One club – maybe four yards in front of me giving everything he had. Over the last 20 metres, I put on my usual strong finishing burst, passed him and crossed the line just in front of him.

I hate finishing funnels. All you want to do is stop and/or collapse, but you have to keep moving, instructed to do so firmly, and necessarily so, by the funnel marshalls. The Heaton Harrier I had just passed patted me on the arm from behind to shake my hand and the Poly runner was waiting for me to shake hands at the funnel exit. I just beat him last time out. He just beat me this time. Fantastic competition between the two of us though and I look forward to our next meeting. I was the fourth Gosforth runner home. The fifth came in shortly after me, but we then waited a long time for the sixth and last counter. That could be crucial in the standings for today’s results.

While recovering, I listened out for chat amongst the runners from other clubs about what they thought about the course. Without exception, it was positive. ‘A good test’, ‘Nice course’, ‘Deceptively tough’, ‘Loved it’, ‘Hope this is a regular venue’. It also turned out to be popular in numbers. An all-time Harrier League record attendance for the senior men with 625 finishers. That also meant the top 62 finishers would be promoted. We had two runners in that category which will make the rest of the season even tougher in the fight against relegation.

Gosforth splits

I came 94th. Not my best performance, but not my worst either. Probably about 20 seconds slower than what I was hoping for based on my comparative placings at the last meet at Druridge Bay where I thought I had run pretty well. I was quite happy with my splits. Miles 3 and 5 and miles 2, 4 and 6 were all pretty consistent times, aligned with the more uphill first half of each lap and the more downhill second half. The incentive I had to stay with the Poly runner was important mentally. It kept me focussed, despite the tightness in my chest making it a more painful run than most. By Wednesday of the following week, I was coughing and spluttering with a full-on chesty cold. Having a target or anchor is an important tactic to gauge how you are doing. Pick them wisely, stay close and then see how you feel in the last portion of the race.

As a team, we came 8th in the division, missing 7th place by a measly 9 points (258 v 249). In the division, we are one place above the relegation zone. It’s going to be a tight one. With so many runners now in the medium and fast packs, and in addition to regular training, we may need reinforcements, although, unlike other clubs, we don’t have too many members who haven’t run cross-country yet this season.

While the volunteers took down the course, the runners did our cool-down before some of us retired to the pub for a liquid debrief and to reminisce about a long, but thoroughly enjoyable day while watching the results come in online. It felt like it had gone really well and, hopefully, will become a regular event in the Harrier League calendar. Once again, huge thanks must go those closely involved in preparing and staging the successful event. Some upcoming travel means I have a couple of weeks away from competition, which I hope will give me a chance to get healthy again.

Northern Cross-country Championships – Harewood Hall – 27th January 2018

“We don’t do this because it’s easy!” Those were my first words on returning to the club tent after finishing the Northern Cross-country Championships race over the beautiful grounds of Harewood Hall, near Leeds in Yorkshire. It certainly wasn’t easy. At 12k, championship races are a third longer than Harrier League races. The competition is obviously tougher. The course? Well, every cross-country course is tough. Last year’s Northerns in Knowlesly was the most hellish course I have run, not because of the hills, but because of the incessant mud. Conditions were kinder at Harewood Hall. There was actually some grass in places.

But a race can be a challenge for other reasons. My last race was the Durham Cathedral relays two weeks ago. I felt the beginnings of a cold that morning. It turned out to be full blown ‘flu. A week off work, spent mostly in bed, and an additional week recovering. The day before the Northerns, I ventured out on my first run since Durham – an easy 2.5 miles – in order to gauge whether I should run in the Northerns at all. Even after that run, I still wasn’t sure, still suffering with a phlegmy cough and a very snotty nose. But the coach down to Leeds was booked and I would be going down with my son anyway, so my rationale was that, as my test run didn’t give me a definite ‘no’ then I would run and rely on how my body felt to dictate how hard I would run it. Towards the end of a cold or infection, I do feel that a run can actually speed up the process that clears the gunk from your lungs. I didn’t want to DNF, but if I felt so bad, woozy for example, then I would do the sensible thing and either slow down, walk or pull out altogether. What this also meant was that I had run a grand total of only 37 miles in almost 8 weeks due to illness and recovery from an operation. The fitness I have lost, as well as strength and stamina, in this time must be pretty significant. This hard cross-country race was certainly not going to be easy.

