The North Tyneside 10k, is traditionally the first race of the year for me. As my first ever race, it signifies another year of running and acts as a marker for performance and progress.
I’ve been less focused on training and sporting goals this winter. Maybe that’s no bad thing, given how dominant they have been in the past. My energies have been directed elsewhere, dealing with changes at work, setting up a new website and co-creating another writing project.
I have, just about, give or take, kept a level of activity ticking over with a mixture of strength sessions, runs and a bit of cycling. But I’ve felt slow, heavy, stuck in the rut of an easy plod and going no faster, even over shorter distances.
Running has been a release, a place to settle my thoughts or simply breathe in fresh air and escape for a while. So I’ve gone easy on myself, just enjoying the activity for itself, no goals or targets.
Except there always are, aren’t there? Try as I might, I always compare against myself. And there are certain thresholds I think I should always be able to hit – like the 30 minute 5k and a sub 1hr 10k. And I haven’t been close to those for a while.
I wasn’t much feeling like racing on Easter Sunday. The weather forecast promised gusty winds and showers. But the day came bright and warmer than anticipated, and the wind, uncharacteristically from the south, promised to push all us runners along the seafront towards St Mary’s Lighthouse.
There’s a spring like feeling of anticipation and excitement as I arrive at the start. Throngs of runners warming up, greeting club mates and friends, getting ready for another road race season. I spot a few Newcastle parkrunners and have a good chat with my running pal Kathryn who I rarely see nowadays. I jog along for a bit of a warm up, and spot Jacquie and Alister up form Durham for the race. It feels like old times and I’m starting to relax and look forward to racing.
We line up before the start, the tang of deep heat and the laughter of some gentle mickey taking among the gathered runners. I’ve placed myself somewhere anonymous, nearer the back of the pack than the front. I do not hear any of the announcements and only know we’ve started when the crowd begins to walk forwards.
Start the watch as the timing chips beep over the line and get my feet moving through the streets of North Shields. Careful of the curbs, dodging a few elbows, looking for space among the pack I trot into an easy run. Cadence high, small steps, light feet, don’t go off too fast.
I’m aware of runners around me putting the brakes on down the steep bank to the Fish Quay. I let myself go a little, have confidence in my footing and core to keep me upright, trying not to surge away too fast, but taking advantage of the slope. This feels good, my pace just on the right side of uncomfortable.
I settle quickly into a nice groove, still mindful of the busy running traffic around me and my space among it. The shops and businesses pass by in a blur, and I navigate the turn around the street furniture and out along the promenade.
The multi-coloured shirts stretch out ahead in a glorious bright ribbon as far as the eye can see. A long straight before the climb gives a chance for the field to spread out before it narrows again on the path up to the Priory.
A short, steep slope, and a curve and another. I pick up my feet, use my arms but don’t try to power up too hard. I need to keep my breath knowing there’s another longer slope to come. On the main road beside the Priory, photographers snap grimacing faces, and some walk the steep bank. But I keep my cool and trot to the top and power on.
It’s warm now and I’ve regretted my choice of a long sleeve top. In my head I’ve been thinking, I’m not so fast as I was, I need to keep warm. On the descent towards Longsands, I catch a welcome breeze across my face. Not far off half way and I’m feeling good.
I smile at the stretch of golden sand, so familiar, but still a sight to lift the spirits. I sneak a peak at my watch at half way and am pleasantly surprised at my time. Half distance and the hill behind me. I just have to hold onto this pace and I’m on target for under an hour.
I keep reminding myself of coaching points, keep my feet light, lift my chin, lean forwards a little. I realise I’ve been spending a lot of time looking at feet just ahead and try to raise my gaze. Everything’s working okay, no niggles and even the usual three mile pins and needles don’t make an appearance.
I focus on keeping going, keeping up the pace. I run beside a couple of men for a while. They are chatting easily to each other, probably taking in this race as part of a longer run. Their pace feels like the right kind of push on for me, so I stick with them for as long as I can.
The advantage of knowing this coastline so well is that I soon start to count off the landmarks, and the miles passing by. With two miles to go, I give myself another mental shove to dig in and keep moving.
With a mile to go, the course is getting congested with supporters looking out for their friends and family. A driver tries to leave the car park at the Rendezvous Café and is held back by a marshal, until a break in the flow of runners.
I watch out for Ian and Kelda and wave as I see them on the bank, happy that I still feel like I’m running well and putting the effort in. It is staring to hurt a bit now, my feet feeling hot spots and by hips beginning to ache. But with the end in sight, all it takes is another mental push to abandon thoughts of easing off.
Starting to see the faster finishers walking back along the course carrying goody bags and wearing this year’s bright T-shirts. Don’t get distracted, stay focused, keep pushing.
I never really know how far along the road to St Mary’s the finish is. I started to push along the straight before the turn and power up through all the gears into a final sprint, passing a few runners as I stretch out for the line. There was still a bit in the tank after all. Over the line, stop the watch and catch my breath – 59:10. Oh yes, that’ll do.
I’ve run this route faster, and slower. Last year I was 3 minutes faster, and that’s not an unrealistic time to aim for for the future. But I’d doubted I could go under an hour given my training and lack of fast running this year. But I did it and I didn’t have to battle all the way or stress to the max to get there. I enjoyed running, racing, being out on the gorgeous coastline near where I live and sharing the experience with members of my running tribe.
I’ll take that as a good start to the season and build on it with optimism.