After almost two months since the last fixture, with two events cancelled due to heavy rain flooding the venues’ parking facilities, the Harrier League was able to reconvene at Aykley Heads after, ironically, about 36 hours of incessant rain which was forecast to continue throughout the day. The amount of water that has come down from the sky during the Autumn so far meant that it was always going to be a tad wet underfoot and will be for the rest of the season. Combining this with one of the tougher courses on the calendar was going to make for an interesting day.
If we had thought the grey skies and wet weather were going to deter the hardened cross-country runners of the Northeast, we would have been wrong, with good-sized fields across all the junior age groups and seniors/vets races. Some excellent performances from those Gosforth athletes in green and white are great reward for the hard work put in by both athletes and coaches, not forgetting the parents as well, who were out supporting in wellies and waterproofs around the course.
Taking just the junior results and ranks that are published, and applying a Sherman Cup / Davison Shield style totting up of club positions from the season so far, Gosforth are top of the leader board by quite a way, ahead of Gateshead and Durham City Harriers in equal second. Equal to performance in importance, is participation. Being able to field a full team in every age group is something that very few clubs are able to do.
Watching the juniors sliding and sometimes slipping over around the course showed how tough the conditions were even at the start of the day. And with every race, they were getting worse. After a really good performance by the Gosforth ladies with a seventh placed-finish in Division 1, it was time for the men’s start. Due to various injuries, other events happening over the same weekend and general unavailability, we were a smaller crew than normal – just eleven of us. With six to count, it was important that every single teammate stepped up and put in a performance.
I’ve had a half-decent chunk of training recently and was feeling confident. But I’ve had two out of two poor performances at Aykley Heads in my previous outings there. I was determined it wasn’t going to beat me this time. The gun went and the hordes set off. I got buffeted from left and right, so made my elbows sharper which put a stop to that straight away. I didn’t think there was any danger of me getting in the top 10% and therefore promoted to the medium pack, so didn’t bother to count those ahead of me. A sweeping left-hander took us out of the still-grassy starting straight and onto the main lap course. I made sure I took the very inside line and checked my pace. A bit fast. Slow down. Going off too fast will destroy you, especially on this course in these conditions.
The first half of the lap is mainly downhill and very twisty, so taking the right line is important. Thinking ahead, being in the right place when the field is crowded, to take the inside on a corner will gain you places. However, when it is muddy, the inside line is, obviously, normally also the muddiest. There would be times today when taking the outside line allowed you to keep momentum and not drain energy. There would also be times when allowing your hip to brush against the tape of the inside line and only nipping out to avoid the poles holding the tape actually allowed you to run on good ground and take the most inside line of all. When there is no tape, there is often a grassy fringe. Running on any type of grass is normally better than running through mud, although it can be a little uneven. Then there are times, especially on the narrow straights, when it makes absolutely no difference what line you take, because it is all mud. We had all of this today, making your individual running tactics on every stretch of the course an important part of the race.
On the furthest part of the course, there was a steep downhill with a sharp right-hand turn at the end. It was a skating rink made of mud with no option to avoid it. Multiple times my shoes, with 15mm spikes, gained absolute no grip whatsoever and my foot slid left, right or just straight ahead of me. There were going to be plenty of fallers today. No doubt about it. I negotiated the first right-hand carefully and the second right-hand with the aid of a tree to swing me around the corner.
This led us onto the flattest part of the course along the railway line. I took stock of where I was. Ahead of me were two clubmates, to whom, based on recent road times, I was closer than I expected to be. There were runners from Hunwick, Derwentside, Alnwick, Elvet and Tynedale whom I recognised from the previous meet at Wrekenton around me as well.
We started passing some backmarkers from the ladies’ race. We had been warned about this at the start and everyone I saw gave plenty of room as they were passing. Unfortunately, as he was changing course to do just that, one lad in front of me slipped at the worst possible time and bumped one of the ladies. Profuse apologies followed. It was totally accidental and I hope the lady realised that.
The second half of the lap has two big hills, the first a long incline, the second one shorter, but much steeper. In between is a narrow, downhill section through the forest with tree roots lying in wait to trip you up. The combination of these three sections in quick succession, for me, epitomises the challenge of Aykley Heads. You can’t take time on the forest section to recover from the first hill because others are capitalising on using the downhill. Then you have to grit your teeth to get up the second hill, thinking about your technique: stand tall, relax, pump arms, before accelerating off the top to get some speed back just when you are blowing out of your backside. Then, you get a section with the best underfoot surface you’re going to get on the whole course. If you don’t make use of that, you’ll lose places again. That mile is one of the hardest sections of any cross-country race in the calendar. And also one of the best.
