Brutal and brilliant – two adjectives for the North East Harrier League cross-country race at Thornley Hall Farm. All right, brutal may be overstating it a bit, but “quite hard” doesn’t alliterate and isn’t as catchy.
This race was a first for me in many ways. Having joined Striders a couple of months ago, it was my first race as a Strider, my first outing in a Club vest and my first cross-country race. I’ve done plenty of road and trail races before but this was new territory. Cross country was always the punishment, sorry, PE lesson that many of us dreaded at school. Now I’m much older and a little wiser, I reckon that if it’s good enough for current and past pros (Mo Farah, Paula Radcliffe, Charlie Spedding, Julian Goater etc. etc.), it’s got to be good for all of us.
I’d arranged to travel with Anna Basu and Roz Layton and was grateful to share the short journey from Durham with them. Parking wasn’t the trauma I’d feared and we arrived with plenty of time to amble along to the top of the race field and find the tent.
I was realistic about my expectations going into this race. I looked at the results from the previous year and had a good idea of where I would likely come out even if it was a road event and it was unlikely I’d be contributing to the scoring. Regardless, I went out determined to race as hard as I could regardless of the (lack of) impact I might have on the results.
We had a good turnout for both teams, with more men arriving as race time approached. The weather was cold but with no rain; there was a chill in the wind, but that seemed to die off while we were waiting to get going; a big blessing. With a fair amount of rain, sleet and snow over the previous weeks and several hundred pairs of feet covering the course before us, it was distinctly “soft & sticky” underfoot. Or a bogfest as our Chairman so elegantly put it on Strava.
The course was also being run in the reverse direction to 2017. One of the marshals thought this would make it easier. I still don’t believe him. The reversed course put a short, sharp grassy uphill after the first couple of hundred metres. Don’t they always look worse from the bottom than the top? The route was both a blessing and a curse – it was great to have the Club tents right at the top of this climb, with loads of encouragement, but that meant I ended up pushing into the red for each of the three laps.
I promised myself I wasn’t going to do it, I wasn’t going to fall into that newbie trap that Mike Barlow and I were talking about beforehand…but I still set off too fast. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who did, but by about half a mile into the first lap I was feeling dreadful – my legs were like lead and I didn’t feel like I could push on at all on the flats and downhills like I’d intended. Sweeping down to the southern part of the course we hit the first of the real mud and I’ve never run through anything like it before. It sucked all the power out of my legs and this proved harder to me than any of the hills. I realised then that I was going to have to adapt my tactics if I was going to avoid a DNF.
I decided that I would do something I hate doing on any run and that’s walk. I allowed myself, provided I contained it to the worst sections and still kept moving as fast as I could. I quickly noticed that anyone who was passing me (other than the fast pack) wasn’t really going much quicker anyway and by keeping my heart-rate in check I could pick the pace back up again when the gradient eased and I would pull away from them again.
The first lap (is that only the first one?) felt like purgatory. Somewhere around the middle of the second lap, either my changed tactics started to pay off or the endorphins finally kicked in; I started to feel better and could push-on harder outside of the uphills. I settled into the ebb and flow, frequently swapping places with a couple of runners from Blackhill and Blyth plus our own Philip Connor. As we headed into the last half mile, I could see Andrew Davies about 12 places ahead of me across the field – too far to make up by that point – but was second in our cluster of four behind the Blyth runner.
I’d sussed on the previous laps that the mud on the final descent was sticky enough to hold my feet so I could pick up speed down into the finish funnel and this allowed me to get away from the other three. I dug into the last of my reserves and made sure I wasn’t going to be caught on the run-in. From the noise, there was a great crowd of purple & green support at the finish and that gave me the boost I needed to wring out the final effort. I don’t remember seeing anyone, I was so focused on reaching the line. I also didn’t see what happened to Philip but he broke clear of the other two to come in a few seconds behind me. Anna and Roz were waiting when I came through the tapes. It was brilliant to see friendly faces to welcome me back. When I felt up to it we strolled back to the tent to find some very welcome goodies (thank you to those who brought, I’ll know for next time).
In the end, we had 22 men running and I led in the (incomplete) D team as “first” counter, placing 336 out of 414 overall and bang in line with where I expected to be.
The women’s team had a fantastic day. Fiona Brannan was 3rd and the team placed first – brilliant results all round.
It was great to be part of the team and be really made to feel welcome. I just hope that one day I can repay the Club with a result which contributes to our placing in some way!
Will I do it again? Absolutely. Why? Because no matter where you finish, you’re supporting and representing your Club. Even if you don’t count towards the placed team, you can displace runners from other clubs and increase their score; by my reckoning, that’s what 5 of our women’s B &C team and 3 of our men’s B team finishers did. It’s also great for developing your running strength, both physical and psychological. It’s a fair trade for the mud!
