North East Harrier League – Alnwick – Race Report

North East Harrier League – Alnwick – Race Report

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.

Photo credit: Stuart Whitman

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.


Sub 17 5k – Week 17 training diary

Again I write this sat on another flight for another business trip. I’d be lying if I said it isn’t impacting on my goal to run a sub 17 5k. My training has lost consistency over the last 3 weeks as I try to overcome a slight shin injury, travelling abroad 3 weeks in a row and generally not getting the training done.

That said I don’t feel out of shape and the goal posts don’t move, I still plan to run a sub 17 5k before the end of April.

With that in mind it’s planned that I will enter the Terry O’Gara 5k in Wallsend on 28th April. I ran the race a couple of years ago and I hope to put in a good performance if all goes to plan over the next few weeks and months.

Training Diary

Plan – 45mins recovery

Got back from a weekend in the Lakes late afternoon and wanted to get a good hour of exercise in.

Did my now usual 20min Bike warm up and then straight out for a 40 minute run. Didn’t plan to do anything daft and so it proved. I was surprised by the strength of the wind and also how cold it was.

About half way through, coming onto the Town Moor I put in a little Fartlek-esque effort for maybe 20-30 seconds, just to blow away some cobwebs more than anything.

Completed 5.8 miles in 40mins with an average HR of 158bpm.

Plan – 45mins recovery

Got up 6.30 to do some work and I then got to 45mins of exercise. I would have preferred an hour but time wasn’t on my side with work. So did a quick 10min warm up and then out for 35mins. Felt like the wind was even stronger (and colder) than yesterday. It certainly had an adverse impact on my pace and also pushed the heart rate higher than normal.

Completed 5.1 miles in 35mins with an average HR of 161bpm.

Flight to Athens – a while spent thinking about what I need to do to run sub 17, sub 5.30 miling. It’s mainly a matter of getting mentally prepared now. I know I have it in me. No excuses.

Plan – 40min recovery

Arrived in Athens 23.00 local time and set alarm for 06.00 (4am UK) to get 40mins run in. Couldn’t get up and pressed snooze a few times. Often it’s hard to persuade yourself that you WILL feel better after the run!

I was happy that I got down to the gym and again I was lucky to have a good quality bike and treadmill to use. The room was free so I felt happy to strip off down to my shorts as it was too hot. I sweated it out big style for 35mins with an average HR of 158.

Plan – 30min recovery

This time got up at 7am and no issues getting up and straight down to gym.

Had another 35mins recovery planned, just ticking over. As I approached 30mins I fancied putting 5 minutes effort in starting at 3.43/km and increasing the speed each minute. As I got into the final minute I was around 3.20/km and progressively increased to 3.04/km in the last 15-20 seconds.

Felt good and heart rate got up to 184bpm. Feel in decent shape to keep the good form going in the Cross country on Saturday despite falling off somewhat in the last few weeks. Shin is ok so its a case of recovering from this trip back home and staying well hydrated, rested and fed.

Plan – rest

Sticked to plan.

Plan – North East Harrier League XC – Alnwick

Despite falling off training for the last 3 weeks I still felt good and positive going into this fixture. I wanted to give it my all, both personally to keep pushing on in the Individual Grand Prix but also for my club as we have a great chance of winning Division 3 with two good performances.

Getting to the course it was apparent the ground was firm which is unusual for cross country in the North East of England. Actually, in hindsight, a little bit of mud probably would have suited me better as hard ground suits most runners but I’m probably more of a mud lark in comparison.

I felt fired up on the start line. For the first time I felt confident enough to get in the front row on the start line and push hard from the off. I decided to wear my heart rate monitor to gauge the effort and not fall off and get lazy. I wanted to push to 185bpm and keep it there. Push to 185bpm I did, getting up there around 3/4 through the first lap. Problem was I felt a little bit “blowy” as a result. I kept on a little bit coming into the second lap, steadied myself with some positive self talk but ultimately a bit of doubt crept in given the low mileage of late.

Having said that, I felt like I had made some good progress and had plenty to play for with two laps to go.

In these conditions Alnwick is by no means the toughest course but there are a few drags and there was some wind against at times.

Also, the sharp downhill at the end of each lap clearly suited others more than me and how I haven’t fallen over once in the 3 outings I’ve had here is beyond me.

Coming into the last lap I was trying to banish any negativity and focus on the task in hand. I thought about the Individual Grand Prix. My aim is a Top 50 place. I was currently in 15th. I knew this was a false position and I’ll be battling for my target and relying on others perhaps to not push me lower… It was enough to push on.

Coming through the forest I had club mate Michael Hedley coming past with some encouragement to pick off a Blyth runner about 50m ahead. Blyth are our main rivals for Division 3 and as it turned out the guy in question was there first counter. This was a great moment as I was just a little one paced at that point and I found a little. I was also pushed on by Stewy Bell driving past in his usual no holds barred style and I got in his slip stream and tried to go along for the ride.

Coming into the last downhill you are literally throwing yourself down, heaving but trying to keep some momentum into the finishing straight. I certainly felt like I finished strongly, taking one or two places.


Finishing straight at Alnwick

The result was 81st place (61st on Po10). I was 3rd counter for the club. Overall happy and Jesmond won the fixture and went top of Division 3. We are guaranteed promotion and have a strong claim on the title. On to Wrekenton for the last fixture in a few weeks time!

Plan – ???

