When is a race not a race? When it isn’t on Strava? That’s one opinion…
Jan Young asked on the Striders Facebook group if anyone wanted a lift in the week before, otherwise I would have missed it. After convincing the family to come down and have a walk while the race was on, I rejigged my weekend’s runs to fit in.
I wasn’t planning to race earlier in the week and as I stood in the starting bunch of 91 runners, I came to the decision I wasn’t going to run it as one. I’d been working on building some consistent aerobic mileage and didn’t want to ruin that with either an injury from an enthusiastic descent or just over-exertion. I would take it relatively easy on the ascents and not over-egg it on the level and downhill.
I set off gently from the back half of the pack and was really chuffed to reach the trig point at the end of the first climb (stone track all the way) without having walked but not pushed into the red either. There’s a first time for everything. The descent back to the start was steeper and paved, which made it tougher, having to keep my eyes on my footing at all times, but at least this is where I’m at my most comfortable. The paving was a theme on a lot of the path along the ridge to the turn at the far end.
That was only the first climb and I knew there were three more to come before the turn. I ended up leap-frogging several other runners, them either being stronger than me on the ascent or descent (or me being stronger on the descent or ascent, whichever you prefer). The views from the top of the ridge were spectacular, when I could lift my eyes off the path to take them in. I decided to pause to take a snap on my phone, that’s how hard I wasn’t racing.
After a “scramble” through the Wainstones and the final ridge section, I came down to the third checkpoint at Clay Bank and turned for home…only to be faced with a fifth steep climb. Minor planning fail, I hadn’t spotted this one on the elevation profile. Once up this shorter climb, the forest track turned more undulating, without any more serious ascents and a net descent of about 50m. An extra bonus was being back on earth rather than rock. I still wasn’t pushing to the max and it was a good job I’d held back on the first half. I was tiring but it seemed most of the other people I’d been swapping places with were struggling more as they fell back.
I say most because as I passed through the final gate off the fell I could hear footsteps behind me and one runner, from NYMAC, was close behind. Rather than slam it in his face, I decided to hold it open and as he passed through I fell in behind him. We turned onto the finishing field (unwelcomely slight uphill) and I already knew I wasn’t going to push him; if I was racing I would have dug in and given it some beans to the line, as it was I was content to follow him home.
Looking over the results, I was astounded to have come in around mid-table. Nina Mason finished second lady and Camilla Lauren-Maatta was Striders’ other finisher, with Jan acting as sweeper for the day.
So when is a race not a race? When you decide it isn’t.
I often struggle to get to mid-week events but when this one popped up I realised I could make it and double my fell race experience in the process. I got there early, just after registration opened at 6pm. The car park was already pretty full but I managed to nab one of the last available spaces. I was shortly followed by Jan, Robin, Eric and Sarah who made up our full Striders contingent.
I have a mental image of fell races to be small affairs compared to road races with perhaps several 10s of people rather than the 100s or 1000s. It was obvious from the registration queue that this was going to be much more popular than I thought! In the end there were exactly 300 finishers, quite a turnout.
I was also intrigued by the composition of the field. My only previous fell race was Cronkley, where, in a field of around 30, I was firmly part of the tail and I can normally expect to be around the middle of the field in most other races. Without meaning to be judgemental, I could see this field was a much broader range of runners than Cronkley, from the hardened fell aficionados through to “regular” club runners (people who might run a mix of road, XC and trail on a normal day) to some who seemed quite inexperienced. The results seem to bear out that assessment with times ranging from 35 to 90 minutes. My point is that you don’t have to be put off thinking it’s just for faster runners, anyone can give this sort of event a go.
I wasn’t planning to race hard, I was treating it as a tempo-effort session and I lined up where I thought was about half way back in the field. With a short announcement about there being lots of runners, so fast finishers weren’t to eat all the cake, we were given a short “3, 2, 1, go” and we were off…
Steady up stony & dusty Roseberry Lane, there’ll be a bottleneck at the gate. Into the woods and a right turn along the surfaced track. Not many passing places, some undulations. Into a rhythm.
Left at the quarry and start climbing – a short steeper section to start with, then more gradual along the outside of the quarry. Single file most of the way. Sharp kick up to a kissing gate – “How British are we?” as we form an orderly queue – then make a quick pass up a short section to a stile (more recovery, I mean queueing). Brief flatter section before a left turn (marshal point) up a short and brutal final climb to the head of the quarry.