I noticeably lost a bit of ground to some of those around me on the two uphills and the downhill forest section as I took the focussed decision to equalise my effort, saving my energy for later laps. Three laps is strength-sapping and there were people almost sprinting down through the trees and straining every sinew to get up the second hill quickly on the first of those laps. After the next section, I had caught back up and overtaken most of those who had overtaken me, having used less effort overall.
I was feeling good. My pace was right. Our coach shouted out my position at the start of the second lap. I was 45th. Much higher than I thought, so I started counting. I took five places over the next half mile, moving up to 40th. Of course, the medium and fast pack runners would be catching up before long, so I wouldn’t stay there.
The second lap had different dynamics on certain parts of the course. The best route on the first lap was not necessarily the best route on the second lap. There were more places where you now had no choice but to trek through the mud. When racing on road, you can normally concentrate purely on running, which often means your brain is empty. You are too tired to think about anything else and your instincts as a runner are all you need. Today, you had to think about almost every step. The route you will take next. Is there a better one? What will I find under the next step? Do I need to adjust my foot contact to land lighter or my cadence or arm position to maintain balance? What’s the person in front of me going to do? It was mentally tiring as well as physically tiring.
When you enter these events, if the first two laps have been hard, you know the third lap is going to be harder still. I passed a couple of casualties on the slippiest part. Not injured, just caked in mud. Their pride hurt more than their body as they both carried on, although, at the finish, they would wear that mud up their arms and on their faces with a certain pride! A train passed as I went along the trackside path. I wondered what the passengers would be thinking about seeing a long trail of muddy runners on a desolate stretch of land on a dark, dank, wet, November day. “They’re mad!” Maybe we are!
Onto the first of the uphills for the last time, as we were reminded encouragingly by the marshall stationed there. My legs were now completely wasted. Strava would show a markedly slower progression to the top compared to the first two laps. One of our club’s medium packers came past me just as we entered the forest. ‘Last time,’ I thought to myself, ‘push on, take the downhill as fast as you dare!’. He obviously was thinking the same as he slipped, fell forward and slid for a few yards before coming to a stop, the guy behind him taking evasive action. Should I stop and help him up? At least ask how he is or give him some encouragement? By the time those thoughts had gone through my tired mind, I was almost past him.
“Come on! Get up!” was all I could gasp, as I sprinted off down the hill. I was fourth counter, so he was a counter as well. We needed him to put that spill behind him and finish strongly. It would be easy for a fall like that to destroy any motivation. We couldn’t afford it. Every place would count. I knew that he knew that as well so I didn’t think too much about my apparent lack of compassion and we had a good laugh about it at the end.
Up the final hill. At the steepest part, I thought I was barely moving forwards although I was pumping my arms and legs as hard as I could. They just didn’t have the strength to propel me up as quickly as my head wanted them to. Over the top and 400 metres to go. I accelerated, overtaking one more person as I took the inside line before swinging around to the right for the home straight. My clubmate passed me again. ‘No one else can pass!’ I promised myself. I heard someone behind me and kicked again. 30 metres to go. Full on sprint and I crossed the line two seconds in front of the medium packer from South Shields closing in behind me.
What a run! Completely exhilarating! Completely exhausting! Another clubmate finished a few seconds later to be surely our sixth and final counter. That’s got to be a good result. We joked with those who had obviously had a fall. There were many! We chatted with friends from other clubs. Faces of exhaustion quickly turning to smiles and laughter after a minute or so’s recovery.
I finished 76th out of 527 in 49:18 and beat all but one of my targets. I was 31st from slow pack, so picked up 14 places on the last two laps. Outside promotion territory but only by 48 seconds. Closer than I thought I would be. Indeed, everything was frighteningly close when the team results came out. We came second in division 2, only 5 points behind the team in first. In fact, we were equal second, on the same number of points as another team. If I had been overtaken by the runner closing in on me at the end, we would have come third. Who knows how important that point may be at the end of the season.
At the third time of asking, I was happy with my run at Aykley Heads. Well-controlled and as good as I was going to do at current fitness levels. The crazy thing was the time difference between running exactly the same course in 2017, when there wasn’t a trace of mud, and today. I was six minutes slower this time round over just over six miles. Looking at other runners’ times, it was a similar differential, sometimes more, so it wasn’t just me. That just shows how tough the conditions were. It’s also one of the reasons why we love cross-country so much.