Wow! What a day! Saturday was simply the best ever for our senior teams in the National cross-country relay championships at Mansfield.
With medals for both teams – silver for the women and bronze for the men – for the first time ever at these prestigious championships, we can justifiably claim to be this year’s top club on the day. Not only were we the only club to make the podium in both events, but on the combined result we move up from third place overall behind Beford and Aldershot at the
National road relays two weeks ago to the number one position in the country fractionally ahead of Bedford and well clear of Aldershot, whom we beat in both races.
Add to this an all but bronze medal effort in the U20 men’s championship and what would surely have been silver in the U20 women’s race but for the unfortunate absence of Emily Merrick, and ;future prospects are looking better than ever.
Ironically we went to Mansfield fully expecting that our best chance of medals lay with our two junior teams. Nor as indicated did those that ran let us down, the men only being robbed of the bronze medals in the last few strides and the women in front at the final changeover, only to have no third runner to clinch what were certain medals
Yet any disappointment incurred only seemed to spur the resolve of our senior squads, who surpassed all expectations by mixing it with the favourites from the start in both races.
Rebekah Randell led the way for the women and what a run she had! Measuring her effort to near perfection she hung just off the leading group for the first half of the 3000m lap before making her strength and fitness tell on the long drag to the top of the course to pick off one after another of those in front of her. She ended up in 5th place (10:12) just behind 1500m internationals Hannah England (10:00) and Rachael Felton (10:09). It was perhaps her best run ever for the team and gave us a medal-winning platform.
Taking over on the second leg Kate Goodhead wasted no time in closing the
gap on the leaders and holders of the title Charnwood, and like Rebekah
before her produced one of her best ever relay splits to put us a close
third with the 11th fastest time of the day (10:05).
Although Hannah Whitmore took over in front for Charnwood and pulled ahead, Kate’s fine effort gave Claire Hallissey the breathing space she was denied in the road relay when she was just outsprinted for the bronze medals. There was no such danger this time, and though she could make no inroads on Charnwood’s lead, she pulled well clear of her nearest rivals Woodford Green to finish a clear second (10:15), with budding international star Steph Twell, who was in hot pursuit, never getting within striking distance for road relay champions Aldershot.
Behind the excitement of the scrap for the medals the magnificent performance of the B team went almost unnoticed, Yet Ruth Mitchell (11:00), Imogen Ainsworth (10:32), and Helen Fines (10:49) beat all bar six of the other 80 plus teams to finish top B team in 8th place well clear of champions Charnwood’s second string, who were back in 13th position.
And so to the men’s race and what a nail-biter it proved to be, with the medals in doubt untill the last few strides. The 2500m circuit, which each of the four runners had to cover twice is tailor-made for spectators and invariably produces the most exciting races of the year. Hence the huge entry in all the races, with over 150 teams in the men’s championship. Mansfield really is the relay mecca.
We always knew – if unwilling to tempt fate by admitting it- that our ladies could be in the shake-up, but not so the men after their somewhat disappointing result in tne recent road relay championship. Yet in the event they rose to the occasion to further consolidate our growing reputation as one of the leading distance running teams in Britain.
Steve Mitchell was entrusted with the first leg on the basis tnat as a 1500m runner he had the natural speed to avoid any early traffic problems created by the huge field on the narrow woodland paths that constitute nearly half of the lap. There was a dnager of course that he might go off too fast and suffer the consequences in the closing stges. Duly fired up he was on the heels of the leading group throughout the opening lap and a half, and though he did fade in the last kilometre, he still hung on to a place in the top 15 (15:28) and was less than half a minute off the medal positions.
It was just the sort of challenge that Phil Wylie relishes, and with his customary low-slung piston-like gait he carved his way through the front runners to lift us right up to 5th in an impressive 15:16. Tom Merson’s task was to keep us in contact, and he set off as if his life depended on it. He may lack a sprinter’s fast twitch fibres, but those he does have are certainly never left dormant! Not surprisingly 1500m specialist Bruce Raeside soon swept past him for Midland rivals Notts, but digging ever deeper, Tom refused to let him get away and eventually repassed him, only to just lose out on the final run-in to the changeover. His time too of 15:44 was good enough to keep us in the hunt.
And so to that memorable anchor leg. As Tom Russell set off, realistically any chance of a medal seemed out of the question, but it was one of those days when fortunately reality was in short supply and inspiration took over. Perhaps it was because Tom knew his old U23 international rival Ben Lindsey was in close pursuit for Aldershot, along with fellow internationals Ryan Macleod for Tipton and Phil Wicks for Belgrave, or perhaps he was shocked into retaliation by 5000m star Scott Overall, who went flying past him early on. But whatever the motivating influence, he kept his cool, even when Lindsey and Macleod both got by too, and pacing himself with characteristic precision reeled them in as they paid for their efforts through the final woodland section and up the long haul up to the top of the course.
He was soon up to 4th and cranking the pace up even more he seemed to sprout wings as he relentlessly began to close up on Blackheath (Overall) and Morpeth (Ian Hudspith) despite the fact the pair of rhem were racing shoulder to shoulder as they stormed down the final descent to the last turn. It seemed impossible that Tom could catch them as he was still the length of a cricket pitch down as he tore round the final corner into the undulating finishing straight.
Somehow – you’d better ask him how, though perhaps it was his response to the crescendo of support from all of us bawling our heads off – he raised the pace yet again, and as Hudspith’s desperate effort to match Overall’s kick finally ran out of gas Tom overhauled him to snatch the bronze medal behind Bedford and Blackheathj within metres of the line in the day’s 9th fastest time (15:08). It was an awesome effort that we shall for ever recall and Tom himself will probably never forget.
To put it in perspective we had beaten a star-studded Morpeth line-up that included established internationals Nick McCormick, Johnny Taylor and Hudspith with a team that apart from perhaps Tom had no household names. Elsewhere Robbie Bugden continued his comeback with a time (15:51) only 7 seconds slower than Tom Merson’s for the B team, for whom Dan Woolford (16:21) also ran creditably.
Earlier Ellie Wimshurst (8:46) and Katie Knowles (8:36), with the 11th and 5th fastest times of the event respectively, had put us in front of champions Aldershot in the U20 junior championship, but heartbreakingly there was no one to run the final leg due to Emily Merrick’s late withdrawal. It was so frustrating for the pair of them as the silver medals were there for the taking.
To cap this frustrating start to the day the U20 men’s team ended up 4th – the worst position of all – when Rich Peters despite clocking the 6th fastest time of the day (9:01) was overhauled in the last few strides by Luton’s Phil Corley. Yet it was a commendable effort as Harry Webb, still not fully recovered from a bout of swine flu he suffered a month ago,had only agreed to run for the sake of the team.
Harry predictably struggled and could finish only 24th (9:34) on the opening stage, but Nathan Young, having arguably his best run for the team since he joined the club, powered his way through the ruck to put us right back in contention in 6th place with the 11th fastest time (9:11). It was just the challenge Rich needed and he underlined his return to something like his true form by closing what was a substantial gap to put us in the frame with 600m to go, only for Corley, as indicated, to follow him through and collar him almost on the finishing line. No medals then, but enough promise to suggest that they can be a real force to reckon with in the major cross-country races after Christmas.
Anyway in conclusion congratulations from both Keith and me for showing such tremendous spirit on the day and adding further to our growing reputation as one of the country’s top clubs.