I love a trip back to the NE - whether it's to see family, catch up with friends, run, or drink coffee and eat cake. This weekend saw me do all of the above - a coffeeshop on the way over, dinner with my parents, a pub catchup afterwards with friends (which developed into a much larger night than planned), and then a run the next morning.
When I say "run", it was actually a race - the North East Masters' XC Championships. This is the first time I've been "old enough" for the Scottish Masters' XC, but as I hadn't fancied a 9-10hr drive up to Forres and back, I opted for the NE event instead. Little did I know that although the lower age limit in Scotland is 40, it is 35 in England, so I was back to racing younger ladies again!
My first "40" number...sob!!!
The race venue (Wallsend) wasn't hard to find (due to the wonders of satnav), and I even managed to have the right change for a smooth trip through the Tyne Tunnel, but the weather was less than ideal. I kept hoping that it would warm up (my car said 4 degrees) but unfortunately it didn't happen, and to add insult to injury, the rain just kept coming and going.
Still, it was the same for everyone so I picked up my number (and the "40" to attach to my back....sob....first time I've had to wear that!!), wrapped up well and went out to recce the course. The ladies (and men >65) had to run 2 laps, while the 35-64 yr old men had an extra one.
The "course map"
There was an initial lap of a small soggy sloping open area, and then a short undulating area through trees, with a combination of mud, grass, leaves, gravel, a bollard and a bit of tramac to keep you on your toes. Next a flat grassy expanse before a sharp hairpin back to descend on a narrow gravelly path to the bottom of the dene. Another muddy section took you to the tarmac path along the bottom of the dene - the course was flagged alongside the path so I presumed we were meant to keep off the tarmac all the way to the far end where you looped back around. As I turned away to ascend the first hill, I was joined by the routeplanner. It was very steep and muddy and he thought I'd have no chance of competing well unless I wore spikes, but my mudclaws seemed to be doing a good enough job, as it was impossible to travel at any speed. At the top, there was another narrow gravelly/tarred path which didn't look like it would be comfy in the aforementioned spikes, but he suggested just running more on your heels, and keeping to the sides as much as possible.
On reaching a road bridge over the Dene, the route took a 90 degree turn and you shot down a steep muddy bank back to the bottom, crossed under the bridge supports and then climbed back up the other side - I managed to keep "running" (of sorts) up here, but other people were using their hands to haul themselves up as the slope more resembled a mountain scramble than a running route. After that, it was just back along the grassy open area and through the trees to the starting area. 1 lap negotiated slowly and I was knackered!!!! Still, at least I'd made the decision to stick with my mudclaws even though I had my spikes with me.
Out of the woods...
I kept my jacket and waterproofs on as long as possible but duly lined up with the other ladies (and >65yr old men) just before 11am. You can tell it's a low key race when some people have their age groups written on bits of paper with a felt-tip pen, and the start line is just drawn across the grass. However, it was a friednly gourp that lined up as we whinged about being asked to stand around for a minute or two in the rain to await the starter (we couldn't see why he didn't just set us off as we were all there and there was no chip timing) and those at the front warned those of us behind to avoid all the dog poo lying just beyond the line.
Suddenly a whistle was blown and we were off - it was almost impossible to pass people in that inital loop as the course was marked with pink flags on posts, which I couldn't see until I was almost upon them due to runners ahead of me, and I didn't want to cut the course by running inside them. I tried to work my way up a little bit as we ran through the trees, but I almost came a cropper on both low lying branches and a bollard en route. Thankfully I could stretch out on the open grassy area, but the leaders had opened up a decent gap, and others weren't that impressed at being passed (well, the men mainly!).
Sneaking past on the open grassy area
By the time we got to the descent I was starting to reel in the leading lady and I caught her as we ran along the bottom of the Dene. Brief words of support were exchanged and then I tried to push on, keeping to the grassy verge rather than the path as much as possible. The turnaround at the far end enabled me to see that I'd opened up a gap of a few metres which I managed to extend by the time I hit the first hill. I had hoped to cacth my breath along the top path, but having successfully negotiated a dog + owner, I could hear steps behind me. I though I was about to be overtaken, but in hindsight, I realise now that it was the dog thinking we were playing a game.
There was lots of support from people standing on the roadbridge as I ran down to the bottom and up again the other side (I was thankful for the mudclaws as, unlike XC spikes, they actually have some grip on the heels when you descend in mud) and I heard the lovely words from Rachel, a fellow Durham runner who was there to support her father "Well Done" There's no-one in sight!"
And down dale....
Having finished the first lap, I found it so much easier to get round the top loop when I could take my own line, and I didn't see the second placed lady until I was heading back through the trees. I know you should run your own race and ignore those behind you, but it's hard not to sneak a peek when you have to run round hairpins (as was running along the Dene bottom, I confess that I did look back up to see when the next lady started her descent). Still, it's not over until you cross the line, so I tried to keep working for the whole of that final lap, and was rewarded by not having to sprint for the finish (as I'm sure I'd lose any sprint finish if it came down to it).
It was a great feeling to be running back in the NE as the support was brilliant - Geordie accents are great and they're even better when they're directed at you, shouting "Great running lass!" and "Gan' on there Durham!". I finished my cool down by running in with the final runner and we had a lovely chat - he was inspirational, telling me that he'd only started running at the age of 45....but that had been 33 years ago! I would love to still be competing and enjoying running at that age (yes, I know it'll be there sooner that I think!).
But worth it!!!
Full marks to the NE Masters and the local team/volunteers for organising the race, and for the other runners and supporters for making it such a fun and friendly event - definitely one to consider again next year!