Just three days after the Henlow 10 came the third round of the Lincolnshire Cross Country League. I have something of a reputation for hating cross country, it’s perhaps no surprise that in the five years of being a Grantham resident this was to be my debut in the Lincs XC League. It would probably not have happened either were the weather not fairly glorious for mid November and the venue was Belton House, just a couple of miles from home and very familiar to me as the host of Belton House parkrun.
Talking of parkrun, I warmed up for the cross country race by taking part in the parkrun on the Saturday morning. Running with my brother Joe I pleasingly had no ill effects from the 10 mile of racing at Henlow, finishing surprisingly fresh, first, in 17:25.
Sunday morning was sunny and breezy, the race kicking off at an early (for cross country) 10 am. As I do for parkrun my warm up was jogging the 2 1/2 miles or so to Belton House. I arrived not long before the start, no need to strip into kit for it had been warm enough to wear my GRC kit. No need either to put on spikes or trail shoes for the going underneath was good to solid, I wore my Hoka ATR Challengers – Clifton’s with the minimum of trail sole for a bit of grip. Truth be told I could have comfortably worn the regular Cliftons. This was the type of cross country course I liked – a bit lumpy, twisty in places but fundamentally mud free and more akin to running on road!
I haven’t run a Lincs League XC before but I’ve followed them closely enough to be aware that the depth isn’t quite at the levels of many (perhaps any) other cross league. With the odd exception the big players in the local running scene don’t take part. This does give the opportunity for a fairly high finishing position (as not that many take part) for even the most moderately talented cross country runner.
I’m known for making conservative starts and this race was no exception. I let the inevitable stampede gallop off into the distance safe in the knowledge I would pass most of them a minute or two up the hill on the course – a 90 second or so affair just steep enough to shatter the thresholds of most of the field.
By the time we reached the top I was sixth. I settled in running the opening mile in 6:01 which took in running around the back of the Old Wood and plunging back down the other side of the hill onto the level, joining the parkrun course by the golf course, but running it in reverse. There was some confusion when we turned off the parkrun course through a section more regularly used at the House’s horse trials cross country course. A marshal gave confusing signals which briefly had us heading the wrong way before we were sent in the correct direction. This briefly boosted adrenaline levels – I quickly made up the little distance I lost to the fifth placed runner and passed him.
With the second mile covered in 5:47 I reached Lion Gates and headed on the lesser travelled footpath of Belton House. Here I could see the fourth placed runner someway in the distance but clearly slowing suffering an overly exuberant opening to the race. Mile 3 (5:48) saw us begin lap two. I reeled the fourth placed runner, a 20 second or so gap closed to nothing by the time we reached the hill for the second time. This young runner attempted to go with me up the hill but his effort was short lived and I soon pulled clear and into a safe fourth position. I could see the third placed runner in front of me – around 20 seconds ahead. He looked fairly strong. I could have given my absolute maximum to catch him but a lack of desire and ability meant that the gap only diminished slightly come the finish.
Mile 4 was another 6:01, mile 5 was 5:43 and the final 3/4s mile slowed a bit to 5:52 as I lost interest in catching third place and had the other issue of catching back markers in the men’s race, the junior races and the leaders of the women’s race (they like to have as many races taking place at once in Lincs League….)
I crossed the line a contented fourth, which is hilariously my best ever cross country finishing position since I won my sixth form school cross country title way back when I was young enough to be in school. Young Will Tucker of Grantham AC was the winner, Iain Bailey, who I beat at Henlow on Thursday, got his revenge over me by finishing second here, followed by Chris Cope in third.
I cheered home a few of my club mates then jogged home. As races go fairly uneventful!
Note: I am writing this in early March 2019 – nearly five months after the race took place. Recollections are already a little hazy!
The RAF Henlow 10 was a race that came to my radar pretty much having finished the Leeds Abbey Dash 10K, To be honest it wasn’t a race that I was that familiar with. A little more digging and I came to recognise that it was a race with plenty of heritage, albeit one with an uncertain future, given that RAF Henlow as a base is due to close at some point in the next few years.
The Henlow 10 was first run in 1952 as a challenge between runners from RAF Cardington and RAF Henlow. In its heyday during the mid 1980s the race took on the mantle of the RAF 10 Mile Championships and a new course was established to cater for the 800+ runners who would take part, including some of the country’s very best runners. It was at this race in 1986 where current GRC member Chris Armstrong, representing RAF Lossiemouth, ran 52:37 to finish twelfth, a time that would have seen him comfortably win in 2018. In 2000 the route was changed again to its current form, beginning at the historic Old Warden Aerodrome Shuttleworth and meandering its way along undulating country lanes through a number of small villages to end at the airfield within the RAF Henlow Military Base.
