2015/16 NEHL Race 2 – Aykley Heads, Durham

Fresh from the mud, hills and snow of the latest North East Harrier League cross country race, survivor Mark Reynolds sends in this report, plus a first timer report from Mark Kelly afterwards.

No matter how many times I checked the weather forecast it kept saying the same thing – cold, wet, icy, cold, windy, snow and cold.  Did I mention it was cold?  Deciding that there was no harm in being prepared I crammed 13 different layers into my bag and headed off for the North Pole Durham.

Driving down with Matty Bell, Chris Kenyon and Peter Bartholomew talk quickly descended into terrifying experiences on the A1, with Bart’s car-catching-fire story beating Matty’s account of his tyre-blowing-out-at-70mph. Which was really comforting.

We arrived at Durham County Hall and found the handily placed car park before following the crowds to the course.  At this point I realised that despite all my plans I was the only one not wearing a giant bobble hat in team colours.  Not having run at Aykley Heads before I was keen to check out the potential obstacles and it wasn’t long before we saw an imposing incline with the U17 lasses working their way up through a quagmire of churned earth. We walked to the top and I’m not embarrassed to admit that I was mildly out of breath at the top.  Oh dear.

Arriving at the temporary campsite, where team tents werehuddled closer together than normal for warmth, we caught up with events of the morning.  Daniel proudly informed us of his excellent 5th position in the U15 boy’s race representing Blaydon Harriers with Finlay only a minute behind for Pont.  The U11 girls saw three competitors take on the course for PR with excellent finishes for Abigail, Freya and Nina all well up the field in tough conditions.

By this time the lasses team had set off on their first of two 2-mile laps of the course and the lads lined up to cheer them on.  In compensation (or possibly punishment) for my lack of suitable club headgear I was handed one of the cowbells in order to encourage our team onwards and annoy passers-by.  It wasn’t long before Nichola Conlon came into sight having made up plenty of ground despite her 2 ½ minute handicap due to her medium pack status.  Next through was Alison Guadagno in an original PR vest.  Shortly afterwards a steady stream of runners in the blue and black of Ponteland came past with plenty of shouts of encouragement and noisy clanging.  Laura Rosby, Melanie Hurst and Sarah Kate Huntley were in close proximity ahead of the following pack.  In total a record breaking 13 lasses finished the race for Ponteland bringing home an excellent 7th place on the day, of 31 teams, for Division 3.  Both Kelly Hymer and Tina Kelly took big chunks of time out of their 2014 performances on the same course.  Reports back on the course from the lasses confirmed the fairly obvious – it was hard going, hilly and now had the extra feature of being churned up by the 400 finishers for the ladies.

The fellas, having tried to keep as warm as possible in the icy wind, now prepared for battle over our 3 lap race.  Cross-country isn’t about times or distances it’s all about taking on the course on the day.  It’s also, uniquely, a team event with individual efforts counting towards the overall performance for the club.  Even those not in the leading pack can contribute to the score by overtaking opposing teams and pushing them down the ranks.

I nearly missed the start and had only just arrived at the back of the pack when the gun went off.  Quickly finding my feet I tried to keep alert as the massed ranks of 600 runners blazed a trail through the mud.  Concentrating on staying upright we quickly swerved and surged round corners and up inclines as the race proper got going.  I gave a quick word of encouragement to Mark Kelly and tried to settle into some kind of rhythm.  This was easier said than done on an undulating course comprised primarily of ankle deep mud with hairpin bends and 100’s of other runners.  Before long we were scrambling up a vertical mud bank and then sliding down a 50m hill with more than one runner taking a tumble as we slid round the course.

Before too long Aaron Hoyle came past me with a quick shout as he progressed through the field from the medium pack.  At this point we’d just tackled the sting in the tail at the end of the first lap where a double-dip hill took the final vestiges of energy out of the legs.  Somewhere up ahead James Leiper was leading the charge alongside Steve Allison, with James final reward being promotion to the medium pack for his efforts.  In close attendance Chris, Matty and Neil Ward made up the first 6 counters for the lads team.

