Go hard and hold on were my pre-race tactics. And I was raring to go for the first outing of the season. Not too outwardly nervous, deliberately not setting myself a time target, just go out there, give it plenty and see where I am. That’s not quite what happened.
This is my home race. It’s the first road race I ever did. And I reckon my legs could run the second half of it on their own, they’re so used to the route.
Today, as I arrived at the sports centre for the start, I reflected on that first race, and how I felt so out of my depth, seeing all the club colours and little groups of people greeting each other, wishing each other luck.
Now, as soon as I pitch up, I spot parkrunners and Fetchies, and Elvet Striders who I always muscle in on, as I’ve adopted myself to their crew. I catch up with some of my running friends and I know there are more that I won’t see, but who will be there.
I do a bit of socialising, but remember I am here to race, so take myself away from the crowds to do a good warm up. High knees, heel kicks, a bit of bounding and then just a gentle run around the park paths. I wave at Kev Lister, Newcastle parkrun legend and super speedy runner, and he stops and jogs on the spot for a bit until I join him for a bit of a warm up run.
He must be at crawling pace, as he’d be twice as fast as me at my top speed, but he seems happy enough to run alongside and chat for a bit, and I relax and enjoy and look forward to the race. Eventually I slow to a walk, and send him on his way as I do some more bounding and a couple of sets of strides. I feel good, nice and relaxed, legs fell like they’re ticking over nicely.
But there’s a niggle. My right shoulder, around the trapezius has been tight and uncomfortable, like I’d cricked my neck or slept funny. It’s a niggle I’ve had before, but rarely, and never due to an identifiable cause. I put it to the back of my mind and get set to race.
Go hard and hold on, I say to myself as I huddle in with some Elvets, rather closer to the front of the line than I like, but still excited to be racing. It’s felt like a long winter and I want to remember what it feels like to be racing
This isn’t a chipped race, so I start my watch at the gun and take maybe 10-15 seconds to cross the line, only to be baulked just afterwards as the crowds navigate a roundabout. But all good, no problems, we’re off and running. It’s congested at the start and easy to get knocked or elbowed, but I always seem to get lucky and find space, without having to jink about too much.
It’s a fast first kilometre with a steep downhill. I know to stick to the road and avoid the risk of turning an ankle on the curb at the side. I spot parkrun regulars Penny and Paul and pass them on the downhill. I’m tempted to try and stick with them as I know they’ll run a good even pace, and they’re regularly ahead of me at parkrun. But this is my race and it’s go hard and hold on, remember. And I do love a downhill.
Left turn onto the Fish Quay and the run opens out a little. There’s a good stretch of flat space here, a chance to pick up ahead of the hill. I normally find my feet and blast out along the promenade beside the water. But not today.
A sharp jab between neck and shoulder shocks me to actually cry out. And every footstep jolts and jolts again. The nearest I can describe it is like having a stitch. The pain, stabs suddenly sharply, then retreats to a dullness before jabbing again and again.
My mind runs to experience. I’ve had this before. It’s nothing serious. It goes if you let it. Just believe. It will go. It will go. I reach across and put pressure on the sore spot, hoping that an extra degree or two of warmth might soothe it. But it takes a while. And all the time, the hill is approaching.
I talked another parkrunner up this hill yesterday. Spoke of its twist and then the downhill and then the real climb up the road beside the Priory. Nothing to fear. Just short and sharp, face it and forget it.
But I need rid of this stabbing shoulder before I tackle it. So I let myself ease back just a little, breathe deeper, consciously relax my shoulders, rather than letting them tighten anticipating the pain. The jolts really hurt now, but I just have to have faith they will stop. I’m up the first rise and running the downhill before I realise they have gone.
Little steps, little steps, keep the heart rate down, ready to push on at the top. I pick up my feet, keep my cadence fast and top Priory Hill feeling stronger than I have at this point in the race before. Around me runners are gasping, breathing heavily, dropping back. I push on.
“It’s all downhill from here,” I hear someone nearby say. I know that’s not strictly true, but there’s nothing approaching that steep slope in the next three miles. But the damage to my pace has been done. Easing back to save my shoulder, I’ve drifted into my hard but sustainable groove.