We boarded the coach early in the morning and made the 2 hour trip to Harewood House, arriving in time for the first junior races. It would be a long day – arriving a full five hours before the senior men’s race. The forecast was for 11 degrees Celsius, but it was far from that with a cold wind and drizzle in the air for most of our time waiting. It did warm up just before race time though. Instead of the usual 3-lap course, we would be running 2 laps on a longer course. On walking it before any of the races, the conditions under foot were great; a few muddy bits, but nothing extreme. But there would be nine races before ours with some big fields. Plenty of time for the mud to form. It looked an excellent course though.

Reservoir Dogs, Gosforth Harriers Style

The organisers had ensured that every opportunity to make us go up a hill was taken and there were some big hills; not ridiculously steep, but long.

Time for the race arrived. My warm-up was OK as I cheered on the senior ladies in their race. We had a good men’s squad out, one of the largest clubs there, but we were against some big running clubs. What I have noticed is that Newcastle has a huge number of clubs, whereas most other cities have a dominant club, such as Leeds City, Liverpool, Sale and Blackburn Harriers, which attract the most talented runners in the area. Gosforth is a suburb in the north of Newcastle and there isn’t a Newcastle Harriers, so the talent in Newcastle seems to be a bit more dispersed. This makes the local Harrier League more exciting, but means the regional team competition winners are unlikely to be a club from Newcastle. I was also surprised how few northeast clubs were taking part. Several first division Harrier League clubs couldn’t get a full team out.

The start was epic.

Senior Men’s Mass Start

Rather than the usual narrow channel with runners lining up for 50 yards behind it, some therefore taking 15 to 20 seconds to cross the line, this start line was about 150 yards long for a race of almost 800 runners with clubs allocated to start pens. The sight at the gun is amazing, like a middle ages war film with a huge, multi-coloured army rushing towards to the enemy, swords or spears drawn. OK, maybe no spears or swords, but you get the drift. There are also no slow, medium or fast packs. It is a mass start, with some international level athletes on the same line. The first third of a mile is uphill, levelling out before dropping to complete the mile. It was a bit crowded, but the course was fairly wide, so very manageable. I was actually feeling fine, running it in 6:57. My lungs were holding out and I was about where I expected to be in the pack. I was making ground on the muddy bits and the downhills, where my technique is quite good, and losing ground on the uphills, presumably due to a lack of strength, but I felt OK. I had made the right decision to run. I had two clubmates to run with, both around the same level as me, and that definitely spurred me on. There were a noticeable number of drop-outs on the first lap, whether that be due to injury or something else. The second mile includes two uphills, one lasting a good half of that mile. Conditions had definitely deteriorated during the day. Areas that were a bit squelchy on the course recce were now just mud. The uphill second mile done in 8:04. Mile 3 was completely downhill. I let loose and overtook quite a few, completing it in 6:36.

Each lap was about 3.6 miles. I found the last half mile of the lap extremely tough. It started with a sharp hill, the steepest part of the course, and deceptively long at about 300 metres. I was expecting my lungs to give up first, but, instead, it was my legs. The hill seemed to sap the strength from them. Up until that point, I had been generally passing people. From then on, it was the opposite. The sharp uphill was followed by an equally steep downhill taking us back to the start/finish area and onto the second lap and another long uphill.

The course conditions had deteriorated further. A longer course is probably better in that respect with each section being used fewer times – two laps instead of three. Nevertheless, it was often now pointless trying to find a route offering firmer, less muddy ground. Even the sides of the course were cut up. There’s a certain camaraderie that exists between the Northeast clubs during the regional and national events. Supporters obviously from other Northeast clubs and officials from the Northeast give you encouragement because you are wearing a club vest they recognise. The number of “Well done Gosforth”s I heard far outweighed the number of Gosforth spectators. At one point early on lap two, I was running just behind a Heaton Harrier, who I normally beat in the Harrier League, on a fairly grassy part of the course. He noticed we were closing in on a patch that was deep mud with better ground either side. He pointed it out to me and moved over so that we could both avoid it. I gasped a word of thanks and tried to stay with him, but he pulled away as we started making our way up the second big hill on lap two.

