National Cross Country Championships – Harewood House, Leeds – 23rd February 2019

December and January were a bit of a disaster for me running-wise. One chest infection seemed to follow another, although I did manage to squeeze in one cross-country and the Brass Monkey Half Marathon in a brief, mid-January hiatus to my unhealth.

Then we had a couple of weeks of icy conditions. That’s the one type of weather in which I do generally try to avoid running outside. Wind and rain are no problem. I love the heat. Snow is the best of all. But ice? It’s just dangerous unless you can run on grass, avoiding pavements altogether. When it’s icy outside, I resort to the treaded dreadmill.

In my humble opinion, just running mono-paced on a treadmill is quite possibly the most life-sapping activity known to humankind. So, I try to mix things up a bit. I have a couple of sets that I enjoy. With the incline at 2% to reflect running outside, I do 5 minutes at 12 kph, 10 minutes at 14kph and another 5 minutes at 16kph. That’s about 4.6km, so, if I have anything left, I try to make it up to 5km as fast as I can, up to 20 kph if the treadmill can go that fast.

The other set is more like a track session. 400m repeats at about 20kph followed by 60-90 seconds recovery. Most gym treadmills are occupied by people jogging along at a rather sedate pace, or even walking, holding onto the front rail. What’s the point in that? A treadmill going at 20kph actually makes quite a racket and you get a few weird looks as well. Follow up either of those sets with 2000m on a rowing machine and you have an excellent cardio session when you would otherwise be doing a good impression of Bambi on the pavements outside.

Anyway, the National Cross-Country Championships… I’ll try not to repeat much of my report on last year’s race in London. With the race being held in Leeds this year, we were able to get there and back by coach in a day and without a ridiculously early start either. So, at 8am, about twenty-five Gosforth Harriers and supporters clambered aboard and we made our way down to Leeds. The first race started at about 11am, so we had to be there well before then, making for a long day, with the senior men’s race not starting until 3pm.

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With the tent erected, we went on a recce of the course to see if there were any differences from the Northerns last year, held at the same venue, and to decide upon footwear. It was a 2-lapper of 6k per lap and it was, indeed, exactly the same course. Despite a slightly chilly, misty start, it was turning into the most gorgeous February day there has ever been. 15 degrees, not a cloud in the sky. Not a patch of mud either, in contrast to last year. As the day wore on, the ice cream van was doing a roaring trade.

The most important find on the recce was the underfoot conditions on one particular downhill. The right-hand side of the course was really badly rutted. The left-hand side of the course was as flat as anything. You could make some time and places by sticking left and, perhaps, avoid an injury. I also decided that spikes were the most appropriate for today. There were several parts of the course where you traverse across a slope, so you were running on a camber. For this, my tighter-fitting spikes would avoid my feet rolling around inside my looser fitting trail shoes. After some dithering, and changing twice, I decided upon 9mm pins which proved to be perfect.

The Nationals really is an fantastic event, with clubs from every corner of England setting up their tents alongside each other. The competition is obviously a step up from other events in all age groups, seeing some potential future Olympians winning their races. With still more than three hours before my race, I treated myself to a baguette filled to the brim with pulled pork. It was a bit bigger than I was expecting, but absolutely superb. In hindsight though, a high fat, high protein meal may not have been the best. The rest of the time was passed mostly sitting on the chair that I had brought, relaxing, chatting and enjoying the sunshine.

Onto racetime. My warm-up was pretty good. I felt fairly loose, and we were in our pen much earlier this year, getting our fastest runners to the front. We didn’t have a great draw, being on the far right-hand side and the first bend being a long, sweeping left-hander, but it must have been quite a sight to see 2000-plus runners streaming up the starting straight. The runner behind me may have been making a video as he was giving a running commentary about what an awesome experience it was to be part of it, as well as geeing up the crowd to cheer as we went past.

Space was a bit tight, as you’d expect, with the field still sorting itself out into natural order for the first mile which was slightly uphill. I saw a Saltwell Harrier whom I normally expect to beat by quite a way and was struggling to keep pace with him. Thinking back on it, I should have been aware that he was running much faster than he should have been, and hung back. But, with adrenalin and all that, I kept pace with him and went too fast up the course’s main hill on the second mile, a drag of a full half a mile. It was one of those occasions when I knew I was going too fast (6:35 for the first mile and 7:06 for the uphill second), but just didn’t slow down enough. I’d pay for that later.

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At the top of the hill, you take a right-hand turn and start a full mile of downhill. This was where the uneven ground was, so I stuck to the left and noticeably overtook quite a few runners down that stretch. Whereas I think I have lost a few yards of pace going uphill over the last couple of years, I think I’m quite a good downhill runner and tried to take advantage of it. Once again, probably going too fast with a third mile of 6:08. Running right behind the runner in front, I almost lost it on a narrow path on one of the sections with a difficult camber as I didn’t see the edge of the path and tripped up it, but just managed to stay upright.

