Just 13 agonising seconds after more than two hours of continuous racing separated us from regaining the crown London club Herne Hill stole from us last year in a nail-biting finish to the British Masters road relay championships at Sutton Park, Birmingham.
It is somehow more frustrating being beaten by such a narrow margin than losing more convincingly, but all credit to our London rivals, who themselves had played second fiddle to us no less than four times from 2005 to 2008, for their superior consistency over their eight runners in the final reckoning earned them the spoils again.
Yet while Herne Hill admitted they were virtually at full strength, we had to replace both Andrew Harrison and Clive Bromhall from our selected team, Clive after straining his achilles on his very last training run before the race. The unfortunate out come was that just as last year we regrettably
had to again abandon our debut in the V50 chamionship by having to bring Mick O’Doherty and Jerry Hogan back into the V40 team, whose average age it should be pointed out was nearer 50 than 40 – just over 45 to be precise.
Disappointing as things turned out, we still maintained our outstanding record in this championship, having won itr four years in succession before having to settle for the bronze medals with a severely depleted team last year and now the silvers this time. The obvious progression now must be gold again next year!
As if to the manor born Jerry came in again as a late replacement, and as > in the past was assigned to the opening stage, which he seems to be making > his own property. While as expected he was the slowest member of the team > his effort could not be faulted as he actually went four seconds faster
than last year with a time of 16:43 for the 3 mile plus distance to leave > us just inside the top half of the 45 strong field.
Once again in an action replay of previous years Alec Woods was given the > job of retrieving the lost ground on the early leaders and pre-race > favourites Leicester and he came up trumps again passing runner after runner – 28 in all though some of these were among the competitors in the accompanying four stage V35 event – to lift us back into the top ten at the changeover with an impressive time of 15:29.
With our trump card Haggai Chepkwony to follow, we looked to be back in medal contention, though this was discounting what “Chep”, as he is popularly known, had gone through in the previous 72 hours. Not only was the ex Army champion suffering the after effects of a respiratory infection that had grounded him on Wednesday and Thursday, but on Friday night he had driven some nine hours to York and back in his job as a haulier, arriving back at only 5am and having to make do with just one hour’s sleep!! They breed them tough in Kenya. Most would not even have entertained the prospect of racing in the circumstances, but he did not want to let us down and making light of his handicap took up the chase and had caught all bar leaders Leicester by the time he handed over to new recruit Heath Bampton for the fourth stage. He apolgised afetrwards that he was struggling with his breathing as a result
of the infection, yet his time of 14:47 was still the third fastest of the
day and earned him the individual bronze medal.
It was Heath’s first run over the Sutton Park course, and though obviously apprehensive at the rospect he duly did the job needed by keeping us in close contention at the halfway point in the creditable time of 16:11.
It was almost fated that Mick O’Doherty should find himself being chased on the same leg by his house guest and ex B&W clubmate Martin Cox, who was running for leading Northern challengers Salford. Cox, who is surely the fastest veteran in the country at present, duly swept past his mentor going like an express train and proceeded to erase Nigel Gates’ name from the > record books by all of 12 seconds with the day’s fastest time of 14:11. Yet Mick, as inscrutable as ever, refused to be phased and kept the gap to little more than a minute on the new leaders, with Herne Hill now a close third behind us. His time too of 15:36 was four seconds faster than the best in the accompanying V50 championship.
Next up another of our stalwarts Martin Hula faced the unenviable prospect of trying to hold on to Herne Hill’s star runner Ian Locket, and though he hung on gamely up the long opening climb and along the top of the course, the combination of not having raced for a year and an uneven battle with
the scales in the intervening period, inevitably took its toll in the last mile and he finished in 16:16. None the less he flogged himself mercilessly to keep the leaders within striking distaance and Phil Parry quickly set about clawing back the deficit. He overhauled the Salford team and was rewarded with our third fastest time of 15:24, but could still only close marginally on Roger Alsop, who maintained Herne Hill’s control at the front. Even so their lead was down to less than 20 seconds and everything looked
set for a grandstand finish as Rob Whalley, who was making his first appearance in the event, set off in pursuit of the London club’s specialist anchor man dave Robinson, whom many will recall frustrating our
bid for victory in the National cross-country relay championship at Newport four years ago when he caught and outsprinted Nick Rose on the final leg.
There would surely have been little doubt of Rob catching his rival had he been anywher near race fit, but sidelined virtually all winter, first with calf and ankle problems and more recently a strained hamstring that he incurred in his only serious interval session, he knew he was going to have > to run on memory! He even feared that he might be forced to stop if his leg gave out, which is why he was given the anchor leg. Fortunately these fears were allayed, though he admitted he could not let himself go as normal on the downhill sections. He did manage to close the gap to no more than 40 metres approaching the final climb to the finish, but Robinson had enough in hand to rebuff his challenge on the run-in and retain the title for the > South London club. Their overall time of 2:05:22 gave them victory by just 13 seconds, with Salford nearly a minute further back in third place, while > Rob’s time of 15:09 was still our second fastest on the day and better than he had expected.
Frustrating as it was to lose a National championship by such a narrow margin, as anyone of our missing first choice runners could have made the difference, it is getting your best team to the start that makes these mega relay championships such a fascinating challenge, with the post mortem for ever if only! In fact that if only amounted to the £300 on offer from our sponsors Ron Hill Sports.
At least Mike Deegan, who ran the first leg for Salford, will not be out of pocket!