Despite only able to field weakened teams due to a spate of injuries and in particular clashes with Bristol students’ Easter training camp as well as the English Schools cross-country championships, both our men’s and women’ teams maintained their impressive medal-winning record in the Midland 12 and 6-stage road relay championships at Sutton Park in Birmingham.
Both landed the bronze medals in their respective events through block-busting anchor legs from first Rebekah Randell for the women, and then Tom Russell for the men in a dramatic repeat of his heroic last-ditch effort in last November’s National cross-country relay championships at Mansfield.
The women’s team’s medal-winning success was their ninth since the millennium and the men their fourth in the six years since the club was rebranded. It is surely a record to be proud of.
There were a couple of tit-bits of history too for the statistical anoraks, as for the first time I can remember everyone of our runners on the day returned with a medal, including our one man vets team Phil Parry who landed the fastest long stage medal in the accompanying Masters 6-stage relay championship, while Matt and Grace Crane both won medals on their first appearance for the club in a team event.
Few would have given pour ladies a medal-winning chance after Claire Hallissey was forced to make a late withdrawal due to concern over a niggling achilles tendon as it left us with only one of our likely first choice team Rebekah Randell for next month’s National.
Yet undeterred UWIC graduates Debbie Niccol (17:31) and Ruth Mitchell (17:44) gave us a positive start by putting us in our eventual bronze medal-winning position after the opening two stages, but even allowing for our strong tail of Susie Richards and Rebekah, everything depended on our two late substitutes Grace Crane (18:26) and Alison Hurford (19:57), who had both been expecting a comfortable run-out for the B team. Undaunted they both responded magnificently only losing one place apiece to keep us in the hunt in 5th place.
Susie (18:17) , whose recent training has been restricted by a hamstring strain, set about clawing back the deficit and lifted us back up to 4th, but Rebekah was still left to close what initially seemed an insurmountable gap to catch the Birchfield runner and secure the bronze medals behind old rivals Charnwood and a resurgent Coventry Godiva squad. No fear she proved more than equal to the task by clocking the day’s 7th fastest time of 16:49.
Rather like the women the the men travelled to Sutton Park with hopes restricted to qualifying for next month’s National and at best a place in the top six as star runners Robbie Bugden, Phil Wylie, Tim Wallis and Steve Mitchell were all missing. Yet what was a predominantly young team, along with comeback pair Rob Whalley and Tom Lowe, who were returning to competition after being out of action for over one and two years respectively, fought tooth and nail the whole way and against the odds duly matched the ladies’ bronze.
Jon Wills (26:44), though by his own admission some way short of race fitness, set the ball rolling as reliably as ever by clocking our quickest long leg – less than 20 seconds off the day’s fastest – to leave us close up in third place on the opening leg of the 12 stage marathon.
Tom Kingsnorth(16:05), in search of his first Midland team medal, lost only two places with 10th fastest time on the second leg to keep us within a minute of early leaders Coventry, a lead that Rich Peters (14:35), running by far his best ever senior relay leg for the club, had closed to just four seconds at the third changeover with what was easily the fastest time on the stage and in fact the third fastest overall.
Rob Whalley (29:06), who had volunteered to do one of the four long stages despite having not raced seriously for more than a year, looked as if he was regretting his offer as he drove his unwilling body up the final drag to the finish. Even so having done no concentrated training sessions since he resumed running a month ago following a shoulder operation, he still lost only two places as we dropped back to 4th behind perennial rivals Coventry, Tipton and Notts.
Two of our up and coming youngsters Dan Woolford (15:33) and Sean Hazell (15:39) then took up the cudgel and edged us back to third ahead of Notts at halfway, dan being 4th quickest on his leg and Sean third best on his.
We did not expect to stay there for long as Dave Green (28:41) had only been conscripted en route to Sutton Park to do one of the long legs, but in the event he ran as if he had been born for the job with the 6th best time on the stage and was only just caught by Birchfield, whose James Trollope (26:25) posted the fastest time of the day.
This left international duathlete Tom Lowe (15:37) , who has not raced for more than two years and was making his debut for the club, little time to remind himself of what the pain of racing is all about as he set off right on the heels of another of Birchfield’s African born runners, but ever competitive he stuck like a leech to his rival and finished right on his tail still in 4th place after posting the second quickest time on the stage.
Next up international orienteer Matt Crane (15:53), who like Tom before him was making his debut for the club and similarly up against another of Birchfield’s African army, underlined what an asset he is also going to be by losing no more than 20 seconds in what were probably the worst conditions of the race with the rain lashing it down throughout.
And so to the last long leg and the ominous sight for Tom Merson (28:00) of John Ndasyinaga, the fastest of the Birchfield Africans, setting off some 20 seconds ahead of him. It looked a hapless task, but the one saving grace for Tom was that the African star, a 28 minute 10K runner, had the Reading half marathon to run on Sunday and was clearly content to run within himself. Not so Tom however, who despite feeling fatigued from the heavy training load he has undertaken to make up for the time he has lost recently to a virulent bout of swine flu, in his won words “smashed” himself to keep the fleet-footed African star in his sights.
While he inevitably lost substantial ground to the Birchfield runner, it still left our last pair Harry Webb and Tom Russell with a whiff of a chance if they could both run out of their skins seeing that the Birmingham club had finally run out of Africans!! Harry set the tone by clawing back his share of the deficit to pass Notts and move us back up to 4th with a brilliant effort on the penultimate stage, his time of 14:44 being the fifth fastest overall.
the final stage, and though he had been looking for an easy run in view of his selection for Scotland in next weekend’s Home Countries cross-country international, he could not resist the challenge. We were still the best part of a minute off the bronze medal position, but urged on by all of us he relentlessly closed the gap and reeled the Birchfield man in just after Keepers Pool, storming past to give us the team medals and himself the individual medal for the fastest short stage of 14:13, a time he shared with Tipton international Phil Nicholls. What was particularly sweet was to repeat our girls’ achievement of relegating Birchfield’s Anglo-African squad to 4th place.
Well done guys and gals! Now for the National. We have just four weeks to go, and Keith and I will be doing everyting we can to help you sharpen up for what we have long targeted as the highlight of the season. It will also be a golden opportunity for us to reassert our position as the Midlands’ number one club overall, a position that we surrendered on the day to the reinvigorated Coventry Godiva squad, who to their credit took the silver medals in both races.
MIKE DOWN (21-03-10)