Mike Down’s National Cross-Country Relay Count Back

07 Nov


Beating all bar four of the country’s top 204 teams can’ be bad , can it? What’s more when only eight of the other clubs  finish in front of your second team it’s surely a cause for celebration.

Yet with the current level of aspiration of our men’s squad there was an air of dejection in the camp after the National cross-country relay championship at Mansfield. Once again we ended up the nearly men, as we had in the recent National 6-stage road relay event, condemned again to yes, believe it or not, a fighting 5th place , a scenario that one felt had been exorcised once and for all at last April’s National 12-stage when we finsihed second overall behind Welsh champions Swansea and took the accompanying English championship title. On reflection we have to accept that we are still not quite good enough. Like the England rugby team, according to coach Eddie Jones, we need to find another 20%!

There is no truer aphorism in sport than that you are only as good as your last race. And so it proved with our fortunes at Berry Hill Park echoing what had happened earlier in Sutton Park. The only difference this time was that we were playing catch up rather than being chased down. That too was almost an action replay of last year’s event when any chance of winning was lost through being off the pace on the opening leg.

That is not to say that either JACK MILLAR last year, who was a late replacement and came home 36th, or STEVE MITCHELL, 29th this year, actually made any difference to our eventual finishing positions. Both at the time may have felt they had let the side down, but a comparative analysis of their individual times must have made them feel better, while in Jack’s case he ended up with a bronze medal to boot. Even so if you are as much as a minute down on your main rivals at the end of the first leg, it needs a remarkable effort to recover enough time to get back in the medal hunt.

Steve, whom you all know has a love-hate relationship with cross-country – more hate than love he assures me – had been reckoning on fast underfoot conditions given our relatively dry autumn, but unexpectedly following heavy overnight rain the course proved significantly muddier than usual with all the times being some half a minute slower than normal.

This certainly did not play in his favour, but he started conservatively enough and still looked comfortable just off the back of the leading pack as they came down the hill approaching the end of the first of the two lap 5k leg. But second time round he looked to be struggling, and like all track specialists once your natural rhythm is derailed your concentration can wander into negative territory. Yet though he appeared to be on the retreat and fell back to finish only just inside the top 30, his time of 16:21 – even allowing for the estimated eight seconds for the shorter opening stage – was still only 20 seconds slower than our fastest on the day and had no effect on our ultimate finishing position.

Jack certainly knew he had a job on his hands and duly set about reducing the deficit. Running with characteristic determination he pulled back 12 places to seventeenth in a more than respectable time of 16:19 despite feeling that he had never really got a grip on the race as he had hoped. Perhaps this was a psychological reaction from not starting as close to the front as he had expected and having to change his tactics accordingly.

At halfway now a place at least in the top six looked beyond us, but JARLATH MCKENNA clearly had other ideas and readily took up the challenge, coasting with apparent ease across the undulating surface and eating up the gaps in front of him. In all he gained another eight places before literally running out of ground when he handed over in ninth to our anchor man DAN STUDLEY in 16:11.

By then the leaders Tonbridge and Aldershot were literally out of sight, but undeterred Dan tore off and spent the first lap trying to get within striking distance of the Liverpool and Stockport runners who were both in the top six. Coming out of the wood for the last time it still looked unlikely that he could catch them, but refusing to be beaten he eventually caught both of them within sight of the finish to salvage fifth place behind the same three teams that had denied us a medal in the 6-stage: Tonbridge, