I’d not run cross country since a rather miserable affair back at Birmingham in February 2013, when I was 15th or so for Kenilworth Runners, running hurt and running with little enthusiasm. As a second claim member for Grantham Running Club I’m not eligible to compete for them in the underwhelming Lincolnshire Cross Country League, so to get my cross country fix I need to represent the green and black of the club I’ve been with now for 13 years.
The last few times I’ve run Birmingham Leagues at Coundon Hall Park in Coventry, it was just a five minute drive from front door to the course. Now a Grantham resident, it took an hour and twenty to reach Coventry, then, rather embarrassingly, another 30 minutes to find the park, as the hard earned knowledge of Coventry roads in all the years seemed to desert me completely in just the four months its been since I left there.
Arriving late it meant I had little time to say hello to my clubmates, most of whom I’d not seen since saying farewell back in August. I imagine some had assumed I’d left for good, so were a little surpised to see me there, especially as my dislike of cross country is a barely hidden secret. In fact within seconds of walking along just a fraction of the muddy and pretty flooded section of the circuit, I began to wonder what on earth I was doing there.
Running late, the warm up amounted to little more than a 3/4s mile jog. Five minutes before the start of the race, there was a minute’s silence for Tipton Harriers’ Andy Holden, who had sadly recently passed away. It was said we were running as a tribute to his memory and fitting it would be as he was a figurehead of Midlands athletics and grassroots cross country.
Whether his memory would be well served by the Coundon Hall Park course is a mute topic. Essentially a lap is navigating through and around a series of football pitches, pretty flat and featureless were it not for the vast swathes of flooded or extremely muddy sections. There was once a moderately interesting section through a small copse. This, alas, was sacrificed a few years back in the name of health and safety, rendering the course – all three laps of it – a largely tedious affair.
At 2:30 prompt the starting horn was blasted and we were off. Perhaps because the ground was wet and boggy from the off, the usual kamikaze cavalry charge was somewhat less pronounced than in many cross country races. I found myself in the early stages around tenth Kenilworth counter – this for me is something of a very rapid start, preferring greatly to start slowly and come on strongly hopefully in the closing stages.
Despite the lack of warm up, after a couple of minutes running I felt quite sprightly and strong, easing myself past club mates Pete Bryan, Alex Atkinson and Matt Dyer. For the first mile I was within spitting distance of Connor Carson and Stephen Page. They though showed far greater prowess over the muddy conditions and soon eased away.
I set my sights on another team mate Jim Sawle, who was in cracking form for the first third of 2013 before spending much of the rest of the year injured. Approaching the end of the first lap, I was told by spectator Mick Williams I was seventh counter for the club that being the first B Team counter.
Sniffing a possible A team position, I began to close down on Jim over the course of the second lap, overtaking him at the far end of the course. A quick nod of encouragement to each other and it was head down, trying to establish a gap on him and close down guys from other clubs.
It was around about then I began to suffer stomach cramps, nothing too severe, but enough to not want me to commit 100% – they would ease off quite a bit if I likewise eased off the pace a bit. Approaching the end of the second lap I began to tire quite noticeably – the combination of the soft, muddy and wet conditions I’m not comfortable with, and coming off a four week base training block – meant that I couldn’t quite maintain the pace of the opening lap. This doesn’t work too well for me, I tend to run better if I can come on strong in the closing stages rather than battle the demons whilst hanging on as best as possible.
I nervously glanced around and saw it was no longer Jim behind me but Kev Hope – a runner who’d joined Kenilworth in 2013 and was, I believe, making his XC debut for the club. He’d clearly paced the race better than I had and was slowly but inexorably closing down on me.
Around the third lap I pushed on as hard as my tiring body and delicate stomach would allow. I thought with a quarter of a lap to go, I’d maybe put enough of a gap on Kev and would score a rare A team counting position. Alas in the final sprint, he came past me like a train, not just passing me but around four or five other runners.
Initially disappointed to just miss out on sixth spot, I was soon pleased for Kev and the club as he’d been able to make up precious positions that I was unable to take. I was also pleased that this is comfortably the best Birmingham League Cross Country race I’ve done in this second week of January slot, and it all bodes well for the months and hopfully year to come – especially as there was barely a whiff of pain or discomfort in the legs.
Overall the club didn’t have the best of days – three of our strongest runners were missing and the quality at the front of the field was pretty fierce. Still, I was glad I’d made the effort to represent the club, at least once, in arguably the best cross country league in the country.
A couple of miles warmdown with a handful of club mates, and it was time to say my goodbyes and to head home, looking forward to the Nationals in February where I will meet up with many of them again. Stripping the mud sodden socks and preparing a protein shake for the journey home, I thought already of the twenty mile run I had planned for the following morning.
When, back in late September, I got whiff that I may, despite all expectations, be entering a spell of good running form, I entered the Leeds Abbey Dash 10k. It was a calculated risk, it was on the day of the United States GP, which meant a late evening of work on the Saturday night followed by an early start to the race before rushing back home to cover the F1 race.
Leeds seemed a smart choice. A club mate, Chris McCarthy, had set an excellent time there a year before and the quality of field on a fast flat course was high. After entry things continued to go well, a strong run at the Robin Hood Half Marathon, more good weeks of solid training followed. A parkrun in Peterborough was one second outside my PB; had I paced that run properly I would have smashed my 5k best. A rare race off road at Seagrave saw me come home in the top ten. A quick look at my nearest rivals on Power of Ten showed I was running in good company.
Training in the week of Leeds was atypical. A big drinking session on Saturday night saw me incapacitated on Sunday. I punished myself by running long on Monday, a hills session on Tuesday, eight miles on Wednesday and then sixteen miles on Thursday. I was knackered on that Thursday run. Overdoing it, I thought, so two days rest before the race on Sunday. Working on the US Grand Prix meant I had odd work shift patterns to contend with. I finished work at around 1am on the Friday night and not much earlier on the Saturday night.
I woke at around 5:45am and thankfully the plan of having everything packed and laid out ready came to fruition, for I was out of the door in less than 45 minutes. Sticking to the new policy of consuming three cereal bars for breakfast two and a half hours before the race, I had driven a fair way towards Leeds before breakfast was taken – washed down with a shot of beetroot juice for good luck.
I arrived in Leeds at 7:45, a long time before the start of 9:30 but I wanted to be assured of finding a spot in the most convenient car park, within easy jogging distance to the start line. Parking was free, or maybe free, because in the time it took for me to walk to the race village, use the amenities and return to the car, the signs saying it was free to park on a Sunday had been replaced with ones saying it cost £1! Much confusion reigned; a local assured us that it was free on this Sunday and that charges were to be introduced the following Sunday – the council slyly putting the signs up early to catch as many runners as possible. I believed the local gentleman as I was sure my eyes hadn’t deceived me 20 minutes earlier; plenty didn’t and stumped up the unnecessary cash for peace of mind.
I only usually do a mile or so for warm up, today I decided, especially as it was only 10k, to do a two mile warm up. I jogged along the A66 Kirkstall Road, which would form around 95% of the race. What was immediately apparent was that this section of the course was wide and pancake flat. Moreover the weather conditions were looking perfect for racing, overcast and windless, maxing out at around 9°C. After a mile I stretched a little, refastened the laces and headed back at a quicker pace. What gave me confidence for the race ahead was that as I came to the end of the mile I glanced at my Garmin and it said that in the final 1/3 mile I had averaged 6:02 pace and that felt ridiculously easy.
I headed back to the car and changed into my race kit. I walked towards the race village, but when I saw the queues for the Portaloos I realised there was little hope of being able to use them and be anywhere near the start line. I remembered that the TGI Friday’s opposite the car park clearly had its doors open where their toilets were. I took a chance and jogged back to the car park. I was right and a few others were taking the opportunity to use facilities far plusher and less popular than the official race provided amenities.
Thankful I was that crucial bit lighter I made my way back to the start, still with around 15 minutes before the off. Realising there was little point in placing myself in the start chutes I joined the hundreds who had already decided to queue for the start. It was there I met club mates Richard Simkiss and Chris McCarthy, a.k.a. the MrCarkiss Elite Project. I’d not seen either of them in months and it was good to meet face to face rather than on Facebook or the like. They were clearly both nervous – both looking to break 33 minutes – and both anxious that we were nowhere near the front of the pack waiting to start the race. The event may have been chip timed but positions would be hard to make up if it took ages to cross the start line. Moreover there was no knowing who would be lined up in front of you. Many a time there has been a 16 minute miling MP3 player wearing loon getting in everyone’s way because they decided they had the right to stand at the head of the race.
With a couple of minutes before the off I caught eye on quite a few other Kenilworth Runners, some of whom had higher expectations of how they would race than others. I wished them all luck and, with a minute to the off, truly focused on the race ahead.
At exactly 9:30 the gun fired and we were off. It only took around 15 seconds to cross the start line but it felt like an eternity. Richard and Chris were clearly peeved at this and set off on a mission, darting left and right to pass other runners and assume their rightful positions in the race. I did a little bit of the same but was a little more cautious, I too felt I was being held up, but a quick look at my Garmin showed we were averaging 5:30 in those early stages – that was quick enough for me and I was actually grateful I was unable to go off as fast as maybe my body would have liked. I made that mistake at the recent Peterborough parkrun and blew up in the final stages. Hopefully this enforced slightly more reserved start would pay dividends come the closing stages.
