Blyth Sands 5 Miler – 3rd December 2023

by Geoff Hewitson

Described on the race entry form as “A beautifully scenic, always inspirational, often challenging, approximately 5 mile handicap race along the sands between Blyth Harbour and Seaton Sluice Harbour” (wouldn’t disagree with any of that) 2023 was the 63rd running of what is one of the region’s oldest races. Despite lots of expressions of interest, ultimately there were only three Crookites in this year’s race – myself and “Sands Race debutants” Lisa Donaldson and Phil Healey.

The start time is largely dictated by the tides (I assume) because it changes every year. In 2018 it was 2pm, 2019 was 1pm, 2021 was 10.30am, 2022 was 10am, whilst this year’s start time was a fairly civilised 12 noon. For me, the 2021 weather conditions remain the benchmark of how bad it could possibly be! In a word it was horrendous – lashing rain driven almost horizontal by a freezing cold gale force Northerly wind. Compared with that, we were relatively fortunate this year in that it stayed dry throughout and there was almost no wind. OK, so it was very cold (0o C before and after, according to the car thermometer) but thankfully the covering of snow stopped about 1/3 of the way down the beach.

Being an age/gender handicap, the Blyth Sands Race is quite unique, with a 15 minute spread of start times. Ladies over 75 are first to go, in receipt of a 15 minute start over the Senior Men (who run off scratch). All the other age and gender categories have their own handicap starts in minute intervals. I had the advantage of a 9 minute start over the scratch runners, Phil H (M60) went off with a 7 minute handicap, whilst Lisa D (F35) had 6 minutes.

The start and finish is on Blyth South Beach adjacent to the Dave Stephens Centre. The course itself is pretty straightforward – you start off by running North for about half a mile with the sea on your right. After making a U-turn around a marshal point you then run South for 2.5 miles, this time with the sea on your left. Another U-turn around a second marshal point then the final 2 mile stretch back to the finish. You must stay on the beach, but otherwise the exact choice of route (“racing line”) to take is down to the individual runner. Only where there is deemed to be a potentially hazardous situation do the marshals intervene to indicate where you need to go.

In terms of underfoot conditions you have to be prepared for (and accept) pretty much everything. Unlike a road race it’s never the same twice, and you have to cope with whatever variations of surface the tide leaves behind. This year we were quite lucky in that there were plenty of decent stretches of firm sand where you could get into a nice rhythm and relatively fewer areas where the sand was much softer and therefore more draining to run on (or deposits of slippery seaweed to navigate through). Usually the best tactic is to run right on the tide line and accept that the occasional mini tidal surge will briefly leave you in shin deep water (water hazards are all part of the experience, and the North Sea can be pretty cold to say the least). However, for reasons just outlined, it wasn’t really necessary to run close to the tide line this year.

There is a large water pipe running down the beach that has to be negotiated twice in the first mile, and the famous groynes (four of them I think) which have to be crossed in the second mile and then again in the last mile from the opposite direction. Their purpose is to reduce the southward erosion of the beach by the tides and with full commitment it’s possible to hurdle some of them when running down the beach, as long as you remember that, like Becher’s Brook in the Grand National, there is a steeper drop on the landing side. Coming back towards the finish, however, it’s a case of clambering over as best you can, and with a bigger height difference than usual, the marshals had generously provided portable step ladders. As you might have spotted on one of the photos I had to resort to this on the very last one (having had difficulty getting my leg over!!)

An advantage of the course layout is that you have the opportunity to see who is behind you (as well as up ahead) when making the U-turn at Seaton Sluice with 2 miles to go. Approaching this point I started counting runners coming back in the other direction and found myself in 13th place overall. I reckoned I’d been overtaken by four younger athletes at this point, and four others from my own pack were also just ahead so I worked out I’d caught all but four of the runners who’d set off before me. On the way back, it was nice to be able to share encouragement with Lisa and then Phil as they headed towards the turning point. I was eventually caught and passed by several more of the faster male runners (you knew when they were coming because you could hear their numbers rustling and feet splashing in the water) but I also managed to reel in 3 or 4 of those who were ahead of me at the turning point.

Although my finishing position (21st) was the first time I’ve not been top 20 (11th in 2022, 18th in 2021, 9th in 2019 and 13th in 2018) my time of 38m 49s was my second fastest ever and over 2 minutes quicker than last year, so absolutely no complaints there. Lisa had a brilliant run to finish 40th overall in a time of 37m 55s. She was 2nd in the F35 age category, but on actual time she was the 6th fastest female on the day, out of 82 competitors. Phil produced his usual gutsy performance to finish 138th in a time of 48m 52s. Both described the race as “an experience!” immediately afterwards, but also said they would definitely do it again.

Most of you know by now that I’m quite a traditionalist where races are concerned, but this is a great event if you’re looking for something different to the usual race formats and well worth supporting. They even have a paper entry form which you can post off with a cheque, although obviously you can also enter online. Best of all, it’s only £6 for attached runners and there was free tea/coffee, mince pies, biscuits and small glasses of sherry on offer in the race HQ afterwards. There is ample free parking close to the start/finish, and the race HQ and toilets are literally a stone’s throw away. Personally, I’d much rather support this type of event and the very friendly local club who keep the tradition going every year. Finally, it’s worth mentioning that all the organisers and marshals from host club Blyth AC were brilliant in terms of their support and encouragement.

There are individual prizes to the first 3 finishers, the winner of each 5 year age category, and the first three teams (4 to count regardless of age category of gender).