Performances of the Week – 14th to 21st February 2011

24 Feb
Mind-numbing and bone-jarring as the rides and merry-go-rounds of the Alton Towers theme park may be, none of them surely could match the unique muddy-go-round that mother nature and the elements conspired to create for the National cross-country championships on the rain-sodden surrounding grounds.
In my 60 years associated with the sport I can never remember such testing underfoot conditions for the National. By the time the near 1,500 strong field got underway there was virtually no grass to be seen, just a quagmire of slush and curling mud. Young Rob Whitham, who was making his debut in the senior race, claimed it was the toughest race he had ever run and described it as like running a 10K through treacle, while Tom Russell claimed that the only place on the lap when you could get a firm footing was up the near perpendicular hill that separated the two tiers of the course. In fine it was a race that not only the runners who battled the elements but also the spectators – including the many fallers – will never forget.
But as already reported by Keith on the website our runners that were there never flinched from the challenge, our senior men’s and women’s squads finishing 5th and 6th respectively among the 150 plus clubs entered to consolidate our position among the top clubs in the country – second only in fact to Bedford and County in the combined standings both in terms of positions and cumulative points. What’s more to back them up the depleted U20 women’s team salvaged the bronze medals in their event despite two of their successful trio being under the weather.
Due to the importance the club attaches to the National this week’s honoure list is confined to those who ran. Any other meritorious performances will be held over and included in next week’s POTW.
1= ROBBIE BUGDEN, PHIL WYLIE and TOM RUSSELL – It would be invidious to split our leading trio who gave us a near perfect start by all three finishing in the top 20 of the huge 1,400 plus field. It underlined the valid claim that there is a team element to cross-country racing as the three of them were always within touch of each other and finished just ten seconds apart: Robbie 16th, Phil 17th and Tom 19th. All three of them in their different ways seemed unphased by the underfoot conditions. Robbie’s relaxed, almost nonchalant, style across yielding ground belies his natural strength as befits an RAF PTI, while Phil’s low-slung gait seems tailor-made to plough through the mud – shades of the great Deon McNeilly for those who remember him – and his only regret was that the race was shortened from 12K to 10K on account of the prevailing conditions as he felt he was still on a roll at the finish. In contrast Tom uses his lighter frame to seemingly pick his way across the top rather than through the sludge and he too was still making headway in the closing stages and could have done with the extra distance.         
2 ANDY CHAMBERS – Andy’s bold and unexpected effort to complete our scoring six was perhaps the revelation of the race for our team. After failing to break 27mins in the recent Great West 5M at Exmouth, he was hardly viewed as a potential scorer, but he certainly made up for his blunder in missing the start of the Midland championship race by chasing Tom Merson all the way and actually passing him only to slip and fall before rallying to finish 104th – only a few seconds away from a place in the coveted top hundred runners in the country. His performance too proved that we would have easily taken the silver medals at Leamington if he had made it.
3= OWAIN JONES and TOM MERSON – Both of our other counters on the day Owain and Tom were on the comeback trail after lengthy periods off with injury/illness, Owain having not done a hard session of any kind since Christmas due to a chronic achilles problem and Tom having suffered a knee strain on top of a long time indisposed following a particularly nasty strain of swine flu. Owain, a former Welsh cross-country champion and top 20 finisher in the National was finally making his debut for the club and after sensibly setting off cautiously moved steadily through to finish a more than respectable 77th, while Tom, who like Owain knew he was not race fit, soldiered round in his inimitable committed style to end up just ahead of Andy in 102nd position.
PS it would be remiss not to mention our other seniors who survived the ordeal. MATT CRANE, like Andy having his first running as opposed to orienteering test at national level, made the mistake of taking off too fast early on, but still rallied on the last lap to finish a creditable 126th. As for poor JON WILLS, who hates the sight of mud, let alone attemting to run  on  it, soon gave up the uneven struggle and was content to pick his way round as best as possible to finish 175th, prompting a sympathetic comment from MICHAEL JOHNSON that the calf strain he incurred in the Chichester 10K that forced him to withdraw was evidently a blessing in disguise! Finally ROB WHITHAM did manage to finish his treacle pudding, finishing his first senior National well inside the top third of the field (381st).
1 ADAM SPEAKE – Adam more than replicated his Midland championship form with 68th place in the U17 championship, finishing within a minute of team leader Rhys Park, but was understandably aggrieved having travelled up from South Devon that only Rhys of their triumphant Midland winning team chose to run in what was their last chance of winning a National medal in the age group, which looking at the team results was well within their reach.