I was assured that, despite its status as the RAC 10 Mile Championships, civilians were welcome and encouraged to take part. Given that I was also offered the opportunity to travel down on the RAF Coningsby coach with GRC club mate Andrew Pask and that I’d been unable to take part in a 10 mile race through 2018, the temptation to race on a Thursday proved too great to resist and I signed up.
Having arrived at RAF Henlow and gotten hold of my race number I met up with fellow GRC runners Ian Williams (who, like Andrew, was representing RAF Coningsby) and Peter Bonner who, like me, was a civilian competitor. We hung around in the gymnasium until the briefing took place, at the conclusion of which we were ushered to the coaches that had been laid on to take us to Shuttleworth Aerodrome. Once there I put in a mile or so of warm up, enjoying the unseasonably mild, sunny conditions, but noticing that there was a stiff breeze that appeared to be a southerly , which was unfortunate given that the point-to-point course ran in a mostly southerly direction.
Having analysed my disappointing Leeds Abbey Dash performance compared to the positive Worksop Half Marathon run out, I’d noted that the big difference in the two was that I went out hard from the gun at Leeds, whereas I eased myself in to the Worksop race and benefited as a result. I decided to opt for the latter tactic here, so wasn’t unduly concerned when i found myself somewhat swamped at the start by a swathe of overly exuberant runners pushed on by the very opening section of the race out of the Aerodrome enjoying a tailwind.
We turned left out of Shuttleworth and up a short climb which soon shuffled the field into something like its natural running order. I quickly moved up from somewhere near the outer periphery of the top twenty into around seventh place. The opening mile was steady at 5:47, the second mile was mostly flat and was relatively quick at 5:39. I’d moved past a couple more runners to lie fifth and sharing the pace with a big tall runner we were able to close in on a runner who readily became familiar to me, being Iain Bailey, who I battled with at the Woodhall Spa 10K and had finished behind on many occasions at parkrun especially. I’d heard that he had only turned 40 the day before, and was wondering if he’d maybe be suffering the excess of celebrating that milestone of being a Veteran athlete.
We caught Iain at around 5K, a long uphill drag slowing mile 3 to a 5:51. Feeling good and knowing that we would soon turn left and hit a headwind, I wasted no time in taking third place and quite quickly moving clear of Iain and the other runner. With the second placed runner literally just visible in the distance I knew that the best I could do was third (which I was very happy with) and was facing the prospect of a fairly lonely race to the finish. Miles 4 to 6 were 5:49, 5:43, and 5:44 respectively, most enjoyable too on quiet country lanes, some surrounded by woodland in full autumn hue. I was pleased with these miles, especially as the vast majority of the mileage was directly into the headwind. Mile 7 saw quite a big downhill drop in the small town of Shefford, netting me my quickest mile of the race at 5:36.
Racing through Shefford was quite surreal. We were running on entirely open roads on a early Thursday afternoon, the residents and vehicle drivers clearly blissfully unaware that there was a race taking place. Given the history of the race I imagined that this kind of scenario harked back to the races of the 1970s and 80s which nearly always took place on open roads with little or no traffic management in place. In someways it was a pleasing throwback; when forced to take my chances at busy roundabouts or junctions.
Mile 8 through Shefford itself was a 5:46. Mile 9 was a tale of two halves, the opening quarter of a mile up a stiff little climb made doubly hard with the ever present headwind. It was then a long gradual drop down back towards RAF Henlow, this allowing the overall mile split to be the equal slowest of the race at 5:51. With around half a mile still to run I turned 90 degrees left into the base. I didn’t have a tailwind here, but the lack of a full on headwind felt like I had a 20 mph wind directly on my back! This, alas, was short lived as I turned again into the headwind for the final couple of hundred meters before turning left into a gloriously understated finish, welcomed home by a small splattering of applause from a handful of spectators.
A 5:39 final mile meant I clocked 57:49, finishing third. A little analysis suggests I ran the quickest second half of the race and it was a real pity so much of it was run into a headwind, otherwise I think I could have gone the 30 seconds or so quicker required to claim a PB. I cheered home the other GRC runners and those from RAF Coningsby too. I hung around with them to pick up my trophy for third place overall (And unofficially first civilian) and celebrated their well deserved winning of the RAF Team Competition and the splendid trophy that goes with that honour. My trinket to keep was definitely one worth keeping too – sitting currently with pride of place on my mantelpiece.