None of these words sprang to mind as I lined up at the start for the final Harrier League cross country fixture at Alnwick yesterday.
I was one of a number of purple first-timers getting their mud on, having been persuaded to do so by some of the regulars, and even after seeing the photos from Thornley – and spending the last few days peeking at the weather forecast from behind the sofa – we were all eager to give it a try. Tim Skelton had even invested in revolutionary ultra-luminescent mudclaws, presumably so that his progress could be visually tracked from the International Space Station.
A number of us had travelled up the A1 on the Striders coach and much of the talk had centred on the possible conditions. Would anyone be taking a tumble? Would we be returning with the same number of shoes as we started with? Would ’27 Hours’ pale into insignificance compared to one of us being stranded waist-deep in a bog? Joking aside, I think most of us were feeling pretty relieved that it was fairly decent weather and we could try and enjoy the race. With both the men’s and ladies’ teams seeking to cement their places in the top division, everyone was steeling themselves to go out and give it their best.
Upon arrival, we made our way over to the course and were welcomed by Geoff, Susan and co. at the Striders tent. Lots of smiling faces, nobody looking too green… even Gareth looked pleased to be back doing cross country, although every time someone mentioned Thornley I could see his eye twitching slightly. Jack, Phil and I had a quick recce of the course and it didn’t look too bad – a bit of a muddy slog uphill for the first half but then a nice, long stretch through the woods to recover and a fast downhill section towards the end of the lap. Unusually for me, I wasn’t feeling nervous in the least – I had been telling myself all week to just keep it steady and enjoy it, without putting pressure on myself to run a particular time. Back at the tent there was plenty of encouragement from the seasoned runners, too, which kept the positivity up for us newbies. Then there were the obligatory team photos – including the men – and the application of Strider face paint to strike terror into the hearts of opposing runners (if the sight of me squeezing into my skimpy shorts and vest wasn’t enough to do so already).
It was soon time for the women’s race and the men all took up positions around the start to cheer them on. Elaine went off particularly strongly from the fast pack and there were plenty of Striders in good positions come the start of the second lap (and only one or two sad faces!). With a strong result needed, there were a few nervous seconds ticking by as finishers started to arrive and no sign of any Striders, but a big cheer went up as Elaine, Rachael and Tamsin all arrived consecutively – pushing each other hard in a tight sprint finish – to place high up the field. Seeing all of the ladies’ team run well gave the boys plenty of confidence and we knew that our fast lads were capable of a great result.
When the call came to line up at the start, I squeezed my petite frame to the front of the slow pack, and when the gun went off I’m certain I led the race for at least 0.46 seconds. There were plenty of runners overtaking me immediately but I’d told myself that I was going to take it steady for the first lap and see how my legs felt. The going wasn’t too bad in most places (although shin-deep bog in some) and there were plenty of Strider faithful dotted along the course to give you encouragement.
The long uphill was pretty energy-sapping and by the final lap I was seriously plodding and being overtaken by a lot of medium and fast pack runners, although I was pleased to see Jason, Phil and Gareth running strongly. I tried to pick a quicker runner to follow through the final stretch through the woods to make sure that I didn’t relax, and then gritted my teeth (and ankles) to throw myself down the molehill-covered descent. I knew from the women’s race that the home straight needed a big finale so I gurned as best I could and made a burst for the finish line. Unbeknownst to me at the time, Jack was right on my shoulder, having made up the time from the medium pack, and almost pipped me to the post. Disappointingly, a runner in blue (Birtley, I think) did manage to get past me – but I bet he didn’t pull as good a face.
I filed along the finishers funnel, legs burning, and went to join the runners who had finished ahead of me. We barely had time to get our breath back when we heard the booming command of Captain Smith to pose for another team photo. We dutifully obliged. I’m pretty sure her exact words were, “I need all of you hunky, sweaty men to huddle together and look hunky for a photo, NOW!” but I was still in a muddy, exhausted haze and my recollection is a bit fuzzy.
Presumably thanks to the chip timing, the results were in almost immediately after the men’s race had finished, and there were celebrations all round as both the men (3rd on the day) and women (8th) retained their Division 1 status for another season! The cherry on the cake was the news that the men had in fact leapfrogged Durham Harriers in the table to finish 6th overall, with the women only a point behind their Harrier counterparts in 7th. Cue copious amounts of delicious Strider baked goods and even a bit of fizz! Credit to Geoff, Susan and all of the Striders who turned out over the last five months to cap an excellent season’s running.
All in all, a great day out and I’ll be looking forward to having a go again next season!
So the day had arrived. I had been awake most of the night listening to the rain lashing off the windows and dreading the fact that I had to face my demons and have my second try at this NEHL fixture. My first attempt at it (in fact, my first attempt at XC since I was at school) hadn’t gone great. As is probably common knowledge by now, I got too carried away and had a nasty fall around 100m from the finish, and so didn’t get to cross the finish line.
