We set an ambitious target for our team of a place in the prestigious top six at Saturday’s National 12 stage road relay championship in Sutton Park, Birmingham and in a nail-biting climax made it in the end with 40 seconds to spare!
What’s more we closed to within 20 seconds of the runaway Northern champions Leeds, who were one of the pre-race favourites, and were only a fraction over two minutes away from a position on the podium after more than four hours of racing, the bronze medals behind the holders and hot favourites Newham & Essex and Midland champions Tipton being taken by Scottish title-holders Shettleston, who had the advantage of four Eritrean internationals in their line-up.
The National 12 stage remains one of the most compelling events of the running calendar. No race is viewed with the same reverence by Britain’s top clubs and produces an annual pecking-order that is universally regarded as the ultimate test of a club’s overall strength.
Since our rebranding as Bristol & West our target has been to secure a permanent place in the country’s top ten distance running clubs, and we certainly matched that ambition from the off, finishing as high as 5th in both 2005 and 2006, which was something of a revelation after slumping to a lowly 30th in 2003 and failing to field a team the following year.
Predictably perhaps we were unable to sustain the momentum, though only in 2007 did we fail to make the top ten, finishing 11th that year, followed by 8th and 9th in 2008 and 2009 respectively. So the guys knew that a position in the top six would be a tough call and were not helped by the absence of both Rob Whalley and Tim Wallis through injury.
All team mangers agree that a good start is imperative, if only to boost team morale, and Jon Wills is certainly becoming something of a first leg expert in the tradition of those two former maestros Martin Hula and Mick O’Doherty, who are now proving just as indispensable to our successful Masters teams.
Apprehensive before the start that his breathing might be affected as he was nursing a cold and cough, he need not have worried as he quickly tucked in just behind the leaders and proceded to produce his best ever performance in the event to finish a close second behind Alrincham’s Matt Barnes-Smith in a time of 26:05 that turned out to be the equal fifth fastest of the day. It must have raised his hopes of making a real challenge for a place in Wales’ Commonwealth Games team over 10,000m.
Taking over Rich Peters found himself in an unenviable position, with a whole host of clubs chasing him, but unfortunately he made the mistake of settling for a tactical race and was content to sit with a leading group that soon formed rather that running his own race. It was only when recent Home Countries international winner Bruce Raeside came storming past to set the day’s fastest short stage time of 14:01 that he realised his error, and though finishing quite strongly to keep us close up in 4th place, his resultant time of 14:59 was a disappointment after his his 14:35 effort in the Midland championship.
Still hopes were high that duathlon champion Phil Wylie could consolidate our position near the front, but for the first time since he has run for us he did not go as well as he had anticipated. Despite feeling strong over the first half of the course, he then started to struggle and had no explanation as to what was wrong as he reckoned he was in top shape with next weekend’s European Duathlon championships in mind. The net result was that we lost three places to drop us back to 7th, though to be fair his time of 27:48 was not quite the disaster he implied.
Young junior Sean Hazell, a late substitute for Rob Whallley, was next up and certainly held his own, his time of 15:35 being four seconds quicker than he did at the Midlands, and even though he lost two more places we were still very much in the race.
Then however came the biggest question mark as former European duathlon bronze medallist Tom Lowe had bravely volunteered to fill in for Tim Wallis on one of the long legs in what was only his second race for more than two years due to complications following knee surgery. But he certainly did not let us down, and despite not looking too comfortable early on he seemed to get stronger as the race went on, due in no small part to the core fitness he has built up through endless miles on the bike. He only lost two places and recorded the sort of time we had hoped for of 28:27.to finish only just outside the top ten.
With two of our best men Steve Mitchell and Tom Russell to follow, there was every chance of recovering the lost ground and they duly produced the goods. Steve may have been disappoited with his time of 14:47, but it was the fastest on stage 6 and catapulted us back up to 8th place that Tom then improved still more to 6th on the traditionally most competitive stage of the race. Nor did he have the advantage of anyone to run with,whereas fellow international rivals James Walsh (Leeds) and Phil Hinch (Tipton) were up ahead working together. No matter, for judging his pace as astutely as ever Tom did the job required to haul us back into medal contention.
Dan Woolford took over and produced arguably one of our best short legs, running 15 seconds faster than he had at the Midlands with a time of 15:18 to lose just one place to Welsh champions Swansea, with whom we had a nip and tuck battle for the whole second half of the race.
Tom Merson, looking sharper and much happier than he had at the Midlands, kept us right in touch with Swansea on the penultimate long stage with a creditable time of 27:19, and though newcomer Mike Wilsmore had to let his Swansea rival go on the 10th stage, his time of 15:37 on his1first encounter with the contours of the Sutton Park lap was all that could have been expected of a runner whose first choice distancece is 800m on the track.
This left Robbie Bugden, who is a Cardiff UWIC graduate, with the task of overhauling Swansea’s Sullivan Smith to get us back into the top six targetted, and urged on by his many Cardiff friends, who had already had to concede bragging rights to their bitter rivals, he closed the gap and did more than enough to keep us on course for our top six goal. Even so he knew he would not be at his best following a lay-off after his busy cross-country season and his time of 27:20 was therefore predictably nothing to write home about.
On the anchor leg Harry Webb could have easily settled to do enough to keep the Swans at bay, But that’s not in Harry’s nature and not only did he produce our fastest short stage of 14:43, but pulled back all bar 17 seconds of the minute he started behind Northern champions Leeds for us to finish a clear 6th of the 71 teams that qualified for the championship race.
Perhaps the most encouraging conclusion is that we have proved that the dream of medals is surely not beyond us despite the cosmopolitan recruitment policies of many of the other top clubs as most of our current team by their own admission are still well capable of running faster. With the current squad we have there is no reason why we should not be able to clock an average of 27 minutes for the six long legs and 15 minutes for the corresponding shorter stages. This would give us a finishing time of 4 hours 12 minutes, as opposed to the 4:14:15 we recorded and would have been good enough to snatch the bronze medals from Shettleston.
Nevertheless we really still need one or two more good class runners to put us right in the firing line, and that remains a priority for recruitment.
On a more depressing note we had to scratch our women’s team due to Claire Hallissey being stranded in France en route back from America, coupled with trouble over Hannah Alderson’s eligibility. It was just too late to find appropriate substitutes, which was devastating as the silver medals were there for the taking in what turned out to be one of the lowest standard 6 stage championships for years. It was particularly disappointing as we have such a fine record in the race, having won it in 2003 and 2005, come third in 2006 and 2009, and 4th in 2008. Well perhaps it was time to give someone else a chance! Next year no doubt we shall be on a revenge mission.
MIKE DOWN (18-04-10)