Flat along the cliff edge (fenced in), chance to get the legs moving again. Welcome downhill, pick up a few places barrelling past more tentative descents. Apologise to Darlington Harrier who I nearly wipe out in the process.
Onto the top woodland path, climb steadily to the gate onto the common. Past the shooting hut and start the rough path up the south side of the topping. Single-file procession again, hands on knees, no real swapping of places at this point. Alister Robson pops into view just behind me, I’m too out of breath to do more than wave.
Reach the rocks at the top, swing around the trig point and the fun (descent) starts. Why are these two picking their way tentatively over flat rock? Blast past.
Onto the “tourist path” – uneven stones, careful with foot placement – concentrate.
Reach the bottom, runners off to my left – how did they get there? Ignore them, direct route is straight ahead, stick to it.
Across the saddle at a decent pace, bear left to join the path up Little Roseberry. Two in sight ahead of me, can I close them down? Swaledale vest pulls away, I’m right behind the other by the top of the climb and the next marshal point.
Chuckle at the “left turn” arrow in tape across the bilberries, into a narrow channel. Round the bend, what a view! Stunning! No time for that, rough track, concentrate on foot placement. Path widens, chance to over-take, grab it.
Sweep down to the edge of the moor and another marshal point, gradually closing on the Swaledale vest. Easier gradient here, gradually reel him in and sit in behind for the last narrow section of path off the moor. Footsteps behind, someone’s closing in. Closed gate ahead so I’ll be with Swaledale and The Feet going into the last section.
Back onto Roseberry Lane again, 400m to the finish.
Kick hard out of the corner – drop The Feet, close down Swaledale.
Reach the bend in the lane, I’m past him. Don’t look back.
Man ahead – I’m closing fast, I can get him…I’m past.
Another – catch and pass.
Woman from Stockton Striders, I might even get to her…
Dig in, gain one last place before the line.
Stop Garmin. Gasp for air.
Eric and Robin had already finished (no surprise, really), so I was either third counter for the men’s team or last Striders bloke home, whichever way you want to look at it. Jan came in a little while later, clearly in some distress with an injury and Sarah wasn’t far behind to complete our turnout for the evening.
As you might be able to tell, I’d blown all intent to hold back out of the water. It all started on the first climb between the gate and the stile when I found I was able to move past people but wasn’t flat out. I think that flicked the little “race” switch in my head and from then on, I was on the lookout for gaining places. I think the fact that I’d held back at the start helped and that I wasn’t concerned about walking the steeper climbs – steadier pacing in the first half left me able to capitalise on the downhill where I’m generally better.
I finished 143rd in 52:44. The Swaledale vest turned out to be M45 too, so I gained a bonus age-group place on the closing stretch! I later discovered I was nearly 3 minutes up on Katie Abel of Stockton Striders, who I’d just pipped at Vale of York half marathon last year. I also came in a minute and a half up on Alister, despite him catching me on the main climb.
The description said 5.1 miles and 320m climb. I clocked 4.65 miles and 362m climb, Robin and Eric’s watches gave them similar distances and other Strava results seem to confirm the climb. Looking back at my route, there was a split in the tourist path before the zig-zags started, which was probably an easier gradient and less rough underfoot, so I might have missed a small advantage there, but not a catastrophic nav error.
This would be a brilliant introduction for anyone interested in giving fell running a try. It would be quite hard to get lost, especially if you’ve walked or run in the area before; it was well marked and marshalled. The National Trust web page even carries the route and a description, so anyone could try the course throughout the year if they didn’t want to wait for the next race.
If you’re thinking about dipping your toe in the waters of fell running, there are much worse races to try it. Just make sure you get there as early as you can for a parking space!
If you haven’t read Charlie Spedding’s book (From Last to First: How I Became a Marathon Champion), I can heartily recommend it. One of the ideas he touches on (and I apologise for the terrible paraphrasing) is that your subconscious brain will hold you physically accountable for any deals you make with it.
