National XC Race Report 2016

cornerAfter Sergeant Harrisons dawn assault on Donington Park had been postponed to 0900 hours, the hoop army set off from the Wrekenton garrison and rumbled on down the A1 in convoy. Well kind of, Jim had already sped off in his new fancy piece of Swedish engineering and Satch had been back home to get his driving glasses. He then had to stop to pick me, Lyns and the contents of a beauty salon up from the A1 lay by.
Eventually we got going but being the professional athletes that we are, we knew that eating little and often is the key to a good performance. So an hour down the road we swung into Weatherby services to re-fuel.
There were various athletes from other clubs milling around, sipping on isotonic drinks and eating pre-prepared, carb loaded meals. Glancing around, the Saltwell contingent, in an array of red hoodies and a dapper looking Chris Redfern, who had shunned the usual attire for a rather natty ensemble of denim and tweed, were not hard to spot. However  I was pleased to see our runners were taking the race as seriously as the other clubs and had with them their sugar loaded drinks (23 spoon fulls to be precise) and pre-prepared snacks , mainly Greggs pasties and bacon sarnies.
After a planned half hour stop we all bounded out to the cars to continue our journey. Then waited for Naz to finish his second pasty.
The remainder of the journey  to Donington was pretty uneventful apart from a near miss with the central reservation when Satch was kindly checking there was no one injured in the smashed up car on the side of the motorway.
Another quick stop at service station to avoid the queues at the porta-loos and we arrived at the venue. We were the last car to arrive and were pleased to see the rest of the team heading off to put up the easy to assemble pop up tent. Satch was just pleased to get there as Lyndsey had talked non-stop for 2 hours and Andrew Softley was like a kid in a sweet shop with the sound of engines from the nearby race track, filling the tense air.
It was about a ten minute walk to the tents and as this was my first appearance at the Nationals I savoured every minute, so we took 20 minutes to ensure the tent was up when we got there.
It was so we turfed Harra out so the ladies team could get changed.  A quick recce of the start, some motivational words for Lyndsey and she was off. A few of us followed to support and to check out the talent as Darren had concocted some ridiculous story that Jessica Ennis-Hill was running. After eyeing up a lot of the women we concluded she wasn’t although Phil James insisted on having a second look just to be sure.
Lyndsey made her way into the starting area and was quickly lost in amongst the throng of chattering women. She eventually re-appeared lurking suspiciously near a runner from Knowsley who was also wearing red and white hoops. When asked what she was doing, Lyndsey confidently replied, trying to fit in. Who am I to question that logic.
With the one minute call going up the chatter dimmed and with the bang of the gun the girls were off. Followed 20 seconds later by a couple of stragglers.
Unfortunately the course wasn’t particularly spectator friendly and with our race starting in less than an hour there wasn’t much opportunity to get out there and support Lyndsey or be there at the finish but I managed to catch a glimpse of her after her first lap. I am of course biased but I was very proud and she’s doing a race report from the woman’s perspective.
After giving Lyns a cheer I headed back to the tent to get changed and to immerse myself in the professionalism that I was sure would be oozing from my teammates. I was not disappointed because when you see the likes of Dave Smith, Richard Townsend, and Frank Wilkinson warming up you can’t help but be inspired. When I say warming up I mean having another cup of coffee.
After one last pep talk to Phil Askew “remember rugby kicks off at 4.50” we trooped off to the start.
The start was something to behold, 1800 men lined up across a field. 1790 thinking I hope this is over quick so I can get on the drink, the remaining 10 thinking I might have a chance of winning this.
The banter was crap as usual with discussions focusing on who had been for a crap, who should have gone for a crap and who is crap. We decided that the majority of us fit into at least 2 of those categories. As with the women the 1 minute call went up and we moved forward, the silence broken only by the risky flatulence of those who should have gone for a crap.
As the gun went we all launched forward, carried away by the misdirected confidence that we could maintain that pace for the next 12 km. Ian Charlton leading from the front for the first 20 metres, with Rob Brooks  and Jim Thompson quickly taking over as leading Saltwellians.
After 300 metres of the cavalry charge the wide field got smaller and smaller and instead of 1800 men having acres of freedom to leap, bound and be merry, we all had to pile through a gap the width of an Austin metro.
Commit, up went the cry ****  off came the reply as the marauding mass came to a strand still and we all tried to shuffle forward like penguins in a blizzard.  Luckily the course opened back up pretty quickly and we were carried along at a steady speed through the turnip field. The course then took a sharp left and climbed gently before plunging down the other side.