The future of the RAF Henlow 10 is very much uncertain; it is quite possible I took part in its last ever edition in its current guise. That I was able to take part in a race and win a prize at a race with so much history makes me feel a little bit proud of myself! The good race / bad race / good race streak of autumn 2018 continues!
The Leeds Abbey Dash was planned to be the last attempt to peak and have a go at a quick time for 2018. The late decision to enter the Worksop Halloween Half Marathon meant I had just a week to recover from that race and hopefully be in tip top shape for the race. The old running rule that it takes a day per mile raced to fully recover would indicate that this would be a tough ask, but life is short and I wanted to race both – so I did!
The club run the day after Worksop wasn’t the best – the F1 championship being decided in Mexico meant a late night’s work and so was really tired come the evening and although the pace wasn’t quick it felt hard, couple too with some alarming pains in the right Achilles in heel. When a lift home was offered I jumped at the opportunity and Tuesday was a Zwift only day, albeit quite a hard ride on the Tour of New York. Wednesday was the regular town 10 mile run which felt a bit laboured but less painful, the chesty cough still a bit of an issue, but not so bad that I couldn’t then put in 50 minutes on a Halloween themed Zwift in the evening!
Thursday saw more of the same on Zwift in the morning followed by a painful, but effective massage, which cured the issues with the Achilles (unsurprisingly, it stemmed from the calf). The club’s town run in the evening felt very easy, although a touch sore from the massage. Friday saw a day off, then on Saturday I jogged to Belton House to take part in the third anniversary of the parkrun there. In perhaps not my smartest move I had agreed to pace the a sub 20 minute group. There wasn’t many takers and pacing was really hard because of a stiff breeze that made things tricky to judge. I ended up finishing over 20 seconds inside 20 minutes, although I stopped at the line for a few seconds to make the official time seem less bad! I’m not sure whether this parkrun hindered my prospects for Sunday or not. I know many like to do a fairly swift 5k the day before a race to loosen the legs; historically I haven’t and I’m not convinced with reason forays into the practice whether it works for me.
Leeds on a Sunday morning is around 80 minutes away from Grantham – a very simple journey mostly up the A1. I drove up with four other members of Grantham Running Club in tow, none of whom had run the Dash before. I had once, back in 2013 when I had just moved from Cov to Grantham. The race was so memorable I made a point of revisiting the race on this blog when I began Project Sub 2:45. Various reasons had prevented my return in the five years subsequent, mostly work related. This weekend though I was free to race and hoped to make the most of it.
By sheer good fortune we arrived at the same car park within a roundabout that I had parked in five years beforehand. I had wanted to get into this car park as I knew that it was only a couple of minutes walk away from the start. The good fortune was that we calmly exited the ring road onto the slip road to the roundabout at 7:59, literally one minute before they closed the slip road and all surrounding roads, making access to the car park impossible. Considering we hadn’t the foggiest where other car parks were in Leeds, this was a real stroke of luck!
After five or so minutes finding the only working pay booth for the car park and making the judgement that the large group of travellers in the car park didn’t pose that much a risk to life and property, we all walked to the start, taking the slightly long route as the passage of time had seen me forget the convenient side passage that slashed the distance in half. After a few minutes it was agreed we would go off and do our own things regarding preparation – I wanted to use my car as a storage base, the others were happy to use the baggage drop.
Once I’d, changed, visited the portaloos, and dropped my bag in the car there was around an hour to the start, which meant I could put in a longer than usual warm up of two and a third miles on a simple out and back along the A66 Kirkstall Road the race took us along. The warm up was unmemorable except that it felt unremarkable and any attempts to run at pace felt quite difficult; all I could remember was how good I felt five years earlier when warming up on the same stretch of road.
I used the fact I was close to my car at the end of the warm up to change from long sleeved club top to t-shirt, feeling that it was a bit warmer than planned. I think I even dispensed with the gloves, sunglasses though were kept on even though it was cloudy – the stiffening breeze was wreaking havoc with my tear ducts and I felt that I could do with the protection of lenses to keep eyes dry!