My deal wasn’t anywhere near as grand as holding out for an Olympic marathon medal. I’d been fending off a cold all week, somehow managing to keep it to a light tickle at the back of my throat. We had a family celebration weekend planned in the Lakes (I wouldn’t be able to make it to the XC at Aykley Heads) and I was desperate to make the most of it, not have a cold spoil things at the last minute. As with any of these weekends, we had walks planned and I also really wanted to get out on the high fells for a run. Did I make a deal with myself? I don’t remember thinking the words, but maybe the underlying desire was enough.
Come Sunday morning, I was still holding the cold at bay so my run was on. My original plan had been a loop from where we were staying in Hartsop up to Hayeswater, climb The Knott and then head clockwise to High Street, Thornthwaite Crag and Gray Crag before the steep descent back into Hartsop. As the week had progressed I was getting more uncertain of this route – not my ability to do it under normal circumstances, more whether it might be pushing a little too hard if I wasn’t 100%. I had picked out a couple of alternatives and after a final planning session the night before with my (considerably) better half, I decided to dial it back to something slightly shorter with a little less climb; I’ll be back another day and the other route will still be there waiting for me.
I was running this solo. I’ve done this plenty of times before, but I never take the fells for granted. I know from first-hand experience how the weather in the Lakes can change in a moment and how a simple problem can become much more serious because of the remoteness. I treated it like a race, making sure I had FRA minimum mandatory kit, so I was carrying full waterproofs, map, compass, whistle, emergency food, gloves, hat and buff plus a head-torch (yes, I’m a real pessimist) and thermal blanket. In addition, I had my mobile phone (not expecting any signal, mainly for taking photos) and was running with a GPS watch, which could provide me with a grid reference if I really needed it. I left my route back at base with an ETA in case something happened to me. The final factor to consider was the weather forecast (mwis.org.uk is the only source I trust) and this was distinctly favourable – relatively mild for the time of year, light wind and most importantly no cloud cover.
It was chilly and clear as I set off, immediately donning my gloves. I headed through Hartsop village, and then almost immediately made a potentially disastrous navigation error. I knew I needed to turn right and cross a bridge, but I took the first one I came to and nearly went off up Pasture Beck – completely the wrong valley! As a junior orienteer, I was always told that the first rule of relocation is accepting you might be in the wrong place. Luckily all that experience came in handy and I quickly backtracked to the main path.
Immediately after crossing Wath Bridge, the track started to climb steeply over the lower slopes of Gray Crag. I dropped to a fast walking pace – this was a substitute for a long run, not a race, and I didn’t want to trash my legs and spoil the ridge section or descent. In the end, I only managed to run a very short section of the total climb after the bridge.
Before long I’d climbed above the Filter House, a leftover from when Hayeswater was an operational reservoir and was crossing Hayeswater Gill just below where the dam used to be. I followed the obvious path a little way up the fell before a quick stop to take a few photos. Then it was upwards; I intended to follow the bridleway marked on the OS map, but the paths on the ground made following the northernmost wall a more logical choice. Before I knew it, I’d reached the Coast-to-Coast path and was surprised at how short the climb had been, overall 40 minutes from setting off – 2.5 miles and 420m of climb. Could I have kept climbing? Probably. Would I have had the same experience? Definitely not. And besides which, it was too late, I wasn’t going to deviate from the route plan I’d left behind.
After a few more photos, I turned my back on The Knott and High Street, heading northwest towards Satura Crag. The sun was out, the breeze on my back (when does that ever happen?) and the views were just amazing. In between sections where I had to carefully watch my foot placement, there were some clear stretches of path where I could drink in the views, especially towards Fairfield and the Helvellyn ridge. I carefully picked my way across Satura Crag, where the path wasn’t always distinct – the walls and a compass were my friends here and it occurred to me that it wouldn’t be a great place to be caught in low cloud – before dropping down to Angle Tarn. This is such a beautiful place, a high tarn with views across the valley. I felt I had to add some balance, so stuck my mug in the way of it for a selfie.
Below Angletarn Pikes the path splits and I kept to the westernmost one, with clear views down across the fields of Patterdale and into Deepdale. As I ran I was thinking how fortunate I was to be there and to be able to do what I was doing. Sadly, it was over all too soon and I was on the descent to Boredale Hause. I passed a pair of runners heading up the steep section, cheerfully telling them that I’d already done my penance for the morning as I bounded gracefully (at least, in my head) down the rocky path past them. Within a couple of minutes, I was standing on the great plateau of the Hause. Before descending, I sent a quick text to my family since I had a signal; pointless, it turned out because they didn’t!
