Nick Pearson discovers what it’s like to be Rooney-ed at the last of the fun and challenging Jesmond Dene handicap race series.
I’d heard talk of the Jesmond Dene Handicap Series bandied about and seen several Tyne Bridge Harriers had been taking part in the earlier races and had quite fancied it myself but had been unable to make the other 2 in the series due to the first being while I was on holiday and the second just days after I’d run a marathon. There were no such obstacles this time round (despite having already raced the Wednesday and the Sunday before and done Parkrun on Saturday) and so I decided I’d make my debut to the series in the third and final race. I always like the idea of handicapped races as it mixes it up a bit and means that you always have a rabbit to chase who is probably catchable, as each person starts based on their earlier times in the series or predicted time if they haven’t ran previously.
I arrived nice and early at the People’s Theatre for registration and lo and behold who should I find skulking in a corner but the imitable Keith Rooney! We had a bit of a chat and then I went to collect my number to find I’d been given a predicted time of 20:50 which was a bit of a worry as my best post-marathon 5k was 21:21 and I’d been informed this was a rather challenging course. I headed over to the start area with Keith and we were greeted by Graham King and Guy Rintoul who had come along to be the TBH cheerleading division (and much appreciated it was too!). I then had my sense of trepidation elevated further by the usual understated comments from Keith about the difficulty of the course and the 4 hills I was about to face. I had visions of streams of runners flooding past me as I limped to a 22 minute finish.
Rooney’s pep talk had the desired effect and as we jogged to the start my nerves were a jangling and my adrenaline was spiking to critical level. I then had to wait in a state of nervous tension for the next 15 minutes as I waited for my start time to roll around. I wished Keith good luck as he set off 40 seconds before me due to the crazy idea that I was going to run a better time than him; and then I stepped up to the plate. The 30 seconds till the whistle went seemed like an eternity but eventually I was given the go and off I went.
The build up of tension (definitely Rooney’s fault) meant I had to rocket off as nothing else was possible in my heightened state! The course took you over Armstrong bridge from the start of our Summer series and then left and down the hill into the Dene. I covered the first half mile in 6 minute pace and started to catch glimpses of Keith in the distance as I closed the gap between us. The course then took a left down a steep flight of steps and then turned back towards Armstrong bridge back up the hill I had just flown down. I started to pay for my earlier exuberance and I went through the first mile in 6:42, below my target pace of 6:50 but I was definitely starting to slow. The 2nd mile was largely uphill back towards and then over the bridge and, as I tried desperately to close the gap on Keith, I found another pair of runners were coming back towards me as he arrowed past them. I caught the 2 of these just before the 2 mile point but as I did 3 of the faster runners came past me from behind but at least I was now fairly confident I wouldn’t be coming last.
I went through the 2nd mile in 7:10 and I gave up the dream of ever catching Keith as he seemed to be going from strength to strength and picking off runners in front of him, I caught another runner and was passed by several more and then hit the next hill to the turnaround point in Heaton. Dodging the slippery patch of leaves and waving to Keith as he hared off in the opposite direction I tried to use the downhill to recover and get my pace back to closer to where I wanted it to be.
The eventual fastest finisher passed me at this point looking ridiculously comfortable and also ridiculously young! I wondered if he shouldn’t be accompanied by an adult (if anyone could keep up) as he disappeared into the distance. I hit the hill back into the Dene feeling reasonably okay and caught another couple of runners here and went through the 3rd mile in 7:18 pace. I managed to wind it up for the end as we approached the bridge and unleashed a pretty decent sprint finish, catching another 2 runners and just being pipped on the line by a third (my Garmin has my bit on the end as 3:53 pace!). I checked my watch and found out I’d managed to finish in 21:16 (which was down as 21:17 on the official results) which I was very pleased with. A comeback PB on a challenging course and I felt really good at the end. I’d managed to do my usual ‘taking the racing line’ and had somehow ended up with 3.03 on the Garmin, though that’s probably largely to do with the trees.
I found Rooney at the finish line standing around looking fresh as a daisy and found out he’d smashed his course PB to beat me by 9 seconds in 21:07 (21:08 officially). We collected our orange juice and mars bar at the finish (awesome!) and headed back to the bar at the People’s Theatre. We found out that Keith had finished 15th on the night (with the 17th fastest time), only 10 seconds outside of the prizes and that I’d finished 38th out of 46 (with the 18th fastest time) which I was perversely quite pleased with as when I’d seen my predicted time I’d thought last was a distinct possibility! There was a nice little prize giving ceremony with chocolates and beer given out to 12 of the 46 runners, (not bad when over a quarter of the field are getting a prize!) while I enjoyed a well earned drink!
I’d definitely recommend this series to anyone next year, the course is really good and a little different than your usual 5k with plenty of challenging hills. The handicap makes it great fun as you strive to catch people up while holding your place and Heaton Harriers handle the whole event in a very fun and good-natured way, making it all feel much friendlier than some races can. I thoroughly enjoyed it and I’ll be back to show Rooney how it’s done next year!