Had a late night out so postponed anything until later in the day and got out for 40 minutes after 10 minutes spin on the Turbo Trainer. Felt fine overall and hope I can go into next week for some proper training leading into the next XC fixture. 5.8 miles in 40mins averaging 155bpm.

Weekly Totals

Running – ~32 miles
Turbo Trainer – ~40mins

Got to get back on it and push on now. Got to push myself hard.

Battling recent demons and overcoming faltering performance

This blog will serve as a review of my run at Alnwick and also a discussion of my current state of mind with regards to my running.

Lets start by looking at some facts –

Wrekenton 2013, 39.58, 156th (Po10)
Wrekenton 2014, DNF

Alnwick 2013, 43.50, 125th
Alnwick 2014, 45.39, 236th

Things have not gone to plan this year and confidence is low. I deliberately went out slow at Alnwick as much to avoid burn out than anything else. Obviously the pull out at Wrekenton was still on my mind, exacerbated by a recent illness which disrupted my training to an easy run towards the end of the week. I’d actually pulled out altogether as I was bed bound all day Tuesday and felt poorly still Weds/Thurs. But I got back to work on Friday and something was telling me I had to give it a go, mainly as Jesmond has an outside chance of staying in division 2 this season, and I wanted to contribute anything I could to the cause.

I decided to wear a heart rate monitor as I wanted to keep the effort controlled but was somewhat alarmed during my warmup that I was spiking to over 85% max doing a very light jog. I was also struggling again with my stomach which was sloshing around and sounding like a washer machine in mid cycle. I contemplated making myself sick, and overall was panicking somewhat. Perhaps pre race nutrition is another blog, but I have been unable to get this important aspect right in my last two races despite returning to my normal strategy of a bowl of porridge very early on in the day. Granted I always feel dehydrated and that day was no exception. Perhaps I drank too much water. That said, I really don’t know why I hadn’t digested it and can only put it down to the remainder of the stomach bug that had grounded me earlier. Whatever the cause the overwhelming thought was “should I pullout”. I quickly dismissed that and comforted myself that this would be a controlled effort. Somewhat reassuring but a million miles away from my usual hard nosed grit and determination attitude that had me performing well last season and in the first few fixtures this, peaking at Wallington Hall in December.

How have I sunk so far from Wallington?

Well these are the key reasons in my mind –

1. Illness over Xmas and new year
2. A lack of xc specific training
3. A gradual decline in confidence
4. Overthinking / overanalysing to the point of paralysis
5. Meddling with my pre race routine
6. Failing to make my hard sessions hard and my easy sessions easy, training in the black hole
7. Muddling running goals, am I focussed on xc or 5k? Are the two compatible?
8. No cross or strength training
9. No stretching
10. Not attending club sessions
11. No idea where I am at, probably in particular over the 5k distance. For example, if I knew I was currently ~19min pace for 5km I am in similar shape to this time last year…

There are probably more.

So over the next 14 weeks I’ll be looking to get back on track. My attitude needs to change. The ego has to be left at the door otherwise the slippery slope will continue. Key action plan –

1. Rebalance training, 80% easy, 10% threshold, 10% intervals
2. Reintroduce cross training
3. Reintroduce strength training
4. Reintroduce stretching
5. Start attending club sessions
6. Start running a parkrun effort once a month

Back to Alnwick. It was a strange feeling starting slowly but still working well above 90% hr max. Part of me thought this is the last time I wear a HRM for XC! But then again it was a good learning experience. I steadied myself with the thought that I wasn’t too far behind last year’s paceish. Laps 1 and 2 weren’t too bad and I felt like I was settled in the middle of the field. The plan was to push really hard last lap and just see what I had in the tank. Unfortunately the answer became painfully obvious as I started the last lap. Answer – nothing left in the tank. The problem is I haven’t pushed myself in training enough to cope with the bodies response to 4 miles of hard xc graft. Again, I comforted myself that I was past 2/3s of the race. I had already improved on the dismal display at Wrekenton. But the negativity was back with a vengeance. Why? You can stop. It doesn’t matter. Give up. Its over, you’ve had your day. Your going backwards. You’ve failed again. Etc. Compounding this was the burning sensation just above the knee. I was questioning why I was so far down the field and getting worse…

A great help was the support of the Jesmond ladies team at a few points on the course. It served as a reminder that I was doing this not only for myself but also for the team. Not only for pride but for the team cause. I resolved to finish as best I could.

As I came to the last steep down hill section I wondered whether the legs would support the body. The brakes were well and truly on, jolting with every step.

Anyway, I got down and maybe even picked up the pace a little to the end. Strangely still elation at the finish line. I’d finished 6th counter for the team and it sounded like we’d beaten our relegation rivals Saltwell. Job done. Live to fight another day.


Final straight, pained face

Elation that was quickly replaced by negativity as a trait of mine is still to compare myself to others. I wouldn’t disrespect any other runners but the plain fact is I have gone from a reliable 2nd team counter to DNF and struggling 6th counter in the space of a couple of months. Last season our best runner (Michael Hedley), running from fast pack, got past me in the last couple hundred of metres of the race. This year he flew past on the 2nd lap downhill! Chris Heaps, who is currently our star performer from the slow pack (and a shining example of an improving runner) and hats off to him, showing me where I could be if I’d managed to train smart following Wallington Hall. If only I’d realised things were actually going well then as I wrongly thought they weren’t. Hindsights a wonderful thing.

I’m lost, but I will be found…