The descent was steep and I could feel my quads protesting at me braking but I didn’t have the confidence to let go until I reached the more friendly gradients lower down. Then it was just a case of following the bridleway south down the valley back to Hartsop.
The total bill was 6.4 miles and 500m climb, according to my Garmin. Kit used: gloves, map and compass. Experience: priceless.
For the record, the cold finally kicked in about two hours after I got back…there could well be something in that theory.
I emptied the tank today. Clean up your minds, you mucky lot, all I mean is I raced as hard as I could. But that was what was going through my mind as I reflected on the first XC race of the season, and it left me thinking what else I did right and what I did wrong.
Wrong – setting off late and hitting bad traffic Wrong – not queueing for the portaloo’sportable toilets as soon as I arrived Right – collecting my number and selecting shoes as soon as I reached the club tent Wrong – missing the team photo by being in the queue for the portaloo’sportable toilets Wrong – not having time to recce the course or warm up as long as I’d have liked
Right – not letting any of this bother me when I got on the start line
Right – elbows out, right at the front of the slow pack on the start line Right – (if you ask Geoff, anyway) starting fast, holding on as long as possible Right – measuring my effort, easing my pace on the ups (walking when I needed) and making up ground on the downs, keeping my heart rate up over 90%max Right – keeping close to Peter Hart for almost the whole race, at least until the last half lap
Right – smiling for the camera, getting a decent race photo Wrong – I always manage to make it look like I’m not trying by smiling at the camera, but I don’t tend to go pink and sweaty. I clearly need to work on my ‘race agony’ face
Right – not making the fashion mistake of the bloke whose sagging tracksters left a rather unfortunate vision in front of me for a lot of the race Right – using whatever I had left on the finishing straight to try to reel in the two ahead of me. Didn’t work this time, but kept those behind me…behind me. Right – not collapsing in a heap in the finish funnel
Right – choosing the lemon drizzle cake – whoever made it, thank you, it was wonderful! Right – staying back to help Mike and Fiona pack up the banners and tent
It goes to prove that even if you start off on the wrong foot, if you can put any mistakes out of your mind you can still make a good race out of what could turn into a disaster.
And that gives you a chance to empty the tank…so to speak.
Vale of York Half Marathon was my first race at this distance back in 2015 and I loved the event, so wanted to pay it another visit. It’s based out of the aero club near Sherburn-in-Elmet (between Leeds and Selby), so it’s a bit of a drive to get to (about 1 hour 30 minutes from Durham), but not outrageous for a half marathon. I’d arranged to give a lift to David Browbank and Georgie Hebdon, partly to be a bit greener and partly to have company on the drive. It was a smooth journey down the A1 as one might expect for early on a Sunday morning, only punctuated by the seemingly never-ending road works in two places. Sherburn in Elmet is only 10 minutes or so off the A1, so really easy to get to.
We knew that the road to the car park was also part of the race route and the access was being closed at 9am, so setting off at 6:40am to get there just after 8am seemed like enough contingency for any travel problems; it was plenty. As we arrived, we chuckled at the apparently over-zealous marshalling in the car park as we headed over to the portaloos and registration (in that order, got to get your priorities straight). We were early enough that both queues were limited and the loos were still in a decent state, so there was an added benefit to being early.
For some reason, the aero club seemed to be a centre for the local wasp population, so once the car park entrance was closed and the announcement went up to head over to the start we trotted over to shake them off and made use of the runway for the rest of our warm-up. Conditions were cloudy and reasonably mild (mid to high teens celsius) but breezy; looking back, we had much better overall conditions than the Great North Run competitors were “enjoying” that morning. The start was scheduled for 9:30am but was delayed for about 10 minutes for people arriving late at the start. After a couple of short announcements, we were off.
The course was slightly modified for this year but started in a similar way to my previous experience – we went most of the length of the runway and looped back before following the aero club roads out onto the surrounding lanes. I set off at 8 minute mile pace as that was my plan and what I intended to hold for the first half of the race. Once I’d settled into my pace, I switched to keeping tabs on my heart rate, since I know from experience how best to manage my effort through the race.
