Our men’s and women’s teams again performed with distinction in the National road relay championships Our formidable and ultra consistent ladies team made the medal podium yet again to back up their outstanding silver medal success in the National cross-country championships, while the men defied the loss of star U23 international Tom Russell and late withdrawal of Rob Whalley through injury to still maintain a position among the top ten teams in the country in a field boosted (or compromised according to one’s point of view) by a host of foreign internationals.
What’s more our bronze medal-winning ladies were missing the services of our first two finishers in the National cross-country – Steph Barnes and Amy Chalk, who are both sidelined with injuries. In their place we welcomed the return to the fold of Amy’s fellow international marathon runner Lucy Hasell-McAllister, who was making her first appearance for the team for a couple of years and budding junior international star Katie Knowles. They joined forces with the other four members of our silver medal-winning cross-country squad Kate Goodhead, Claire Hallissey, Imogen Ainsworth and Susie Richards to keep our place among the top three teams in the UK.
The race went very much according to the formbook, though our National cross and Midland 6-stage conquerors, my old club Charnwood, needed everyone of their first choice six to stave off the formidable challenge of defending champions Aldershot in what proved a real nail-biting finish.
We had anticipated a fight for the bronze with Northern champions Chester-le-Street, but they never really got close to us as our girls all improved considerably on their Midland area times to help post our second fastest ever time for the 6-stage event behind our 2002 course record that finally succumbed to the battle royal between Charnwood and Aldershot.
Susie, surely the most improved member of the squad this winter, gave us the start we needed by finishing inside the top 20 on the opening leg. This left the teams lined up ahead of Katie, who duly stormed through to 6th place with our fastest stage time of 16:14. Kate kept up the good work with her first sub 17 minute clocking on the course and Imogen was not far outside that time as she put us in the bronze medal position ahead of Bedford. From then on we never looked back and Lucy and Claire lengthened our advantage to well over a minute on the chasing Bedford and Hallamshire teams, both posting times well under 17 minutes
Keith and I were disappointed that what had looked one of our best ever B teams fell apart virtually on the day due to the last minute withdrawals of Clare Conway and Nikki Brookland, but at least there was an encouraging return to action by Charley Coffey, who was only a couple of seconds slower than Susie.
In passing it is worth bearing in mind that though Charnwood and Aldershot may have set the highest standard the event has seen, we are still not out of the frame, for with Amy and Steph back in the mix and just maybe our Olympian Kate Reed once she has put her injury problems behind her, we can still make it a three-way battle for supremacy.
While our men’s squad will realistically never be able to match the United Nations approach of champions Belgrave or the national recruitment methods of runners-up Newham and Essex – not to mention the increasing Africanisation of some of the other teams – we can still be candidates for at least the bronze medals if we can get all our eligible runners to the line on the day. The loss of Rob, Tom and Olly Mott too cost us four minutes or more, which would have put us well inside the top six. and vying for a medal.
The composition of the two London club teams, as well as Scottish champions Shettleston and Birchfield, was a moot point of discussion among all the leading “amateur” clubs, and might the time have come, as in many top road races, to have medals awarded, in addition, to the first three teams of British runners. After all it is our National championship.
Belgrave had just four English runners in their 12 man team, and one could not help wondering whether all of their foreign runners truly met the rather nebulous 3 month residential rule. Is it not time for that to be extended, perhaps to 12 months?
While it was welcome to see Shettleston mounting a challenge again as Scottish champions, it was hardly the result of an upsurge in the standard of their home-based runners, but due to a fleet of Eritreans, all of whom had sought asylum after last year’s world cross in Edinburgh. Birchfield too similarly had four Africans in their line-up.
It is arguable and a well justified claim that the inclusion of foreign athletes raises the standard of the championship, but should the teams they represent be eligible for the English championship medals. Many think not, but whatever happens we shall not be departing from our policy of only recruiting athletes from Bristol and the West country.
Most clubs are now finding it increasingly difficult to assemble 12 man teams. We are building the depth to meet our aspirations, but can still not make up for the absence of any of our elite runners, which is what again restricted us to a place in the top ten rather than the battle for the bronze medals..
Having said that no one let us down, while two outstanding long legs by Jon Wills (26:22) and Kevin Heywood (26:29) – both their best ever on the course – put us up in the top six after Craig Peters and Mick O’Doherty (how does he still do it?) gave us as good a start as we could have expected in the circumstances, with Mick having come in at 24 hours notice as a late replcement for Rob and Craig running despite suffering again with low ferritin levels as he did last year.
In between Jon and Kev Rich Peters put his poor run in the Midland relay behind him by dipping under 15 minutes on the short stage for the first time, just as well mind you as he would have enjoyed a right old ribbing if he had been slower than Steph Twell (15:15)!
Dan Woolford kept us only just outside the top six at halfway, and we lost only one more place – to none other than defending champions Leeds – in the second half of the race,.Our other six runners all performed up to expectations. Tom Merson made a promising debut on the traditionally fastest long stage of the race, while following him another debutant Dave Green, Phil Wylie, Harry Webb and the evergreen Phil Parry more than consolidated our top ten postion before Steve Mitchell, making the most of inclusion in the massed start anchor leg, made another breakthrough by posting our fastest short stage time of 14:39 to easily repel the late challenge of rivals Aldershot and end up in 9th position overall.
Next year we will have another of our top men Rob Bugden back in the fold, and with our promising junior squad a year older and hopefully faster, there is no reason why we cannot get even closer to meeting our aspiration of medalling in this blue riband event of the road racing season.
And even so we can still consider ourselves one of the top clubs in the country, as once again when the men’s and women’s results are combined we come out a close third behind Aldershot and Bedford, less than two minutes in nearly six hours separating us from Aldershot with Bedford only just over a minute ahead of us. And as for Belgrave and Newham. They are well behind. Unfortunately for them there are not so many itinerant female runners on the market!
Finally now that we are at the end of another long season – all that’s left is for our star vets team to defend their National road realy title on May 16 – Keith and I would both like to thank all our runners for their continued support, particularly those in some of the incomplete B teams we have ended up fielding due to communication failures!! Few of you fully appreciate the time-consuming problems we encounter in putting together our teams, and we are working on producing a team managers’ charter to make our
job that little bit more manageable. Watch this space!
Meanwhile have a good summer