This is where us hardy hoops, schooled on the uncompromising slopes of the fell, took our opportunity to launch an attack, taking the racing line down the outside narrowly avoiding, rabbit holes, fence posts and lurking cameramen, I managed to gain a few places but was still well down the field.
The course continued to fall until we reached a low point in the far corner before it snaked and climbed back up to near the start, where those who hadn’t done their homework, realised there was a sting in the tail.
Instead of looping back to start the second lap, we entered the muddiest and hardest part of the course, nicknamed The Somme. The mud was ankle deep and sticky, the type of mud that just saps your energy and adds Ibs to your weight. Knowing you had to go through this bit another two times and at the end of the lap was pretty demoralising.
I don’t know about everyone else but for me the second lap is always the hardest. The adrenaline has worn off a bit and you’re not even half way so I just settled in and found a steady pace.
I hadn’t seen any of the other lads but suspected they were having as much fun as me. I managed to hold my position on the flats, pick up a few places on the down hills and lose a few on the uphill’s so going into the third lap I was reasonably happy. On the third lap I needed to up my game and despite my legs burning I still felt I could up my heart rate.
I tried to pick up the pace but with the sticky mud I couldn’t get going so it became more of a mental battle. I thought if I could keep it steady until I entered The Somme and my endurance would see me through to the end.
Luckily it did as I felt stronger in the last half mile than I did at any part during the race. Surely with the 100’s I passed in that last half mile and with the sprint finish at the end  I would have broke into the top 50. Sadly it was not to be, 777 was my finishing position, oh well.
After doubling back and supporting a few others, including the un-missable Peter Mullarky, wind milling his way down the final straight, scattering any runners who dared get in his way, the cold got the better of us and we jogged back to the tent. To our surprise and delight Phil Askew was waiting for us, had our pep talk worked and he had blitzed round the course.
Sadly not, he’d been ill the previous two days and had pulled out but massive credit to him for even starting the race. Phil gets a lot of stick but one thing that can never be questioned is his heart and commitment and he epitomises what Saltwell is all about.
As the rest of the lads filed in with their tales of woe, the tent quickly filled up and the obligatory cake and insults were dished out. Everyone was in remarkably good spirts, probably because it was time to party. Luckily the Saltwell tent came into its own again and was down swiftly without much fuss so we were away in no time (not) but we eventually did get away and headed off to our digs, which were on the outskirts of the City Centre.
Quick change for me and Andrew and we were off into town to meet one of our mates. The others had their old man naps, watched rugby or in Chris Redfern’s case brewed up with the cafetiere he had brought with him. I left Lyns in the capable hands of 20 blokes.
We all rendezvoused later on at Franky and Bennys,  looking like a dysfunctional rugby team with their female physio. The waiters were confused as they asked what we were down for, when Harra proudly announced we were down for the national cross country, one waiters response was, with a straight face, what to watch?
Food demolished and well-watered, Father Garrett decided it was time to repent our sins and head for church, otherwise known as the Pitcher and Piano, which is in an old church. He convinced Ian Charlton and Phil Goode that this was a good idea as the ratio of women to men in the congregation was 3-1.
They spent the rest of the night trying to confirm this. Either that or they are avid followers of female fashion as they spent long periods of time looking women up and down. Phil James and Harra, being the good lads they are, took no convincing to attend church.
Fortunately this church and to be fair a few others could learn from this, served an array of alcoholic drinks, although the church funds must be healthy as they weren’t cheap but as the drinks flowed the banter got more risky and in jokes, in our minds got funnier. The usual suspects were in the thick of it and Andrew Softley was already cranking it up with Dave Smith also giving it big ones.
I decided to try my luck with the ladies team. By the time it struck midnight I’d cracked it and I was taking them all back to my hotel room. I’ve still got it. Satch and Chris tried to muscle in but the girl(s) only had eyes for me.
The rest of fellas stayed out with the last ones standing being Phil Askew, Naz and Andrew Softley who raved to the early hours at Oceania and finished of the evening with Chicken meat and chips, the takeaways words not mine.
Breakfast was at 9 and everyone looked surprisingly fresh. After demolishing our full English’s and a quick de-brief on the nights activities, it was back on the road to the place we call home. Our beloved Gateshead, via Wetherby Services, for a recovery drink and our final goodbyes.
Bring on 2017 when we can do it all again.
Graham Stephenson
[nggallery id=25]