One of the big attractions of the course is that it’s almost completely flat. There’s one rise in the form of a bridge over the railway line which we reached just after 3 miles and appears again on the return. I eased off the pace coming up the slope and picked up a little coming down the other side before settling back into my pace.
The camber of the roads is, shall we say, interesting. In places they’re pretty flat, in others they distinctly roll off to one side or another, so at times I had to pick my line carefully to avoid running across the slope. The beauty of the smaller field (limit of 2,000) meant that after the first couple of miles it was possible to pick whatever line I wanted.
After the railway bridge, there was a stretch through Bishop Woods, which was also where the first water station was set up. The road continued along to a crossroads shortly after 5 miles where a left turn started the loop of the lollipop-shaped course. Just after taking the turn I started on my fuelling – jelly babies – which I know I benefit from and have tried in training before. I find them less uncomfortable on my stomach than gels.
I’ve heard people describe the course as dull, but I think the area’s very attractive, with lots of open countryside, occasional housing and some variety to the views. A lot of the people who live in the area come out to watch the race and support the runners, some at junctions & turns, some at the ends of their drives. It’s a welcome boost all round the course.
Just after the second water station, about halfway round the loop, I started to pick up the pace a little – about 7:50 per mile, sticking to the plan – which lasted until about the end of mile 8, when the wheels started to come off. My legs were numb and I had to ease my pace off to around 8:20 per mile just to keep my heart rate in check; I knew that if I tried to push on at the pace I wanted I would blow up way before the finish, and I had a feeling that breeze was going to play a bigger part towards the end. I gritted my teeth and concentrated on plugging on, keeping my heart rate progression where I wanted it. Over the next 3 miles or so, I managed to keep up at between 8:10 and 8:20 pace, ignoring the last water station in the woods and measuring my effort over the bridge – easing on the climb and accelerating downhill again.
That breeze I mentioned had mostly been at our backs, cross-winds or sheltered in places by the wood or the hedges. As we turned back along Bishopdyke Road, just after 11 miles, it was full in our faces and a fair bit stronger than it had been on the way out. There was still two miles to go, no prospect of shelter from the wind and dead legs. This was purgatory. Even turning a 90 degree left turn towards the aero club at 12 miles didn’t seem to help. Nothing for it but to focus on trying to keep form and cadence, dig deeper and just get to the finish. It was great to get shout outs from faster Striders who’d already finished, like Chris Callan, and other Strider supporters on the run in. From my previous running of the course, I knew where the finish was so I was able to time my final effort. I hadn’t used any of my fast-twitch fibres up to that point, so managed a respectable kick over the last hundred metres or so, but that was my lot. I left everything out on the course and that’s all I could ask of myself.
If I’d managed to pull off what I’d intended in my planning, I would have achieved a PB compared to Sunderland 2017. As it was, I came in 2 minutes slower at 1:46:55 (chip time), but beating my previous time on this course by 3 minutes. I could try to blame the wind, but I reckon it only took about 40 seconds out of me over those last two miles. The truth is that my training wasn’t enough to support my aspiration. The important thing is I’m going to take the experience and see how I can adapt my training to achieve it next time.
Georgie was already back (a long time before me!) and David was right behind me – I was still trying to stand upright without feeling like I was going to fall over when he emerged from the goody-bag distribution. Some of the other Striders arrived too, including Simon, Stephen J & Vics and Steph. We had a chat about the race and watched the prize-giving, proudly cheering Stephen collect his prize for 3rd male. By this point, we’d cooled down and agreed it would be a good idea to be ready to escape the car park once they re-opened it. We knew the access was being shared with the race route, so might need to be patient.
From where we sat in the exit queue, we couldn’t see what was happening but the shouty marshals who were there when we arrived were curiously absent. Eventually there were signs of movement but mostly behind us rather than ahead as people bolted for a different exit. We eventually decided that was the better option and joined them. Once we were out, it was a smooth run back home.
The following day there was an email from the organisers which explained what had happened and why the start and parking arrangements were different to previous years. In short, they’d been denied access to a piece of land they had previously used and the aero club had stepped in at the last minute, which allowed the race to go ahead. The exit arrangements were always going to be a challenge, but were compounded by someone ignoring the road closure and then getting their car & trailer stuck in the entrance gate. The organisers have promised to learn from this year’s arrangements and improve them for future years, and I’m fully confident that they will.
