The 2019-20 cross country season saw its fair share of disruption. Lambton Estate was a new fixture this season but the first attempt was rained off and it was rescheduled to March. Druridge Bay suffered the same fate and by the time Thornley Hall Farm came around in February there wasn’t an option to postpone it and it was cancelled.
Then, with the season heading towards its close, COVID-19 has put its oar in. Lambton wasn’t cancelled but it was reaching a point where individually people were starting to question whether they should be taking part. Men’s cross country Captain Stephen put out a message to the club encouraging everyone to judge participation individually and to be sensible about how we conduct ourselves. At that stage, it was a tricky balance between avoiding unnecessary risk and wanting to contribute and support the club. In the end I judged it reasonable for me to attend. Subsequently, the Harrier League organisers had to cancel the Druridge Bay re-run, so it turned out to be the last race of the season.
We went into the fixture with the mens team 3rd in the league, tied on points with second-placed Gateshead Harriers and 3 points behind Sunderland Harriers in first place. Blaydon Harriers were breathing down our necks just one point behind. We had an outside chance to win the league and a great opportunity to finish in second; we just needed a massive performance.
The women’s team started out equal fifth on points with North Shields Poly. They seemed secure in the league but Heaton and Elswick Harriers were poised within a few points to strike.
I’d picked up new member Tom Dutton and rising XC superstar Alex Mirley to give them a lift. For once I arrived in time to see the start of the women’s race and there was a good section of the taped area taken up by Striders men cheering them on. Also for a change, I was well prepared and was quickly geared up and ready to go for a warm up, unlike my normal rush to get my number on before jogging to the start, which isn’t the best starting line experience. I got to cheer on some of the women finishing, right up until the point that the slow pack got called up to the start.
Waiting for the start is always a nervous excitement. I haven’t been a counter for our team yet but I normally try to get to the front of the pack to at least give the other clubs someone they have to get around. And I reckon that extra couple of metres, that odd second, might just come in handy later.
The gun went off and away we charged towards the first turn and the stable block before hitting the tarmac estate road and starting the steep descent towards the river. There were plenty of people in spikes opting for the grass verges but I’d decided on studs much earlier in the week and was confident in my choice. There were a couple of brilliant steep drops at the bottom of the hill which took us to the riverside and onto the main track, where I was finally able to settle into a more sensible pace.
Measuring it afterwards, the track was about 1,200m long until hitting the climb that we knew would come. I’d settled quickly into a good pace alongside Peter Telford from DCH – we get on well, but there was no chat and both of us had our game faces on. I could see Geoff Davies’ and Robin Parsons’ vests bobbing around in the pack not too far ahead and I had hopes that I might be able to at least keep them in sight.
I ran the first Lambton 10k back in 2014 and knew the hill back up would be steep and unpleasant and I wasn’t disappointed, with 30m of climb in about 300m. It never sounds as much in numbers as it feels at the time in the legs and lungs. I was pleased to reach the top, though, feeling strong and able to keep up my pace while I recovered from the climb with others gasping around me. I picked the easiest line around the field edge at the top to save my legs and we were quickly into the woods heading back to the entrance road. Once there, the tarmac / grass verge choice was only about 50 metres long before heading back into the trees and by far the wettest part of the course (apart from the river). Choosing the right line was critical to balance a longer detour against the strength-sapping mud of a direct route.
The estate had also generously included a fallen tree to add to the decision-making – drier but longer to hurdle the low part, or straight line through (reasonably) deep water? The first time around I went for the detour and was amazed that the person in front virtually stopped to clamber over the tree – I planted my foot on the trunk and launched myself past him while he faffed.
Once off that ride, the paths dried a bit to vary between flat and firm to deeply claggy, but all still eminently runnable. After a few twists and turns there was a short drop and we were passing through the gates into the castle grounds. No-one was stopping to admire the architecture from the front lawn, though, and in moments we were back onto the road and turning right into lap 2.
The arrangement of the field was great with the start and finish areas close to each other, which meant we had brilliant support. I was so focused on the race that I don’t remember everyone who was yelling encouragement, but I remember Joanne and Wendy, with Jan and Nina roaming the course as well. Sorry to those I can’t remember but your shouts made a massive difference, they do every time.
The second descent was fast and uneventful but as I hit the track again I could see Geoff and Robin ahead – was I actually gaining on them? I’d also realised that in between them and me I had Paul Swinburne’s vest as a closer target to aim for. Perhaps this thought was too tempting as I overcooked the 2nd climb and went a bit too deep, taking longer than I would have liked to recover at the top. Going back into the woods, I was more adventurous at the fallen tree, going for the middle option but also spotting some of the Medium / Fast pack runners overtaking on the straight line.
Round we went again and by the third visit to the long track, I realised I had fallen away from Geoff again. I realised that I’d dropped Peter but I’m not sure where that was – perhaps the first climb, I wasn’t really paying attention, just running my own race.
I got the third climb just right, pushing as hard as I dared but able to recover normally at the top. I was gradually gaining on Paul and at the tree I took the direct (wet) line and came alongside him. My dreams of picking him off weren’t to be though, he started to lift his pace through the woods and I couldn’t match him from that far out.
There was no-one immediately behind me as I passed the castle (confirmed by a quick glance over my shoulder at the bend) and there was a good crowd in front so I knew I was aiming to pick up places in the finish rather than defend from behind. I hit the grass and put the hammer down, driven on by the encouraging shouts from the spectating Striders. I managed to pick up one place but the second was too strong and he held on.
In the end, I finished 6 seconds behind Paul Swinburne, 29 seconds down on Geoff and 35 on Robin, coming in 173 out of 325 and lowest scorer of the Striders D team. I really felt as though I’d acquitted myself well, an improvement on previous XC races. Even Jan Young said I was a cross country runner now!
We came second on the day and second overall for the season. The women’s team managed an excellent 6th and maintained their place in the top division, an even better achievement because we only had 7 runners. Fiona has already summarised some of the other great club results from the day but I wanted to add a couple of other observations. We fielded 5 male teams – 30 runners, the most of any club. Gateshead Harriers didn’t manage a full team. DCH had 7 runners and placed 9th. Our B team would have placed 5th and every member of our D team (as well as B and C) impacted on DCH’s team score. This truly is a team sport and all runners can have an impact on the result, even if you aren’t a “counter” for the A team.
NEHL Lambton Results http://www.harrierleague.com/results/2019-20/Lambton/