For one reason or another I decided not to race the fifth NEHL XC fixture at Thornley Hall which meant my goal of achieving my highest ever placing in the Individual Grand Prix was no longer achieveable, having only completed two previous fixtures in the 2018/19 season so far at Gosforth Park and Aykley Heads.
So I was in two minds whether to attend Alnwick even though it is probably one of the most enjoyable courses on the circuit.
Overall my key aims at present are to achieve a new 5k PB and then tune up for the Northern 12 stage relays at the end of March. After that I’m aiming to run some quick times on the track at a range of distances from 400m up to maybe 3000m.
I feel my strength as a runner could be on the track over maybe a mile and I also feel like I’ve proven some decent potential in training by recently running 2:42.3 for 1km on the road which predicts a 4:33 mile and 15:39 5km equivalent performance. That said I know I need to progress in stages as my current PBs are well shy (4:49 and 16:44 respectively). I meant it when I recently posted a comment on one of my Strava runs that “I hate all of my PBs” as I know I am better than my Power of 10 suggests but running is a journey and patience is key.
Overall training has been going well despite a few minor blips in January due to a couple of illnesses and some usual shin issues caused more by over excuberence in training than anything else.
Just after New Year I picked up a heavy head cold and then at the end of January I had a strange stomach bug. The shin issues were caused by me starting a new run work commute routine which suddenly had me doubling up Monday to Friday with a total of 8 miles per day. That flared up some shin pain which is more neural than boney and is a common issue for me when I run too much too quickly.
Training load has been much improved in February and I’d hazard a guess that it was a record mileage month (233.5 miles in total) despite it being only 28 calendar days. That included a 66 mile week which is a weekly record although I try hard to avoid focussing on a fixed 7 day block and prefer to monitor training load trends on Training Peaks.
I feel like I’ve matured somewhat in my overall approach to running and training. I’ve adopted a simpler approach whereby approx 90% of my training is easy with the new work commute forming the basis of those miles. Having a backpack to carry forces a slowing down of those bread and butter miles but it also establishes a good routine and ensures I get a good 30-35mins run in before eating breakfast which I have found to be key in achieving and maintaining a consistent and healthy race weight. Having a backpack and running slow (avg. 7:45-8min miles) also provides a good cardio workout. Running twice a day teaches the body that running is fundamental and the benefits of this are clear – I believe if done correctly the body learns to adapt and repair more quickly. Running tired and sometimes hungry builds strength and endurance and the body responds well.
The remaining 10% of weekly training volume is spent running at goal race pace. I mix this up quite a bit. Sometimes I’ll run say 2k at target 5k pace or 3k at current 10km pace. I’ve also ran some longer runs at more like HM pace (I recently ran 10 miles in 60mins which is faster than my current HM PB and felt comfortable overall). I’ve also ran some trials like the aforementioned 1k in 2:42.3 which are very much confidence boosters and confirm my potential.
I must state this program is inspired by Ernst van Aaken, the real father of Long Slow Distance (LSD).
All of this means I feel I’m in the best shape I have ever been in and I believe I could pretty much PB at any distance at the moment. So the key is to keep my feet firmly on the ground and carefully put together a race plan over spring and up to June.
It was against this backdrop that myself and Michael Hedley arrived at Alnwick castle to do battle in the last fixture of the NEHL. In the back of my mind I wondered if I could try to tag onto the back of Michael in this race although I knew he had ran well the previous week in the National XC and would probably come on for that.
As usual I didn’t feel that great in warm up and the wind had gotten up and the temperature had dropped somewhat. I have gotten used to feeling a bit “dead” before a race and just stuck to the routine of 15 minutes of gentle jogging and trying to focus on positive self talk.
Before we knew it we were lined up on the start line with an ever increasing Fast pack eagerly waiting to chase the slow and medium packs that had already got underway.
The first 5 minutes is always fast and furious and although I was keen not to burn matches I was also determined to get a good early position. My original plan of tagging to Michael was quickly put to one side although I felt like I could do worse than tracking fellow TBHer Cees van der Land. I could also pick out the likes of Matthew Alderson and Daniel Alexander who I’d battled it out with at Aykley Heads albeit some months ago now.
The 1st lap felt strong with my only issue being on the long stretch on the far side of the course which had been overlayed with large stones which were difficult to run on in spikes and it would have been very easy to roll an ankle. So I found myself alternating between that and the softer uneven ground on the left hand side. This was far from ideal and I quickly noticed I lost some ground on Cees and also a couple of fast packers I knew I was stronger than went by. So I had to tackle that section better on the next few laps. On balance I felt I’d have to carefully negotiate the stones.
The key feature of the Alnwick course is the steep downhill section which can be tricky and again I found myself not taking it as smoothly as Cees but to be fair on myself he is an experienced fell runner! Overall I felt I was travelling quite strongly entering the second lap.
The long draggy uphill section which is more a series of inclines felt naturally harder second time round and frustratingly I still didn’t feel like I had gotten through the stoney section as effectively as I needed to. I was still weaving about between the stones and the edge. I think it was at this point that I badly stubbed my right second toe. Fortunately it didn’t really adversely affect my race but I did feel like it was broken immediately after the race! As I write this on Monday the toe is still very sore as is the arch of my foot. This could mean missing the TBH winter grand prix 5k PB attempt tomorrow which would be a real shame.
I threw myself as fast as possible down the steep hill for a second time and started trying to mentally prepare myself for the last lap. I know from experience that the last lap is all important. The majority of the field will be slowing and just by maintaining a good pace exponential place gains can be made. I wasn’t really aware where I was in the field but my target was a top 62 placing to maintain my Fast pack status next season.
The easy pickings have been had by this stage and the key really is to keep a steady tempo and pick the right racing line. Its important to not get lazy and allow yourself to settle in with a slower group of runners. The challenge is to continue to overtake and not to be overtaken.
I felt like I was sticking to task well and I could also still see Cees and Matthew ahead, maybe I was reeling them in?
Getting to the stoney section for a third time I felt a hint of a side stitch coming on but mentally I felt very strong. My legs also felt very strong and the only concern was my right foot, especially the toe which was sore. Spikes on the large, hard stones were far from ideal.
Coming off the stones and onto the nice slight incline I felt very, very strong and I made my move for a powerful finish. On the lead up to the last downhill I made some key place gains and arguably my last descent down the steep hill was my best yet.
On the final straight I mustered a sprint finish and remarkably I was thinking I would have preferred another half a mile to make up more placings!
On reviewing the results this is definitely my strongest ever XC result, finishing 58th overall in the field and 26th fastest on the day.
I feel like my current approach and improved consistency in training is paying off and I now turn my attention to the roads and track. Fingers crossed my right foot will resolve itself quickly although the TBH WGP probably comes too soon.
Thanks for reading.