Apart from the parking problems, which for us were only a minor niggle, the only downside with hindsight was that none of us thought to organise a Striders group photo before the start. I’ve tracked down some excellent photos from John Ashton, amongst which I humbly submit my own Race Face and Flying Feet nomination for this year.
I’m told the course has a lot in common with the Brass Monkey – mostly flat, one bridge, a loop to turn, a common start & finish. Perhaps with the right adjustments to my training over the next few months, that might be where I could try again to recover those lost minutes. Before I get carried away I’ll see if I can get an entry first!
Five miles isn’t a particularly common race distance in the north-east as far as I can tell, there only seems to be a handful scattered through the race calendar in amongst the more common 5ks, 10ks and half marathons. Perhaps it was this uncommon distance, perhaps being in the middle of the spring marathon season (Paris, Manchester, London etc), or perhaps everyone had rusted up in the biblically damp lead-up to the race. Whatever the reason, it was a relatively small but hard-core Striders contingent of eleven that went out to play.
I scrounged a lift from Jonathan Hamill and his enthusiastic support team in a bid to cut down on carbon emissions. It was an easy journey and not just because I wasn’t driving. We arrived nice and early (just after 9 am), which meant no parking problems. After visiting the boat (not THE boat, sadly – that might have been a little more impressive!) to collect race number (with timing chip) and race t-shirt (sizing’s generous, so I went down a size), we made full use of the nearby McDonalds. Food for the support team, toilets for the athletes. We weren’t the only ones doing it! Other facilities are available.
The weather was starting to warm up from the extended winter we had been “enjoying”. Despite being fine and the sun attempting to break through there was still a chill in the southerly breeze. In the end, I opted to leave a light base layer under my club vest, big wuss that I am.
We warmed-up along Maritime Avenue, where the race would start and finish. By the time we got back to the start the rest of the racers had formed up in the start funnel, so we joined near the back. I was realistic about my likely finish position i.e. nowhere near the front, and the race was chip-timed, so I didn’t see the harm in starting near the back.
The course is essentially flat. It sets out next to the marina following Maritime Avenue through a housing estate before turning up a short incline through a car park and onto the promenade. It is an out and back course so once you’ve reached the turn you know what to expect on the way back. You also get to see the leaders on their return (or the chasers if you’re in the lead). As we met them coming back I counted the places and made Stephen Jackson 9th as we passed and it wasn’t long before I saw Chris Callan and some of our other faster runners on their return, giving me a chance to cheer them on.
I’ve been working my way back from some recent illnesses so I had set an easy expectation on myself – no PB to beat, no pressure. My plan was to set out at 8-minute mile pace, which I thought I could hold all the way through. I would see how I was feeling at 2 miles and then the turn (2.5 miles) and pick up the pace a little if I was feeling OK.
And I kind of stuck to that plan. Kind of. I held 8-minute mile pace for nearly 2 miles but seeing the leaders gave me a burst of adrenaline and my pace picked up before I realised what was happening. It felt OK and sustainable, so I kept at it, keeping around 7:40 pace most of the way back along the promenade. I was picking off other runners all the way back and this was the other advantage of starting from the back and running negative splits, it gave me natural targets to aim for. The route was plenty wide enough to allow easy passing all the way.
Getting to the last 600m or so I dropped back through the car park onto Maritime Avenue and the slight downward slope gave me the impetus to start pushing for the finish.
I’ve always had a finishing kick (a legacy of being a failed sprinter) so really wound it up in the final stretch, earning me a shout out from the tannoy announcer.
Stephen was first male Strider home (8th overall in 26:23) and Fiona Jones was first female (20th woman in 35:26 gun time). There were some other excellent times from Striders, including both Chris Callan and Michael Littlewood coming in under 30 minutes (sub 6-minute mile average). In total there were 493 runners with times ranging from a blistering 24:16 (new CR from Dominic Shaw of New Marske Harriers) to just over 1:07.
I loved this race. It was a great course, inexpensive and accessible. It’s a good opportunity to run this less common distance and a real PB opportunity.
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!