My legs were feeling very sluggish and this was finally joined by my lungs as I made my way up to the highest point of the course. The long downhill was where I made up a few places on the first lap, but that was not the case on the second. I had a bit of a coughing fit mid-way through the second lap, nothing serious, but it deprives you of precious oxygen. Then came the steep hill where my stride length was so short, I felt I was going backwards. Should I walk? Never! This led to the last three quarters of a mile with a short, steep downhill, through a complete mudbath 27024242_10215288605877621_2303825274919719281_o.jpgat the bottom of it where there was a host of Gosforth supporters driving you onto the finish with a final third of a mile or so on the flat. I was hoping it was good ground so that I could eke out whatever speed I had left in me, but those hopes were dashed as the ankle-deep mud continued right to the very end and the finish line. I managed to hold my position and not be passed by anyone in the home straight. Maybe I passed a couple, but I was too tired to remember. Crossing the line, I bent double onto my knees and heaved a few hearty coughs, completely forgetting to stop my watch. I was patted on the back by a runner in a blue vest. I wish I could remember his club, but I was a bit light-headed at that point. He said well done on the run and that he was just behind me the whole race, but just couldn’t catch me. I said well done to him as well as we both took our ankle timing chips off to hand back. It was a really good atmosphere the whole day

I finished in 466th position out of a field of 761 in 55:31. That’s the 61st percentile, my worst performance in that respect in any race ever. But I was really glad I ran on such a beautiful course. I was 6th counter for the club, meaning that we finished in a very respectable 29th position, beating first division Harrier League clubs like North Shields Poly, Heaton Harriers and Sunderland Harriers.

My only regret was that the hog roast catering van was packing up when we got back to the tent. I had been looking forward to that. Never mind. No time for cool down as we packed up the tent and headed back to the bus for a well earned sit down that would no doubt result in some tight muscles tomorrow.

Away days with the club are always a good laugh and experience. It takes time and effort to arrange all these things so thanks to those who do it. Our next away day is the national championships in London at the end of February, but we have a Harrier League event before that. Now to focus on finishing my recovery from illness and start trying to regain both my fitness and strength. That won’t be easy either.

NEHL Herrington Park – 6th January 2018

“Bring wellies!”

“It’s like a swamp!”

After a fairly dry winter so far, we had had two weeks of wet weather with the preceding three days of fairly heavy rain. The first three Harrier League events had been remarkably dry. We wanted mud; we got it this time. In abundance.

I had had four weeks off running due to surgery and I was amazed at how much fitness I had lost in those four weeks. In my three training runs on the comeback trail, I was struggling to post a sub-7-minute mile and my heartrate was through the roof. So this Harrier League event couldn’t have come at a worse time to put in a good performance and the conditions were going to make it doubly hard.

In previous race blogs, I often talk about identifying target runners to beat or keep up with. Today, there would be no targets. The main competition for me would be the course and myself. This was the course at which I posted my best ever Harrier League finish of 27th last year. The course at which I was promoted to the medium pack. I could remember plenty of mud then, some hills, an excellent stretch through the woods and a remarkably clear run due to being at the front of the slow pack. The course had changed slightly this year, making it a bit longer and, I’m sure, hillier. And I would be starting in the medium pack, meaning a clear run would not be had.

Another big, strong team from Gosforth Harriers was out in force, supporting the juniors and the ladies, who put in an especially brave performance, before lining up at the start. It was windy and cold, with a few spots of rain in the air. The weather forecast had threatened sleet showers at race time, but at least those didn’t arise. From the warm-up, my feet were already wet and cold, but all this would be the same for everyone. The whistle went to set off the ever-growing-in-size medium pack. My normal target was not there, so I felt no pressure to stick with him which would have resulted in me burning myself out early. I ran at my own pace. The first half mile is all downhill with a stretch on a packed gravel path. I could barely feel my feet, they were so cold. A left turn and a jump over a trench that would no doubt have caught a few out in the crowds of the main pack, before a grassy stretch to the first uphill of the day covering the best part of a mile in thick, brown, ankle deep mud. I wasn’t doing too bad, probably a little better than I thought. My heart rate was under control and I was in the midst of the medium pack rather than struggling to keep up with it. The first mile done in 7 minutes exactly.

