Wednesday, 20 May 2015

If At First You Don’t Succeed……The Masters Road Relays 2015

I love relays, but what I really love is being at the sharp end in a relay event, the weight of expectation and pressure, and the relief when you know you did your job well. I’ve been lucky, the clubs I’ve run for have been in the situation where they were fighting for medals, though I’ve also had the disappointment of finishing mid field or lower, and the worst, not even finishing a team.

I’ve been doing the Masters Road Relay since I was 41, 9 years ago, I missed it when I was 40 as Herne Hill couldn’t get a team to the start line that year. In 2006 Herne Hill came 2nd to Bristol and West, I ran 15:28 on my leg. In 2007 we were again pushed into 2nd place by Bristol and West, I could only manage 15:45 that year. 2008 we were again struck by injuries and failed to get a team out. 2009 saw us return and this time we knocked Bristol and West from the top spot, my contribution a 15:29 leg. We achieved our 2nd win in 2010, in what would be the last year the 8 stage was held from M40-49, a 15:30 contribution from me. In 2011 we struggled to get 8 fit men on the line, but we managed it, with a mix of all ages, to come a disappointing 5th, my own contribution of 16:29 showing how much fitness I’d lost from missing a lot of training during the winter. Then in 2012, my last year at Herne Hill Harriers, we failed to get enough fit bodies out for the event.

They were good years, we had a good team, that could challenge for medals, and I showed that I was an integral member of that team. But with time, changes come. The format was changed and I was getting older. Moving to a more local club I had to choose one that embraced this championship, I chose Salford Harriers, who had a team that could compete on the same level as Herne Hill Harriers.

Unfortunately I didn’t get to make an appearance in the 2013 championship, I would have been in the M45-54 6 stage event, because I’d inured my Achilles, quite badly, in February and I was still only able to jog on the day, I went along to support and it was great to see the team come 2nd to Leicester. It gave me hope that the following year, with me back to full fitness, we’d be challenging for a victory in the competition. But the rules changed again and the M45-54 became a 4 man competition for 2014. Salford is a club full of talented Masters, so a team of 4 only put more pressure on everybody to be at their best to gain selection. Sadly, for me, I was still hampered by injuries and only just scraped into the B team, once again watching in the wings as Salford took another 2nd place to Leicester, in that category.

2015 I’d had another dodgy winter and have struggled to return to the form of only a few years ago. Naturally I’ve persevered and there have been glimmers of hope, a 17:20 and a 17:11 5k in March, but those times would still only be good enough for the Salford B team. I was training hard and it was clear to me that I was getting fitter, but my race results were still relatively poor, two 10ks of 35:31 and 35:19. Perfectly respectable for the average M50 but they weren’t good enough to help Salford defeat Leicester. In a bid to get into consideration I looked around for some 5ks but, due to my location on those weekends, I could only come up with two parkruns in successive weeks.

The first one was when I was down in London, visiting some friends and celebrating a 50th birthday. Being in the Wimbledon area it was only natural that I should choose to run the Wimbledon common parkrun. Problem one, I was out drinking with friends the night before. Problem two, I was in drinking with more friends when I got back from the other friends. Problem three, I hate racing (I know many people don’t consider parkruns a race but you try telling that to the guy or gal who finishes 1st, or, in my case, looking to set a good time) at 9am and problem four, it tipped down just before the start and the course was wet as well as being fairly uneven. 17:57, oh dear.

The following week I was up in Edinburgh. In march I’d run 17:12 here, when there was no wind, so, knowing how much fitter I was, I was fully expecting to go under 17 minutes and hoping that would be enough to get me into the A team. But, as normal on this course, I was met with strong winds on the banks of the Forth, so strong that at the 1k marker I was on target for 17:32. At 2k, achieved nearly 4 minutes later, there was no way I was going to run sub 17, even with the wind behind me on the way back. The wind never fully compensated me, but I did push really hard, managing to burn off a couple of youngsters to the finish. 18:00, kiss the A team place goodbye.

I could have given myself another chance the following week but I decided I was better of training. Which was a good idea as I managed to strain my groin during a boot camp on the Thursday. I’d already planned an easy week for the race, so I was hopeful that the groin strain would recover in time for the championships, but having a job that requires repeated demonstrations of moves that require the use of the hip flexor and having to move heavy weights around was never going to help recovery. It did get better but it was still there on Saturday, and still is today.

By then I’d found out that I had been selected for the A team, I managed to raise my excitement levels, but they were tinged with concerns about whether I was actually good enough for the team. I knew I was in good shape and I was convinced that I could sneak under 17 minutes for 5k but was that enough in a club loaded with talent. The team; Gerry O’Neil, Paul Simons, Rob Tudor and myself was definitely a team for others to fear, if we were all at our best, but I don’t think any of us could say that. All of us had suffered from injury woes over the last year, and it was debateable as to who had suffered most, though I’d like to throw my hat into that particular ring.

As the day approached I found I was allocated last leg. Not something that would normally concern me, but with my lack of recent pedigree I had visions of taking the team from 1st to 4th on that last leg. Having said that, the day before I was completely focused on running a good last leg.

On the day of the race I was up late, 8:05am, normally I can’t stay in bed beyond 7am, but today I felt sluggish. Don’t ask me why, I’d had no alcohol the day before and had taken the day off exercise. Still breakfast, lunch and a shower revived me and I was keen to get to Sutton Park and soak up the atmosphere.

Rob and I were probably the last Salford Harriers to arrive, we’d missed our W45-54 team win gold and the M55 and M65 race had just started. I walked around the area chatting to mates, old and new, and prepared myself for our event.