I look for positives. I spot Gary and wave and smile for a photograph. Tell myself to dig in for the second half of the race. keep believing. Don’t let your head drop.
There is a headwind. But I’m not feeling it hurting my pace, just welcoming it keeping me cool. I know I’m battling my mental demons and am happy that I’m just about keeping them in check. Run your own race I say to myself. Believe.
That becomes my mantra for the next few miles. Believe. It would be easy to give up. To use the excuse of a jabbing shoulder to write off this race. To cruise round, high fiving the kids. But that would be the easy way out. You never know what the run’s made of until the finish. It ebbs and flows. Keep believing, keep looking for the flow.
In my running reverie, I realise I’ve turned myself into the lone runner of my training runs again. Head into the wind, tackling this coastal path on my own. When in reality, I am surrounded by other runners. Time to get selfish. Time to start using them, picking them off, overtaking.
I hone in on a target just ahead and cruise past him. And then another and another. Mile 4 to 5 passes and I’m in the last part of the race now. I become aware of a girl on my left shoulder in a red North Shields poly top. We cat and mouse a little over about half a mile, first her just a stride in front, then me. This is good, I think. Now I’m racing. Finding a focus as my legs start to tire.
A gaggle of club runners go past us and she shouts encouragement to one of them. I try to latch onto the group as protection from the wind, but there’s a little rise up and they pull ahead, and at the same time I feel my shoulder throb.
Come on, come on. It’s the last mile, I say to myself. Push on, push on. I feel a pat on my back and a cheery ‘Hello smiler!’ from Peter. He’d said he’d be taking it it easy. And although I know his taking it easy, would be a good pace for me, I honestly think I’ve really dropped off the pace and have a moment of feeling down hearted.
Then I spot the North Shields Poly girl who had been running alongside me off to the side, looking a bit distressed. I’m clearly in better shape than her. “I was running with you,” I shout “Come on! Come on!”. Probably not the most helpful thing I could think of, but still I don’t want everyone to have a miserable race and I feel guilty about being grumpy as Peter passed me. She shakes her head, but I can see she’s trying to dive back into the run. I hope she finished and feels okay.
There are crowds lining the links and faster runners walking back along the course. I see the buses lined up waiting to take runners back to the start. The sign says 300m to go. Then the 6 mile marker, partially obscured. Then 200m and I try to wind it up. Then there’s a crowd of Striders and Alister giving a great big shout and it’s the last corner, and bugger the shoulder, I’m going to sprint finish.
Someone’s breathing down my shoulder for once and coming with me. Not now, mate. You’ve got to really try to catch The Scribbler in the death or glory final yards. I overtake one runner before the line, stop my watch and manage to keep moving, before looking at my watch – 57:41. That’s not so shabby.
I shuffle forwards and my shoulder gives me another jolt, pain kicking in after the adrenaline surge. But a swig of water and a walk back up the finish straight, soon takes my mind off it. There’s always a decent goody bag for this race, and this year, the T-shirt is very nice, branded up for the 10th anniversary, and there’s a pair of socks the right size for me.
I join the Elvets at the last corner in time to give a shout out and high five to Sue and Karen and to be sufficiently adopted to be offered malteser traybake. I LOVE the Striders.
I’ve probably made the thing with my shoulder sound worse that it is. It just threw me a bit at the start of the race. I did want to go and put it all out there. To run as hard and as fast as I could, even if that meant blowing up and shuffling to the finish. I didn’t do that today. As I remarked to the girls in the car on the way back, my legs didn’t hurt enough. So that’s there for another race.
I finished and in a decent time given the conditions. And I’ve set my benchmark for 10k this year. I enjoyed seeing my friends and hearing of happy runs and some cracking performances.
And I’ve had a sharp dose of perspective, reading Nicki’s blog post today. She didn’t have a great time on a 42k run this weekend. She still finished, and knowing Nicki, she’ll be smiling and laughing about it over a beer or two. So really, I have nothing to moan about.
But still, I have unfinished business with this distance. I know I can run it faster. So, reflect, regroup. Stuff face with Easter chocolate. Lessons will be learned and experience gained. I just feel like I’m due a really good run.