In early April I was contacted by the team manager for the North East Counties, John Tollitt. He wanted to know whether I’d be available, if selected, to represent the North East. My reply was pretty speedy, a short and sweet, most definitely. The last time I’d represented the North East I was in my early teens running the 800m and 1500 m. 30 odd years, a few grey hairs and some frown lines later, just to be asked was pretty special.
A few days later it had been confirmed that I had been successful. I’ve a big race coming up, my training plan was quite specific but for this I adapted massively to optimise a good taper and to get some race specific training in. Unfortunately, it was a little far to recce, that would have been the ideal. I spent a lot of time trawling through old race reports and studying my race map. I’d only run in the area when I had done my fell coaching course so I knew the climbs would be steep and that it should be a challenging race. Fortunately, as it was a championship race, the route was flagged for the day, removing a bit of worry.
Fiona had been selected as well so we travelled down together the car full of nervous energy. We arrived early for kit check and who was to stand behind me but Carl Bell! Then we picked up our numbers and finally our NE vests. Waiting in the toilet queue we were both equally terrified and excited. Fiona had been scouring championship results and kept pointing out previous winners/Salomon/innov8 athletes. It was some line up and to say we were daunted would be an understatement.
We went for a good warm up together across to the start. We had planned to do the first mile or so of the race route but it went straight up a hill, STRAIGHT up….so we decided we’d save our legs and did some laps of the flat grassy field where the race would start. I have never seen so many huge thigh muscles…think of the Hulk (except not green coloured), they must have found it difficult to buy trousers to fit. The warm ups and drills were again something out of a textbook…A skips, B skips, sky high kicks and bounds aplenty, it was quite a sight. These were definitely serious athletes.
The race was open to everyone on the day at a princely fee of £7, but the majority were county teams. I was over the moon to spot a couple of older ladies not wearing county vests who I thought I might be able to beat!
We grouped together with the rest of the North East team. As Fiona chatted to Dawn and Katherine, I quietly took myself away so that I could gather my thoughts, calm my nerves and to make sure I raced my race and wasn’t distracted by people I knew. I kept repeating please don’t be last, please don’t be last in my head…. It was a beautiful sunny warm day, clouds flitting across the sky. The race start was in a leisure centre field, very well sheltered, not that there was any wind. Lush green grass, shady old trees and well-tended flower beds surrounded us. The steep valley sides, rising sharply out of the valley floor, were covered in trees.
The gun fired and we were off at last, thankful release from the stress of waiting, onwards and upwards. It was an unsurprisingly fast start, I didn’t want to get swept up and dropped after a few miles, so I kept to my pace. It narrowed quickly up some steps where there was the first bottleneck and then it twisted up a small road for a few metres before it turned onto an extremely muddy stepped path climbing up the hillside through a wood. I was desperate to push a bit faster, I’m strong at climbing, but I couldn’t get past on the narrow track. Finally, it turned into a little lane past a few cottages and I could pick up speed again as it dropped slightly downhill across a field and then yet another wait to cross a stile. A few spritely young men vaulted the fence much to a fierce woman’s disapproval who had been waiting in line (she will return later in the tale!)
Then it was up a stony uneven track flanked by crumbly stone walls and up onto the moors. Still climbing up for the first ascent, every time I thought we’d neared the top another summit appeared just beyond reach. My lovely blond ponytailed running companion stayed firmly in sight. I was always a few paces from her and determined to try to maintain this throughout, on the flats she’d pull away, on the hills, I’d pull her back again.
The first summit eventually was reached across a muddy grassy hillside. There were highland cows with their young grazing on the top which we had been warned about. I’m not fond of cows so I tucked in neatly next to a much bigger male target! The fierce lady was up to no good again as her man gave her a shove over a boggy section then handed her some gels…Fiona berated her for her naughtiness. I’m glad to say we both passed her soon afterwards as she fell in a bog. We then dropped down the other side through a nice squidgy section and onto a wide gravel track. It wasn’t long before it turned a bend and dropped down onto a lovely technical descent by a stream…I passed a lot of runners who floundered on the rocks. We crossed over a stile and had to duck under some trees as the track led us into a dark forest.
It was really good fun, I loved the varied terrain, each section only lasted a few hundred metres and then it would change again. Finally, the small awkward trod turned onto a main forest track dropping steeply through the wood. I’ve really become fond of ‘falling down hills’ it’s taken a while to switch my brain off enough and much concerted effort, mainly to keep Geoff in reach, but I now love it. This descent quickly turned into another grassy track strewn with stones that skirted round the hill and dropped down onto the valley floor. A short section of tarmac before it quickly rose and merged into a muddy stony track, then over a stile and onto a tiny grassy trod climbing sharply up onto the fell. Off the fell and then too quickly we were retracing our steps back to the finish.
It was pretty much all downhill from now, the absolute perfect race finish. I felt like I shot down the hill only to pass Carl Bell looking as fresh as a daisy doing his cool down up the hill! Onto the grassy field round the circumference and into the finish. Fiona hadn’t finished too far in front and I ran across to congratulate her and to bounce around merrily as we both rejoiced. We were as high as kites realising that we were first and second counters for the North East female team and certainly not last. We had also both beaten the previous female course record…it’s a shame all those other county runners were there!
It’s fair to say that we both absolutely loved it, the amazing opportunity and the race itself. It had it all, £5 entry fee with EOD, really pretty, varied terrain, some lovely steep ascents and matching descents and not much tarmac to bother with, I only wish it had been longer!
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