Race Report: NEHL Wrekenton

Race Report: NEHL Wrekenton

I often try to remind myself that running is a constant learning process. And it demands respect.

Put another way, beware of ever thinking “I’ve got this cracked”. Also, try to never overplay a good race. On the other hand, never be too hard on yourself if you have a bad race.

As I alluded to in the last blog (the Great North Run race report), I’ve not had things go my way since Sunday 12th September. Although I am trying really hard not to make excuses, I’ve had a few unfortunate mishaps come my way.

Now I’ve had time to fully digest my run at the Great North half marathon, and also have had a good look at my training diary since June, I think I can now conclude that things haven’t really gone well in training since my run at the Quayside 5km in mid August.

That consistency that I had in the 4 weeks leading up to that fast race on the Quayside has gone, replaced by an inconsistent see-saw of training as shown in the pic.

Consistency giving way to inconsistency…

As you can see, that nice consistent straight line has become up and down. I am not going to explain it away here. I just want to make the point that I have now realised that I perhaps succumbed to the “I’ve cracked it” syndrome following the 16.01 5km in August. As a result I changed my training and approach and also slipped up on some crucial elements. Add in the unfortunate mishaps and here I am, nursing a bruised ego following a disappointing outing at Wrekenton, the first North East Harrier League fixture of the 2021/22 season. More on that in a bit.

But I think my performance at the Great North was not helped by my patchy training in the final build up. I think I was struggling. Initially I was blaming the course but I think it was that coupled with a sub optimal training period from mid August onwards that led to 1:17.46 feeling like all I could give on the day. It wasn’t supposed to feel like all I could give. The lack of consistency in training was an element of the overall picture.

The question now becomes whether I can pick things up for Manchester with so little time left. Maybe not following Wrekenton but I will still put in place a consistent plan to get me on the start line, perhaps not fully tapered, but overall emotionally and physically ready to execute a strategy that I believe in.

Back to Wrekenton and my plan was to put in an effort consistent with what I would be doing at Manchester, namely aiming to run a half marathon averaging between 360 and 365 watts based on Power. In hindsight running to Power on Cross Country (perhaps the purest form of running there is) was a terrible idea… And I’m planning to also ditch power as an in-race tool for Manchester. More on that in a future blog post. Suffice to say my key focus now is re-calibrating my running “body clock”, to run more on feel.

As it turned out the Wrekenton course was bone dry on what was a hot and humid day for the North East of England at this time of year. Indeed I was struggling on my warm up, sweating up quite noticeably with a high heart rate. I didn’t feel too good. It was about 20 to 21 degrees with humidity above 70% and so I think it was adverse running conditions overall.

Because the course was bone dry it meant that footing was very important. From a safety point of view turning an ankle was a real risk. So the idea that I was going to be referencing my watch to maintain a constant power was not wise.

In addition the Wrekenton course is very undulating with a couple of decent hills both up and down. Again, it was difficult and distracting to be checking the watch.

I tried to delay footwear choice until after my warm up but in the end I went with the general consensus I was hearing, namely that spikes were not the best way to go. I had decided to take my Nike Vomero 15 training shoes as an alternative to spikes but in hindsight I wish I’d gone spikes as a lighter and faster option. A lot of the ground was heavyish grass and I think the spikes would have been fine. They would not have been ideal on the shale sections but they would have been OK with shortest spike length.

Overall I would say my head and heart weren’t in it. It wasn’t the easiest decision deciding whether to run or not. On balance and with hindsight not running would have been the wisest decision. Not only was risking a turned ankle probably the wrong thing to do but my mild chest infection (picked up after the bad allergic reaction to a sting) was also persisting. Given that road half marathons have been my training priority, I have not been running off road much of late. I think I over looked the shock to the system cross country can cause when you are out of practice on the terrain. It doesn’t take a scientific genius to work out that running economy is greatly hampered off road versus road but I think I’d forgotten how important it is to practice off road running leading up to the Cross Country season. By practicing you will do much to offset the reduction in running economy, not completely but more than not practicing sufficiently.

But what made the decision for me to run was the need to race Wrekenton to stand any chance of racking up the required 4 fixtures out of 6 to register for the veteran men’s Individual Grand Prix (IGP) in the 2021/22 season.

I had been demoted from Fast Pack to Medium Pack for the 2021/22 season and so that meant I started only 2:30 behind the Slow Pack. That should have given me a good chance at a decent finishing position overall (usually Top 50 would secure promotion to Fast Pack).

The gun went to start the Slow Pack and I couldn’t help but notice the dust bowl that was whipping up, underlining the dryness of the course.

It wasn’t long before we were lined up on the start line.

I didn’t fight to get up front and I also shunned the possibility of starting on the fastest racing line which I felt was the left hand side. I was almost furthest right.

I deliberately started pretty conservatively and was a bit miffed at the onset of a stitch coming on before the first real climb. I was able to rid myself of that quite quickly and get into my stride over the first lap. I think I was competing quite well tracking vet Sunderland Harrier Chris Auld for the most part of that circuit and into the second.