There were still a few grassier patches allowing you to take a slightly longer, but less muddy route, the outside of a bend for example. Then all the height that you have expended so much effort gaining is lost in a downhill stretch, starting off with a steep, still very muddy, part which had you slipping and sliding down it. The human body’s ability to maintain balance never ceases to amaze me. By all rights, the slipperiness and speed should have caused many tumbles, and maybe there were a few, but I didn’t see any. Then a good, packed gravel path with a grass option to the side, through some big puddles of mud20180107_091145470824767.jpg, still all downhill, before a sharp turn into the forest section. The marshall’s warning of “Watch out for the logs!” was well-timed. Three, maybe four, fallen trees were across the path and had to be jumped or ran round. I was now right in the middle of the slow pack meaning plenty of congestion, especially getting over the logs and the prime route through the forest, on the left of the path, was already taken by a long stream of runners. I found myself being slowed down several times due to the traffic. And then I started being overtaken by fast pack runners. I hadn’t even completed the first lap and I was being overtaken by fast pack runners! They had made up the 2 minutes 40 second handicap they had on me in the space of just under 2 miles. I had slowed though and it wasn’t just due to the traffic. The second mile, even though it was mainly downhill, was in 8.03.

Exiting the forest is where all the spectators are. Encouraging shouts from the Gosforth supporters spur you on, give you a little burst of speed. A sharp left turn and onto the second lap, jumping the trench again. Whereas on the first lap you could find some less muddy routes, that was no longer the case. 20180107_0913111136896491.jpgThe course markings were also a little sparse. It was pretty obvious which side of the posts you should run on (i.e. the right side of them on the long, sweeping left hand bend), but there were a lot, and I mean a lot, of runners running on the grassier, left hand side of the posts. Some must have been all of ten yards left of the posts, basically cutting the corner. I would have been more annoyed had I not been starting to really struggle myself. I felt I was barely moving on the steepest parts of the uphills. My legs had nothing. The medium packers that I had been keeping up with on the first lap were now well ahead of me and I was just focussing on myself, maintaining whatever momentum I had. The uphill mile 3 wasn’t too bad at 8.01, but the downhill mile 4, the second part of the second lap, was 8.18. My lack of fitness and strength was telling and I was starting to cramp in my hamstrings.

Lap 3 was even tougher, but I was digging in as well as I could through the strength-sapping hills and mud. I was passing a few Gosforth runners now, encouraging each one as I went, especially those who had turned out even though they were ill or injured. Mile 5 in 8.09. The last time through the forest and, instead of a left turn for another lap, we took a right to head towards the finish. That reminded me of the nightmares I have honestly had since last year’s race where I just keep on taking a left-hand turn and onto another lap, never taking the right to the finish, consigning myself to a never-ending loop of muddy, hilly hell!

The last 550 metres is all uphill. I was empty. There was a runner from Crook, another team in our division, that I made sure I passed, and then passed two more from division three clubs, with whatever burst of speed I could muster – you definitely couldn’t call it a sprint finish. The next runner from Elswick was just too far away. I crossed the line in a bit of a daze, although I do remember that even the finish funnel was ankle deep mud. I’ve never seen that before! I met up with the rest of the team and quickly shuffled off to get some warm clothes on and get my spikes off to put a dry pair of socks and my wellies on. My feet never really warmed up on the run and I couldn’t feel my toes. With my recuperating hand preventing me doing any lifting or even getting it muddy, I was not going be any use helping to put the club tent away, so I said my goodbyes and went to the nearest well-known fast food outlet to get a strawberry milkshake. There are probably better ways of getting a protein fix that don’t also contain 400 calories, but it was exactly what my body was craving at the time! And it was gorgeous!

So, the results are out. Another good day for Gosforth. A third-place finish in the division, with no one promoted, means we are now five points clear at the top with two rounds to go. As for me, my pre-race expectations were well-founded. Finishing in 45:30, I came 253rd, easily my worst Harrier League result, and I would have been 142nd without the handicap. My average pace was 7:53, compared to an average on this course last year of 7:08.

So, I now have some hard work to do to get back to full fitness. More regular attendance of training sessions, getting some of these excess pounds off and putting a race plan together for 2018. The first one of these is next weekend at the Durham Relays.

NEHL Alnwick 4th March 2017

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. alnwick-2016-01At 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. alnwick-01I 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. alnwick-02Passed 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.

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.