I had arranged to travel to Thornley with Tamsin, she picked me up early and we agreed that we must be mad. It rained the entire journey. Pictures were being posted on Facebook of the mud and the conditions, which did nothing to calm the nerves and dread.
We arrived at the farm and it was immediately obvious that this was going to be tough. Everywhere you looked there was mud. Nowhere near as much grass as I remembered from the first time.
I hunted out the Striders tent and a few of us huddled inside to keep warm. The tent filled up, the chattering and laughing started, and I didn’t feel quite as nervous. Knowing that even you seasoned XC pros were dreading it just as much as me, really helped! I popped out with Kerry and Catherine to cheer on the U11’s, so we could see future Strider Lewis Littlewood having a really good run. Lots of U13s passed in the next race, minus one or both trainers in some cases – Christ. I was going to lose my new trainers wasn’t I? Another thing to worry about! Shortly after that we headed back to the tent to take off our multiple layers of warm clothing ready for battle. A few team photo’s (in the warmth of the tent) and we heard the call for the ladies to line up!
We all huddled together (with hardcore vest-wearing Lesley in the centre of the huddle) to try and keep warm, as the rain turned to sleet and we were told there was a 15 minute delay.
This soon passed, and the gun went off. The first part of the race seems to pass in a blur. Lots of fast ladies passing me, but I felt I was holding my own in my part of the pack. Off the grass and through the biggest, icy cold puddle I have ever experienced – wow that was actually fun. The first hill was slippy slidy mud – I tried to run up it the best way I could, but I don’t think you could describe it as running. I hear cries of “I can’t do this” from other runners and I immediately feel in good company! There was literally no avoiding any of the mud or puddles, and I just ended up embracing it, with my main worry being to stay upright. It was horrible. It was hard. My feet were so heavy, the hail bounced off my face like someone had just thrown stones at me. I can’t do this. It’s too hard, it’s not for me. I won’t make a difference – all the faster ladies are way ahead – they make the difference for us. Not long after these thoughts, I see 2 purple vests holding up an injured Mandy. Oh no somebody is hurt. Oh no they’re some of our fast ladies. She seems really hurt. I should stop and help. No Joanne, she has help, she will be ok. But if I help, I won’t need to run anymore. But we have potentially lost 3 ladies. You need to run, you need to do all that you can for the team. So I keep running.
Massive huge hill. Jan Ellis has placed herself perfectly in the middle of the hill. You can’t stop now, she will see you. You can get up the hill. I imagine Jon Ayres shouting at me about my arms, and I get up the hill with Jan’s support ringing in my ears. Wow that was hard. I think I am going to die – oh great, look here’s Phil and Di with a camera….I carry on steadily, always worrying about falling – I will look like such an idiot if I fall again. My favourite part of the whole course, is the downhill bit which leads upto the hill next to all the tents – for some reason, I really like that hill. I take at least 2 ladies with the men shouting support as I went. I think I may have sworn halfway up, but I didn’t stop. Crap. I have to do that whole thing AGAIN?! For all my mile times on my garmin were a lot slower, it felt like the second lap went so much faster. I was back around to my favourite part again in no time, met by more male Strider support, plus some comment from Jon about my arms (supportive I’m sure). I didn’t look over, I just put everything I had into that last hill and passed another 2 ladies (who I think promptly took their places back on the downhill but still…). Running along that last bit to the finish seemed to take forever, but shout outs from the already finished ladies kept me going. I have never felt anything like crossing that finish line and stopping my garmin (which for the first time ever I could not have cared less what the numbers were). I did it. I blooming did it. And I wasn’t last!
Now, where are those brownies?
I never understood the love/hate thing that people have for XC until now. I can’t wait for Alnwick.
Last Saturday’s Harrier League fixture at Herrington Park saw around 70+ Strider members in attendance. There were Strider men, women, young , old, fast, not so fast, new members, long servers, coaches and committee members all there wanting their club to do well and for everyone to have a brilliant day. It gladdened even the hardest heart to see it and it showed just what this club is all about. We Striders are able to come together no matter who we are, what we are or where we’re from and give our all in the service of the club. It was absolutely magnificent and all who were there should be incredibly proud!
The day itself was cloudy, mild and calm if a little damp and the tent and banner was soon up along with many more from our sister clubs. Some of these clubs have long histories stretching back to the nineteenth century such as Heaton Harriers; our next door neighbours for the day, while others are ‘new arrivals’ like Derwent Valley Trail Runners in only their second HL season. It was great to be among them all.