2 RHYS PARK – Rhys’ long ground-engulfing stride was clearly unsuited to the testing underfoot conditions and he was unable to match his magnificent bronze medal effort in the Midland area championship. eventually slipping back to finish an obviously disappointed 32nd, though he too was hardly motivated by the absence of his other star colleagues.
3 MATT DEACON – Matt cut a lonely furrow in the U20 championship after SEAN HAZELL was forced to drop out due to a recurrence of his chronic stitch problem, and was far from disgraced with 126th position in his first year in the older age group.
1 STEVE GOSS – After some ten years away from this level of competition Steve probably regretted choosing this year to renew his acquaintance with the National, but he stuck it out gamely to make the top 25% of the field at 315th and will almost certainly find more favourable conditions for next month’s National masters championship.
2 DAN NOAD – Although Dan is less than a year from reaching the traditional V40 milestone, he now qualifies for the new V35 category, which henceforth will be combined with the V40 age group for official masters’ team competitions to fall in line with the women. Like Steve he has not run the National for some years and was content to get round and finish well inside the top half of the field at 441st.
1=m NIKKI BROOKLAND and CHARLIE COFFEY – Hopes of a repeat of last year’s bronze medal performance may have been dashed by the withdrawal of our latest international Kate Goodhead, but Nikki and Charlie rose to the occasion and made sure we kept a place among the top six teams in the country. Revelling in the conditions, Nikki’s only regret was that the distance was shortened from 8K to 6K, especially as it meant cutting out the two ascents of “heartbreak hill” that she had been looking forward to!  As a result while she was always passing runners, she simply ran out of distance and was still full of running when crossing the line just inside the top 50 in 49th position. Even so she did well to finish 8th of the Midland competitors less than a minute behind our lead runner Rebekah Randell. Charlie for her part improved considerably on her Midland championship effort, progressing from 18th to 9th Midland finisher, which was no mean achievement as she has to fit her training in at present whenever possible as a young doctor on the wards. She too seemed to cope well with the mud and always had Nikki in her sights to finish just 17secs and ten places back in 59th position.
2 REBEKAH RANDELL – Following her fine 4th place finish close behind Kate Goodhead in the Midlands Becky was naturally disappointed not to match her career best 14th place in last year’s National, but a combination of the soft muddy conditions that were unsuited to her natural high pick-up and a lack of racing this season due to injury problems and illness meant she had to be satisfied with 25th place this year, which was still no mean effort in the circumstances, especially after setting off perhaps a little too fast on such testing ground.
3 IMOGEN AINSWORTH – Nursing a back problem and niggling knee strain to boot Imo knew she had to get round if we were to finish a team, and though visibly suffering she refused to let the other girls down and struggled on to finish just outside the top hundred in 109th position. But it must have been desperately disappointing for her after the ground-breaking form she showed before Christmas that earned her an international call-up.
1= ANNABEL GUMMOW and ELLIE WIMSHURST – Both Annabel and Ellie reinforced their position among England’s leading junior cross-country runners in the U17 and U20 championships respectively. Both are natural mudlarks and lapped up the testing underfoot conditions. Annabel ran a superb race to take the U17 bronze medal close behind Emilia Gorecka and Jessica Judd, both of whom are being tipped for the top in years to come, and on her form here Annabel looks set to join them.  Ellie too made the most of a course suited to her strengths in the U20 championship. Like Nikki in the senior race later she capitalised on her diminutive size and feather weight to make light of the cloying grpound, and after starting sensibly picked off one runner after another to end up a clear 6th among the star-studded junior field. .
2 HANNAH ALDERSON – Unlike Ellie Hannah prefers firm ground where she can make full use of her long stride and greater natural speed, yet despite also having to shake off the effects of a cold she never gave up her uneven struggle against the mud to keep a place in the top 20, finishing 17th to ensure that we still had an outside chance of a team medal. Elsewhere in the U17 championship OLIVIA SADLER once again had to confront conditions alien to a track specialist and was by no means disgraced in 38th place.
3 ROSEMARY HURFORD – Rosemary had the daunting task of replacing the injured Annika Jarman from our triumphant Midland-title winning team that on paper at least had looked almost certain to take the silver medals behind hot favourites Aldershot, and to make matters even more challenging she had been in bed with flu midweek. But the Hurford family, as mum and dad have regularly shown, are made of sterner stuff and she battled round against the odds to finish well inside the top hundred in 71st position and remarkably salvage the bronze medals for her two high profile colleagues. It is a medal that I imagine she will long treasure and would have not deemed remotely possible a couple of years ago when she first started running to keep fit.
MIKE DOWN (23-02-12)