NEHL #2 Druridge Bay – 7th October 2018

After a first Harrier League outing where my summary was that it was something to build on, it was good to have a quick turnaround to the next meet just a week later. It had been a decent week of training. A tempo session, a track session and a long run mixed it up nicely and my legs were feeling pretty good on Sunday morning. Some good performances from our juniors were well earned by those who are always at training and have the right mentality for distance running. Not everyone has that mental capacity to rinse themselves inside out physically on a regular basis, both in training and in races.

Once again, a course recce was crucial. There had been some rain during the week and it was raining during the recce as well. The grass would be wet. Was there any mud? What were the corners like? Well, there was no mud to speak of at all and the odd corner may have been a little greasy for road shoes, but the main issue on this Druridge Bay Country Park course is the long, gravel path which is tough on spike-wearing feet on firm ground. My decision was to go for trail shoes.

I watched some excellent performances in the ladies’ race while warming up, including a third place finish for Gosforth, but was shocked to see the winner was more than two minutes ahead of the next fastest. She was an outstanding athlete, still looking really strong in the home straight. We sometimes get world class athletes at Harrier League and other northeast club events. Olympians Laura Weightman and Aly Dixon are occasional participants, as well as several GB triathletes (including a few from Gosforth Harriers). Aly Dixon actually holds the Strava crown for one lap of the Druridge Bay course. But the overriding benefit of running is back in the main field. It is so heartening to see clubmates and other friends getting faster, being promoted, achieving podiums or even winning big, local races. It’s also fantastic to see the other end of the age spectrum, where the focus may be more about slowing down the slowing down process or keeping active. And from a health point of view, one friend from another club has recently lost 3½ stone in just seven months and is now in the middle of the pack rather than at the back. All deserve the applause and support of the spectators and, I’m happy to say, get it.

I heard the whistle go to signal the gathering of the men’s start. I quickly made my way to the start line and was there fast enough to bag a spot right at the front. It was another big field. 550 plus. I went through my mental preparations, telling myself how I wanted to run this race. Firstly, don’t go off too fast, then don’t go off too fast and, finally, don’t go off too fast. The gun went and the hordes started off on the 100 yard or so stretch to the first corner. I was probably about 15th by then. By the next corner I was about 30th and the placings settled down with about 45 people ahead of me before the first mile was done. I was happy with the pace. In fact, I was thinking whether I had gone off too slow. A quick look at my Garmin showed 6:23 pace. Definitely not too slow. Just about right.

I was glad to be wearing my trail shoes as we went onto the gravel path for the first time. I could hear the clickety-clack of the guy wearing spikes next to me as he veered left to find the bumpy, narrow streak of grass to run on. I found I was able to push on down that straight, overtaking a couple. The next section had some damp corners. How would my grip hold out? Perfectly, was the answer, even taking the corners quite sharply. I traded positions with a Sun City Tri runner going around the two hairpins and made a mental note of him as he put on a burst and pulled away ten or so yards on the next section. A quick look back on a corner and I could see another couple of Gosforth Harriers no more than 15 seconds behind me. That was good. This is a team game and we need some good counters at every event to stand a chance of staying in Division 1.

I finished the first lap as a North Shields Poly runner who I recognised drew up alongside me. We are similar levels, but he had beaten me quite convincingly in the Nationals earlier this year, the last time we raced each other. Together with a Ponteland runner and the Sun City Tri runner from earlier, we were all fairly well matched, running quite close together. The wind was brisk and against you going along the top grassy section and onto the gravel again. There were certainly benefits to finding shelter behind someone, saving energy, but you needed to be right behind them, almost within clipping distance. Once the wind was partially shielded by the hedge, I pulled out to the side and accelerated a bit, once again using my trail shoes on the gravel path to good effect, managing to drop all three and put enough distance between us that they couldn’t use me as a windshield. I was now starting to overtake the odd slow pack runner who couldn’t keep the early pace up, as well as being passed by the fastest medium pack runners, most of whom would be promoted to fast pack for the next meet. A quick look at my Garmin and the pace was 6:30. Still bang on.

Onto the final lap. Hearing support from all around the course, from both seniors and juniors, was tremendous. I was dreading the third lap being as painful as the third lap was last week at Wrekenton but it wasn’t. I was feeling good and my pace was fairly constant. With half a lap to go, I was now down in about 65th position given that a few fast packers were now overtaking me, having made up their handicap. Expecting the promotion cut-off to be about 55th, I was safe from that. A teammate from medium pack passed me, making me now second counter for Gosforth. We exchanged encouragement as he went passed. I pushed the pace up a notch as much as I could. Just under a mile to go. A long grassy straight followed by the only real uphill on the course. Drive up that hill. No holding back now and a shout-out from the club coach to push on with only 400m to go.

Then the finishing section. A sharp right and onto a bumpy downhill, a sweeping left and the finish was 70 yards ahead, slightly uphill and giving it everything. It’s great for spectating, seeing all the races within races culminating in sprint finishes, last minute overtaking and lung-busting efforts to get one over on your rival and secure one fewer point for your team (fewest points = better). About halfway up the finishing straight, the noise of the crowd seemed to explode. It wasn’t for me. I wasn’t going to be able to overtake anyone ahead. It must be someone behind me, catching me. With 25 yards to go, a Jarrow runner overtook me on the right, sprinting, all out. He had put everything into his sprint finish to that point. One of my specialities is the sprinting speed I can generate in the last 20 metres of a race. It has gained me valuable places in all sorts of races. As soon as I saw the Jarrow runner in my peripheral vision, I put on that burst, overtaking him again and safely crossed the line, maintaining the position I had going into the home straight, almost taking the runner in front of me as he slowed on the line.

77th place. Safely outside the promotion zone. 45 seconds faster than last year, although the course was slightly shorter this year according to my Garmin. 150th fastest out of 564 finishers. 9th out of 98 in my age group. More Gosforth runners came in in quick succession. We shook hands and started the recovery process, welcoming each runner home. It meant a 7th place finish (out of 10) in the division, although we did have one runner promoted, the same as all of our main divisional rivals. The race to avoid relegation is going to be very tight with four teams now seemingly in the mix a third of the way through the season, although we are best placed of those four teams at the moment.

Druridge Splits

Some runs leave you in such a happy mood and this was one of those. My mile splits were right on the money. I beat all the targets I had identified and really enjoyed it. We did our cool down, as is always recommended after a hard run, packed up the tent and headed home, but not before saying hello to some gorgeous Highland cattle. The organization of this event was also excellent. It’s our turn next at the end of October, but I have another couple of races before then.

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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.

 

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!