This is my favourite of all the Harrier League courses that I have run, to me it is a proper cross-country course in a wonderful setting. Whilst other events do a marvellous job in getting the most out of local parks, this often involves running around football fields, stretches along gravel paths or squeezing every last inch out of a tiny hill (Shibdon Pond). In contrast, the Alnwick course is around fields usually grazed by sheep and on dirt paths through the woods, all set against the magnificent backdrop of Alnwick Castle and the River Aln.
There was only one thing missing from making this the perfect cross-country event – mud! Where was it? Last year I remember several stretches of the course where we were ankle-deep in the stuff – indeed I fell flat on my face in one of them! I’m sure that it has rained recently but the course was almost perfectly dry and so I think fast times were possible.
The course starts with a mad dash across some fairly rough ground with lots of massive mole hills and then goes downhill to the first gate, which was quite congested on the first lap. There is then a long flat stretch heading along the valley with the castle on your left. This was into the wind, which seemed to be variable as I only really noticed it on one of the laps. You then turn right and wind your way up the hill to the wooded section. Here the path is quite narrow and has the only real muddy section, part of the path being badly rutted. However it was fairly easy to skirt around this. Last year there had been a felled tree to jump over which added a bit of spice, but this had been cleared to give us a straight run through. The final section is a long descent downhill back to the start/finish line and it is interesting to see how many different paths are taken by the runners – some just keeping as straight as possoble, others trying to stay on the winding path with all manner of variations in between.
Claremont had 7 representatives in each of the mens and ladies races. The ladies went first and there were solid performances throughout. Julie Cross led the team home, but Sarah Bowen, starting from the medium pack, was the fastest on the day, proving that her handicap win was no fluke and she really is getting back to her best. Nina and Heidi completed the 4 counters, and I think that Mary, Leanne and Elaine should all be happy with their runs.
With 6 counting for the men, we only had one spare so we were relying on us old fogies to get around safely! Roberto took his customary starting position right at the front with Kenny and I just a couple of rows behind him. We had assembled early and the officials told us that we still had 5 minutes to shiver in our vests before they would let us go. This was the signal for it to start raining and I thought that we were in for a soaking. Luckily the rain stopped shortly after the start and made little difference to the course.
After the manic start and dash for the gate, the race settled down on the long, flat stretch. I could see Roberto ahead and realised that I was gradually catching him. I drew level just as we started to go uphill but he opened up a gap of a few yards on the climb. I stayed just behind him for the rest of the first lap and caught him again on the uphill section of the second lap. I said that we should run together for a while but he urged me on saying that he was very tired (I’m paraphrasing!). He was feeling the effects of having done the Gateshead Hills on Friday night and a 19:25 parkrun that morning! I was wondering now if I was leading the field for Claremont as I couldn’t see Matthew ahead. I was feeling OK, so I tried to keep it steady and make sure that I had something left for the last lap. I was expecting Jonathan, who had started in the medium pack, to overtake any second, though I hoped that I would get through the woods before he did. In fact, he didn’t pass me until the very start of the 3rd lap. I got around the last lap without incident and without seeing any other of the Claremont runners (as Jonathan disappeared into the distance), but was disappointed that I lost quite a few places on the final downhill and finishing stretch, due the my usual lack of a sprint finish. Still, I was happy with my time of 44:34 as I had set myself a 45 minute target.
We all got around – Matthew disappointed with his finish not far behind me and Roberto just behind him with, presumably, very tired legs. Bill and Kenny made up the 6 but special mention must go to Colin White for finishing in his first cross-country for a number of years.