The Striders tent filled up quickly in anticipation of the senior women’s race. We had veterans such as Roz and Jan, welcome returners like Karen, Nina and Emma, fresh faced speedy Striders in Tamsin and Olivia, new devout converts such as Diane and Helen & tough campaigners like Mudwoman herself, Stef & Camilla. We also had one slightly apprehensive debutant, Carla, who quickly shed that apprehension and enjoyed her day to the utmost.
Although it was dry overhead the course was quite muddy in places with a couple of challenging hills and a long woodland section which contained a few obstacles for good measure. Not an easy course by any means. Nonetheless, well over 300 women lined up to do battle with purple vests well in evidence at the start particularly in the front rank of combatants.
Rachelle and Mudwoman were first to show followed by Lesley and they hurdled the fallen logs with eagerness and élan. Emma, on her long anticipated return to the Striders x/c fold, battled her way steadily from the medium pack to finish ahead of Rachelle & Mudwoman with another medium packer, Olivia, powering through at the end to finish as 4th counter. But what support they had from their team mates including the ever improving Helen, a determined Rachael, a committed Vics, a dogged Denise and many many more. No less than 30 Striderettes competed and they all ran their hearts out. But Harrier League is a savage and unforgiving arena, particularly the first division, and with some of our regular ‘counters’ absent through injury or illness our women’s team finished 9th on the day and slipped to 8th for the season just above the relegation zone. We now have a fight on our hands that we’re determined to win!
As well as fielding 57 runners across the two main races Striders had numerous members there who came along to cheer their club mates and have an enjoyable day out. An injured Conrad gave his impression of the ‘Shipman Roar’, Anna, Katy & Allan cast their coaches’ eye over proceedings while Catherine S, Jan E, Stan, Jo P & Diane W all did their best to spur on the purple hoards. Many thanks to them!
One or two of our male runners were so far into the zone during their warm ups that they failed to hear the whistles and shouts that heralded the imminent start of the men’s race. Consequently they had a bit of catching up to do after the gun was fired! Fighting through that 500+ field on what was now a very muddy course couldn’t have been easy but Striders were fielding a very strong team. An absolutely magnificent run by Stephen, coming from the fast pack, saw him finish in 35th place overall and first Strider home. Scott too did his fare share of bursting through finishing second Strider and being closely followed by Matt A (his best X/C race thus far?!), Gibbo, Phil Ray and Jason (from the medium pack).
These guys also had some fantastic support from our other fast packers Gareth & Michael M plus Michael L, Mark & Jack from the medium pack. Pictures on social medium have also shown the grit and determination displayed by the rest of the magnificent team particularly David Browbank (retaining his shoes), Douglas Jardine (putting his body on the line in his debut race), young Emil (thrown in the deep end on his first outing) and Richard Hocking (beating over 150 younger men).
This was Striders best performance in the first division so far. All 6 counters finished in the top 80 places – an excellent display but, such is the quality of our opponents, our 6th place on the day still keeps us in 8th place for the season but with a 2 point cushion over the relegation zone and now just 2 points behind the 7th place club. Like the women we too have a battle on our hands and one that we are equally determined to win.
So we have just two fixtures to go and if any one who manages to read this far and hasn’t yet run this season, particularly those for whom we already have numbers, then I urge you to turn up at Thornley and Alnwick and run for your club. You really are missing out on a fantastic experience if you don’t!
Ps I would like to give a special mention to Kerry and Denise for an act way above and beyond the call on duty – the removal of all the goose poo from the Striders tent!
A bright, cold day saw 25 Striders compete over a gentle x/c course ideal for beginners. This one off cup fixture hosted by the HL tends to attract smaller fields than the league matches themselves but, without the usual pack system, we still saw a men’s field of 379 and a women’s of 286.
Thirteen Strider women lined up to do battle with two times Olympic 1500m finalist Laura Weightman. Louise managed to get closest to her followed by Sarah and Helen and these were our counters for the Women’s Vet team (we had no senior team as no u/35 Striders competed!) As ever though there was plenty of support for them from faces old and new such as Jenny Search running for the first time this season and Jan Young running her millionth x/c supported by daughter Nina, in the race itself, and grand-daughter Leigh on the sidelines. The team received some enthusiastic support from Strider children ringing bells and waving purple and silver wavy things. It was much appreciated.
As a warm up to next Saturday’s crucial league fixture at Thornley, a dozen Strider men chose to compete here today for their club and were rewarded with 13th place in the Vet Team competition. Michael led the team home followed by a determined and grimacing James. Phil Ray was our first non vet home but once again we didn’t have sufficient youngsters to make up a senior team. That didn’t stop Richard Hockin from finishing first v60 home though!
Another great x/c day out was had by all, and it was particularly pleasing to see certain children of Strider parents perform so well in their orange vests. Potential Olympians of the future sharing the stage with an Olympian of today. If x/c is good enough for them then it’s good enough for me too!