But I noticed I was struggling to get power above 360w per plan. I noticed I was settling around the 350-355w, similar to what I had averaged for the GNR. Negative thoughts formed as I already felt I was pushing as hard as I could with over 2 laps to go.

I wasn’t dealing with the downhill sections as well as I normally would either. I feel like I can excel on downhills, using my height and stride length to my advantage. But I was putting the brakes on somewhat, perhaps trying hard to recover from the uphills.

Having said all that I think the first lap ticked off in 11 minutes 30 seconds (1.89 miles according to the Strava segment). This was only 1 second slower than my record Wrekenton lap time as per Strava, recorded in 2017 when I went on to run 34m 30s.

Unfortunately this time I felt done and my mind raced back to 2014 when I had pulled out just after the brow of the hill on the second lap.

I vowed this time to push on but I felt my pace fading away. Chris Auld was away. The feeling of reeling slow pack runners in rapidly had gone, making way for a feeling of just running the same pace as them. I think I’d heard that I was already in the Top 200 well before the end of the first lap. But rather than relish the onward battle I was struggling to see how I would finish the race.

I navigated the big hill on the second lap although a few runners I would normally finish ahead of were dropping me convincingly. I would honestly say that did not enter any of my calculations to quit.

Trying to assess what was wrong I would say it was both breathing and legs. I felt weak. Add to that the hills and the lack of training on off road surfaces – it all meant a shock to the system I couldn’t handle. The overall Dew Point of 15°C was also having an impact. Although I’d trained in this type of weather a lot of the summer, the recent cooler weather had had an impact. My race singlet was drenched already and stuck to my body.

I tried to plough on as I approached the location of my other drop out at Wrekenton. That time, running for Elswick Harriers, I’d gone into the race with a right hip injury and decided to pull out to preserve further damage.

I pulled off the right side of the course hands on hips. I can’t really explain what was going through my head. It was disappointment. Maybe embarrassment as well. Runners streamed by, battling on.

I spotted Tom Charlton going by from the Fast Pack.

I continued to walk throughout. Wiping the sweat from my face. Looking up. Looking around. Was I really throwing the towel in again? About 2 minutes of walking had gone by.

For some reason I decided no. I would finish no matter how long it took. I started jogging, looked around so as not to get in anyone’s way and got back on the course.

I took things very slow at first, especially on the uphill sections. Running within myself I was able to take more notice of the spectators that were lining the course – shouting, clapping, ringing bells. The atmosphere was electric.

I was able to slowly but surely pick things back up. Not back to anywhere near “race pace”. But enough just to finish the thing off. The second lap was completed in 14:31, a full 3 minutes slower than the first.

I was conscious of how hard getting up the hills was, but overall I felt ok running sub maximal. I wasn’t experiencing a chesty cough. I just felt overheated and over tired. But there was now no question I would finish the last lap. I took the opportunity to give encouragement to runners who were walking or maybe struggling.

Cross country is tough and there is no place to hide. Of course it’s a physical battle. But the mental challenge cannot be underestimated. All of the North East Harrier League courses are multi lap affairs. There is something about the Wrekenton course that can demoralise you when you are not on your A game. For me I find the drag towards the first big hill hard and the drag before the mini hill before the second big hill hardest. You feel like they shouldn’t be slowing you down. But they do, more and more as the laps pass.

Refusing to give up this time (Photo: Stuart Whitman)

But I somehow enjoyed that 3rd lap. Perhaps it was the feeling of just not quitting. Of continuing. Finishing it off. Not letting the ego rule. Not worrying about what would go on the Power of 10…

One thing I enjoyed was a few little battles I had with runners I went by on that last lap. It crossed my mind that I never try so hard that I am literally heaving. I’m the type of runner who likes to have my breathing under control. I never let go and make as much noise as I like. Hats off to those runners who were giving it everything they had and unashamedly. I really appreciated seeing people give their all. And I resolved to ensure that I give the same commitment the next opportunity I get.

Finishing off the last lap (Photo: Geoff Fenwick)

The 3rd lap was completed in 12:50 for a total time of 39:17. With the 2:30 medium pack handicap I finished with a time of 41:47 which was 174th overall out of 511 finishers. I was 12th counter for my club (only 6 matter) and I currently sit 37th in the Vet men’s IGP table. In effect the race doesn’t count. To have any chance of competing in the IGP I would need to greatly improve in future outings and get another 4 of the 5 remaining fixtures done. At the moment that seems unlikely as the next fixture at Druridge Bay is 10th October – the same day as the Manchester Half.

In theory that would leave Lambton Castle, Aykley Heads, Thornley Hall and Alnwick Castle but I don’t think I will be able to compete all of those due to personal commitments. At best I can probably do 3.

But let’s see. Overall I feel I understand the poor performance and will take the positives in finishing off. Focus now turns back to the roads and getting on the start line fresh in Manchester.

Thanks for reading!

P.S. Special shout out to clubmates Michael Hedley and Tom Charlton for leading the Tyne Bridge men’s team home with the 1st and 2nd fastest times of the day. Class running and great to see!

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