And then we were off. Our M35 team were right in the action, holding 2nd when they came past me, with Gerry O’Neil bringing my team in 3rd amongst the M45s, with a time of 16:08. The 2nd leg was devastating for my old team, Herne Hill Harriers, and my old mate Vic Maughn, he pulled a calf on the way out to the turn around and had to hobble back, losing many minutes and places and effectively ruling out medals for Herne Hill. Paul Simons maintained 3rd position with an astounding 16:38, considering 4 weeks previously he’d paced the 3:30 group in the Manchester Marathon, and a week later he’d run the London Marathon dressed as a bottle of water. Rob Tudor took over and I was hoping he’d bring me home in the lead, my favoured position. Unfortunately for Rob, he also suffered a calf pull, luckily for me, and Salford, this occurred at the bottom of the final hill, not far from the finish. We lost seconds, which could have been minutes, and Rob handed me over in 2nd, having caught and passed Leicester, with a time of 16:19, but I was still 10 seconds behind Aldershot Farnham and District when I set off on my leg, 10 seconds that felt like forever as I waited for Rob to come in.

What do you do now, you’re within sight of the leader, a guy you don’t know too much about but you’re aware he’s pretty good (Scott Smith-Bannister finished nearly 500 places higher than me in the English National Cross Country Champs, in Feb), behind you, but you don’t know how far because you’ve already set off, will be Leicester and very probably Tyne Bridge. Leicester’s Gareth Deacon, I did know about, we’d been pretty close on times over the last three bmaf cross country relays, with him holding a slight upper hand, Tyne Bridge I had no idea about at all. So do I blast it and try to catch Aldershot, risking getting caught and losing the silver and even bronze, or do I save something in case I get caught from behind. You can probably sense my dilemma, you might’ve done different to me, I would have in different circumstances.

In the past I’ve shot off from a relay handover, but since my Achilles injury I’ve found it hard to get up to pace quickly, the reason why I’m often swamped at the start of races. I’ve also blasted it up the initial hill at Sutton Park and my fitness has carried me through when I was knackered. But I don’t have that level of fitness, if I blasted the hill I was likely to die (metaphorically) slowly and agonisingly and see the medals fly off to other teams. Decision made, for once I’d just go steady up the hill and see where I was once I got to the top.

When I say steady I was still working, I just wasn’t trying to catch Aldershot in the first mile. I could see the Aldershot vest and it appeared to be going at the same pace as me. I was getting quite a lot of support on the hill, a number of Salford Harriers were there but also runners I’ve known for years, but I was told the news I didn’t want to hear, ‘Gareth’s coming up behind you’. That meant he wasn’t far behind, oh dear.

Finally I reached the top of the hill, but I couldn’t see Scott due to the curves and the trees. I decided I didn’t have a lot of ground left so I had to make an effort now, I put my foot down and found some surprising speed that I’ve been missing for two years. This would also delay any passing manoeuvre from Gareth. As I came through onto the straight I could see Scott again, there were a number of Salford Harriers here and they were giving me encouragement. I didn’t want to let them down so I picked up my pace again and tried to get into a rhythm, it was working Scott didn’t seem to be getting away, but I didn’t seem to be closing him down either, that was worrying, he wasn’t going to cave in so I would need to produce something special to catch him, but did I have anything special?

I pushed again going down to the turnaround, more strategically placed Salford supporters made me want to run myself into the ground to win the gold, but as I turned around Scott was already in the distance. I wasn’t about to give in yet, besides we hadn’t taken silver yet. Heading up the hill I could now gauge how much lead I had over Gareth, it was a bigger gap than I had expected and I was confident I could hold it. Tyne Bridge looked too far back to challenge but Ian Hudspith, of Morpeth was coming through strong. Knowing his class I knew he’d get me before the finish but I had a fleeting thought that if I could catch his wind he might help me get back to Scott. Going past the Salford supporters again I was pushing with everything I had now, I just hoped I could keep it going to the finish, nobody passed me, with the exception of Ian Hudspith, who flew right past me to set the days fastest time. Any thoughts of catching his wind were blown away in the turbulence he created. I did actually try to match his pace but that lasted for about two steps, I could no longer see Scott and I was concerned that if I went too fast now Gareth would sink me on the final hills.

By the time I reached the hills I knew Scott was long gone (he opened up the gap by a further 16 seconds), I asked a couple of spectators how far behind the next runner was, when they told me ‘miles’ it de-stressed me but I still wanted to push, I needed to run a decent time to justify my place in the A team. And then it was up the final hill and my first glance at my watch, it said 16 minutes something so I knew I could get home under 17 minutes if I kept working.
The race is lost and I've pulled out a gap on 3rd place but I'm still pushing for a sub 17 finish

I finished in 2nd place, tired, with a time of 16:34, well under what I thought I was capable of. I had done a good leg, for my fitness level, and you can’t deny that we gave AFD a good race, but once again it was silvers for Salford, even if we had beaten Leicester, in this championship for the first time.  

Then I was back out again to give our M35 team a shout, we’d been right up there all the way through proceedings, getting within seconds of the lead at one stage, unfortunately, on a very strong last leg, we just lost out on bronze, despite out man, James Kovacs, running a good leg. After saying goodbye to the many friends within running and collecting our medals it was off home and onto the next challenge. Maybe next year will be our year, but we’ll have to run better than today to achieve it, but I’m certain we’ll keep trying.

Rob Tudor and myself collecting our silverware

Written by Roger Alsop

Photos with thanks to Sid Sacks and Carole Miller.

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