We soon navigated the roundabout that contained the car park where my car was and onto the road I had warmed up on not long ago. The section that followed, from there, to around where my Garmin flagged one mile, was probably my favourite moment of running to date. Here I was running fast, surrounded by people in front, almost as far as the eye could see, and behind, to either side spread along the width of a wide dual carriageway, We were all running fast, yet silently. With no traffic and precious few spectators, the only sound that could be heard was the pitter-patter of hundreds of runners, all seemingly striding in unison. It was an ethereal moment. I’d run in large groups during races before, but usually during a marathon or maybe a half marathon, where runners were, understandably, running well within themselves. Here everyone was running nearly flat out, it felt how I imagine it must be to be in a horse race.
I went through the first mile in 5:35, fast, but crucially some 24 seconds or so slower than my opening mile at the ill fated parkrun, so, in the scheme of things, comfortable. The ethereal nature of the race was broken not long after when the race took us through the carpark of an out of town shopping complex, complete with some poorly placed and not well highlighted sleeping policemen. It barely slowed us, but it felt a little odd at this, one of the country’s premier road races, for us to be utilising a car park.
Not long after rejoining the main road I passed another club mate, Pete Matthews. He has improved year on year, but I was surprised to see him this far up the field, as his target was a 37 something 10k. Maybe it was birthday exuberance or how he prefers to attack races, I wished him well as I passed him and continued on. The second mile was 5:31, quicker but still comfortable.
The third mile was a bit of a shock as it contained something of an uphill drag. Nothing too difficult to slow too much, but enough to make itself apparent. I was under the impression that the race was pancake flat and here it clearly wasn’t. Whilst I cursed the climb it was obvious, as the lead runners began to pass me on the return home, that the climb would be a pleasant descent not long after.
The third mile was a 5:38, not bad considering the climb, and I passed 5km in approximately 17:30 – just 10 seconds outside my 5k PB. Metres after this split it was a sharp U-turn and the return home. Feeling good and strong I made a conscious effort to increase the pace a touch, feeding off the energies of the runners behind me I began to pass on the opposite side of the road. I began picking off runners ahead of me, but unlike most races where running at this pace would see large gaps between groups, there were no gaps to be seen.
I passed the fourth mile in 5:29 and spurred on by this quickest mile yet continued to pour on the coals, revelling in the perfect conditions and the quality of the field around me. I passed through the fifth mile in 5:24 and although I started to feel just a touch tired I was spurred on by the thought there was just over a mile left to run. I was also spurred on by my Garmin Virtual Partner, who was set to run the 10k in 35:00, and I was around 20 seconds up on him. Just one more mile at this pace and a new PB would be mine!
The end of mile 6 saw us leave the flat road and onto a slip road that took us briefly up onto a ring road. This was a pretty short, but steep, climb, not before used in the race, and thought to cost as much as 20 seconds. Undeterred I pushed on almost oblivious of the climb, passing 6 miles in another 5:24. Coming off the ring road and swinging right towards the finish line I caught sight of the finish line and gave it everything to ensure that I would break 35:00 on the clock, let alone by chip time.
I crossed the finish line in around 34:50, stopped my Garmin, which read 34:34 and I was simply elated. Thirteen years in the waiting, I had finally broken my 10K PB, the PB I’d considered to be my strongest as it was set when I was in the previous peak of my powers. I couldn’t help but throw a few fist pumps as I made my way out of the finish area, forced along by an insanely loud PA system.
I met upon Richard and Chris, who had both broken 33 minutes, both clocked PBs and Richard indeed set a new club record. Both though looked as miserable as sin and I struggled to reconcile with them – telling them quite bluntly to ‘Get over themselves’. Maybe its because I’m a fair few years older than them that I’ve learnt to cherish a PB no matter if it wasn’t quite what you are hoped to achieve. When you are punching at this sort of weight it won’t be long before those PBs become very hard to achieve, so enjoy them whilst you can.
The rest of the day was a bit of a blur. We went off on a two mile warm down, cheering on some of the slower runners as we passed. We then enjoyed a meal at TGI Friday’s trying our best not to let on that it was Pete’s birthday for fear of a waitress attack of Happy Birthday singing and dancing. I soon had to say my goodbyes and hot foot it back home to work on the US GP. I was lucky not to be held up on the A1 by a crash – I’d pulled off at the last minute before the tailback, and followed my nose to rejoin the road around 10 miles further south, where mercifully the traffic was clear. I’d barely pulled into my drive and my phone was busy with requests to get on with my work – my success would have to be enjoyed another day.
I knew I’d put in a strong performance, it transpired that it would statistically be my best ever to day, scoring a WAVA score of 80.98%. It was the first time I’d broken 80% – a goal I’d targeted for some years and was thrilled. I also knew it was a strong field, I didn’t realise that I’d been part of one of the deepest quality road races in Britain for many a year – finishing 242nd or so. Thankfully Athletics Weekly saw fit to publish all finishers who broke 35 minutes – a mere 250 of us!