Then comes the steepest uphill on the course. About 300m long and deceptive, with a false summit. I was blowing heavily, cursing myself, telling myself to stay relaxed and to keep my head up. The last 50 metres were painful. “Accelerate off the top,” I was telling myself. Yeah, right! I was barely moving forward by the top. At least, that’s what it felt like. We then had a good 300 metres of downhill back to the start/finish section to complete the lap in about 25 minutes. I tried to recover, but was moving noticeably slower than the first lap. I was suffering. Suffering to the extent of considering giving up. Others were. Drop-outs were regular sights, walking alongside the course back to the tents. I placated my self doubts by telling myself that if there wasn’t a point in a race where the preferred option is to stop, then you probably aren’t pushing yourself hard enough. My stomach wasn’t feeling great either though. Maybe that pork baguette was eaten half an hour too late. I didn’t have stomach cramps, but I felt bloated.

At this point, I caught sight of my main target this year in the Harrier League from North Shields Poly. I’ve beaten him once and he’s beaten me twice, but there’s never been more than a few seconds between us. I could use him as a pacer. I snuck in behind him, wanting to keep out of his sight as I suspected that seeing me would encourage him to go faster and that was the last thing I needed at that point. I was still in recovery mode.

For maybe a mile and a half, I did that until he slowed going down a short downhill and I overtook him. He looked over. We exchanged a brief greeting and then he put on a spurt and pulled away about 5 metres as we started going up the main hill again. I bridged those 5 metres and he pulled away again. I caught him and he pulled away again, this time putting 10, 20, 30 metres between us quite quickly. I was also passed by another North Shields Poly runner. I could see them both in the distance, and was now resigned to not catching them.

I had no other real benchmark to how I was doing. There are so many runners in a race of this size, that you are constantly passing and being passed and with so many unfamiliar vests that your brain cannot easily take it all in and remember individuals. I guessed I was losing places as I was definitely running slower on lap 2 than lap 1, but I also sensed I was passing people as well. There was another green and white striped vest about 15 metres ahead of me. There are only three clubs with these vests. Gosforth, Tipton and Woodford Green. It wasn’t a Gosforth runner, but I could use him as another benchmark. I definitely wasn’t losing ground. I was probably gaining slowly on him.

Then came the downhill mile. For most of this mile, I was concentrating mostly on picking the best line, staying upright, relaxing and leaning forward slightly so as not to brake with each step. This meant I lost track of where I was in the field, although I remember catching and passing the green and white striped vest. I could feel myself gradually getting stronger as the second lap progressed though.

I was dreading the steep hill. I had suffered on it on the first lap. I had visions of walking up it on this lap. Maybe I was more mentally prepared for the false summit though. Maybe I was looking forward to the downhill all the way to the finish after it. Maybe I was just concentrating 100% on getting up the damn thing. Half-way up, I suddenly remembered what I tell our juniors when they are running up a hill. “Pump those arms!” I did. And what a difference it makes. I powered up the last fifty metres, around to the left and started down the hill.

5019462108708864No holding back now. Just less than half a mile to go. Steeply downhill to begin with. You can hear footsteps behind you. Everyone’s a good runner here. Could I let my sprint finish count? Should I save anything for a sprint finish? No. What’s the point? Just go as fast as I can. I was going well below 6 minute mile pace down the hill as I saw afterwards. It flattens out with 300m to go. You can see the finish arch with the sponsor’s name on it around a shallow bend to the right. No one will pass me. 200 to go. Still flat out. 100 to go. 50 to go. Who’s that passing me? It’s only the Poly runner. How did I bridge that 30 metre gap? How did I not realise that I’d bridged that gap? He had the momentum. What have I got left? 20 to go. Sprint! He sprints as well. Am I closing? No. It’s at this point that I realise I’m going to be throwing up at the end. A final effort, but I just don’t make the metre or so between me and the Poly runner. A measly 1 second between us.

I have to apologise to the little girl behind the barrier who witnessed the contents of my stomach – mostly liquid – re-appear in front of her. She moved away quite quickly as I doubled up and wretched again, being told sternly by a marshall to move on through the finishing area. I passed the medical tent, with three runners in wheelchairs looking very pale, before being able to take the chip off my ankle, throwing it in the chip bin and searching out those of the Gosforth team who had already finished.

As a team, we waited for every member to finish. It had been a long, tough course that held bad memories for some after the previous outing here, but we all finished and finished well. My time was 50:33 and I came 1,101st out of 2,006 finishers. That was the 54th percentile, about where I expected. I beat my time on this course last year by almost 5 minutes. Then again, the conditions were poles apart and that seemed to be the par time difference. There’s no data on age groupings in the Nationals. As a club, we finished 39th out of 358 in the 9 counter competition and 48th in the 6 counter, beating a lot of much bigger clubs in the process.

What is it about running, that you’ve put your body through hell and you can’t stop smiling? The relief of finishing? The self-satisfaction? Everybody enjoyed it, even more so when we saw that the our magic club tent had already dismantled itself to make a quick exit back to the bus! An in-joke there! Sorry! A few beers on the bus going back rounded off a thoroughly enjoyable day.

For me, the cross-country season is over as I cannot make the last Harrier League meet. Some relays and road races, as well as some track meets, are next on the agenda. All that remains is to thank those who organised the entry and transport and also those who supported all day. The shouts by name and by club as you pass really do help, especially when those demons are telling you to give up!

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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!