I had feared huge queues for the portaloos, but they weren’t too bad this year and, I found myself lining up in the sub 35 pen 15 minutes ahead of the race start at 9:30. I was calm, if anything perhaps a little too calm, although I was beginning to feel the excitement of runners around me as the tension mounted as race start approached.
With military precision we were called forward with around 90 seconds before the start of the race. Then 30 seconds before the start we were marched forward again. There was little in the way of pre race pomp and ceremony – just a short countdown and a firing horn! Five years ago there was a small amount of congestion at the start but this year, certainly where I was running, most of those around me were not too close to the start for their pace ability, and so we were very soon into our running.
The course is not that inspiring, you run along the A66 (which is mostly dual carriageway) on one side, via a detour through a multiplex cinema car park, towards Kirkstall Abbey (which you don’t really see) before making a U-turn back towards the start, turning off with around half a mile to go up a slip road and over the other side of a roundabout to finish beside the town hall. Some races sell because they are scenic – the Abbey Dash sells because it is a fast course with some very fast runners which will hopefully see you run a fast time. I hoped to get close to my PB of 34:10 and dreamed of perhaps going sub 34. Certainly the intention was to go out in close to 17 minutes at halfway and see what happened thereafter.
My first mile at 5:29 felt very controlled, helped a bit by the tailwind. The second mile took us through the car park, which saw the runners around me spread to mostly single file. This was something of a surprise for I distinctly remember at this point and, indeed, for much of the race being surrounded by runners for most of the race, sometimes three or four abreast. The seconds mile was spot on pace at 5:27 and I was at this point feeling reasonably strong.
It was here when I heard someone on my shoulder say something to me which I couldn’t make out. I said something like ‘excuse me’ and he said again: are you Project Sub 2:45?’ To say this took me by surprise was an understatement. It was the first time anyone even acknowledged to me that they read this, let alone someone I didn’t know and in the middle of a race! I somewhat bashfully replied that I was he and was flattered to hear that this website was something of a source of inspiration for his exploits!
With that impromptu conversation out of the way I forged on, beginning to feel the grind a touch on the gentle incline that comes just before the midpoint turnaround. Mile 3 I clocked at 5:33, I was a bit disappointed to see I went through the official halfway point at 17:20, but knew that the second half is generally more downhill so time, in theory, can be made up.
Miles four and five were not particularly great at 5:35 and 5:34. It was noticeable that the breeze was somewhat stiffer than in the warm up and as a headwind it was definitely hindering progress. I felt quite lethargic, even the act of catching Tom Marshall for a third race in a row didn’t inspire me to pick up the pace.
Mile six was little short of a disaster. Struggling to stay the coattails of ever diminishing pockets of runners ahead of me I was slowing as the headwind made its presence ever more known. My watch, which at one point had me going close to or just under 34 minutes, had by now estimated me coming home at something just over 35. Just before we hit the climb off the ring road Tom passed me. The climb saw me rally a little bit as I struggled less on the rise than others around me. Mile 6 split came up on my watch as 5:45. This was slower than my half marathon pace and I’ve finished marathons quicker!
With just the finishing straight to contend with I couldn’t sprint on as much as those around me, the legs weren’t willing and the stomach wasn’t best pleased with my intentions either. Vince came past me with around 150 meters left to run. I crossed the line with the official time of 34:58, which I knew would see me in Athletics Weekly’s results but, even with my chip time of 34:52, was really disappointing. It wasn’t a PB, not a course PB, not even a season’s best. It was just… meh.
I hung around for the rest of GRC to finish – it was a mixed bag – some coming home with big new personal bests, others, like myself, going home a little disappointed with their results. I did though get to chat to Vince again at the finish which brightened my day – the fact he has gone on to run a fantastic 2:37:02 at the Valencia Marathon on December 2 gives me hope and inspiration that I am not far off being in shape to perhaps do something similar next Spring. After all, with a month of hindsight to benefit from, I probably hadn’t recovered fully from Worksop and there was definitely some illness fighting going on within the body, courtesy this time of the wife and her ailments.
Once we had gotten the obligatory GRC group photo and we had found my car, I went on a two and a half mile plus cool down run back along the road we had not long raced on while the others supped on beer in TGI Friday’s. I had a coffee to see me home on the drive back; we were back in no time, still not particularly pleased but a little happier when I found out that at 83.34% in terms of age grade I had apparently just run my second best ever race. The bad races appear to be the ones where I score most highly of late!
Despite my lacklustre race I would still say the Leeds Abbey Dash is still one of my all time favourite races. I just need to go back now and do myself justice!