Ploughing on I tried to maintain my position and not think too hard about the remaining distance.  I saw various runners lose shoes in the calf deep morass and vowed to keep my spikes safe.  On the final lap the shouts of encouragement from the lasses, the stewards and chief photographer Daniel helped maintain momentum.  Nichola smilingly informed me that there was only a brief stretch of mud and hills before the finish and I tried to pick up the pace.  Kicking for the finish I managed to grab a handful of places in the straight coming in 7th for Ponteland and finishing in a time of 51:42 for the 6 mile course.

Cheering on David Buffham and Elliott Ward as they duelled for the line we headed back to the tent for tea, hot chocolate, cakes and more cakes.  Jon Parkin, Dave Legg and Chris Wright joined us before long as we compared experiences and congratulated everyone on a fine team performance.

Overall Pont Lads finished 4th on the day, out of 30 teams, and moved up one place in Division 3 to 4th position after two races.  Pont Lasses held onto 6th place in the league overall.  Full results are now online at the NEHL website.

A great day out for the club and excellent individual and team performances all round.  If you fancy giving cross country a go then the next fixture is this Saturday 28th November 2015 at Druridge Bay, Northumberland.  Talk to your group leader to get your race number or anyone mentioned above for more information.  All you need is a sense of adventure, a love of the great outdoors and preferably a blue bobble hat.

Mark Reynolds

and the report from Mr Kelly…..

Having retired form rugby (due to a shoulder injury so that shouldn’t stop me running!), I needed a new hobby to keep me entertained/excuse to have a beer on a Saturday. My very generous/evil wife signed me up for the NEHL Aykley Heads cross country run. I was given a very warm welcome by Ponteland Runners and it was needed on a bitterly cold day. Ponteland were well represented with several youth entrants and 13 ladies and 12 men taking part on the day. My nervousness of taking part in my first cross country run in over 20 years was not diminished by the youth section shaking their heads and saying how hard/hilly/muddy it was. This was then repeated by incumbent whippet Nicola Conlan. The ladies all lined up for the start and wanting to help I said I would collect their hoodies from them just before the start. This proved to be wise as the ladies stood at the start for 20 minutes before starting. I then stumbled back to the tent with what appeared to be 26 hoodies. Being the gentleman I am, I stood on a nice dry patch on the flat to take glamorous photos of the ladies as they completed their two laps. It was then time for the senior men to start, I went to the start line with some trepidation wishing I was back on a rugby field and not on a very cold windswept hill. At the start it was as if the cross country god wanted to make me feel welcome as it felt like a scrum and then a poor unfortunate chap fell at the start and was ‘rucked’ by several competitors (not intentionally I should add) as they scrambled to get a flying start. (I hope the gentleman in question was ok and secretly hope he didn’t subsequently overtake me; although I do feel this was the case). I stupidly went off far too fast on the first lap and felt it on the hills on the end of the lap, where the ladies had decided to set up base to encourage and take photos! No glamourous photos for me then as I cursed my way up the hill thanking Tina under my breath. The second lap was a lot slower and I managed a grimace as I went up the dreaded hills for a second time secretly wishing I was a lady and able to finish. The third lap I may even have mentioned to Tina that I wanted a divorce as I struggled up that hill for the final time. The finish could not come quick enough, my shoulder was in agony but I was in ecstasy at having found another bunch of nutters that I could spend a cold afternoon doing stupid stuff with! Getting back to the tent (like a quote form jaws, ‘I think we need a bigger tent!’) it was crammed with very muddy people and lots of cakes all with smiles on their faces (that’s the people not the cakes). I have been told that it is the hardest race of the season and I definitely hope so! I am looking forward to next week’s race and the camaraderie of the running club that makes retiring from rugby that bit easier.

Mark Kelly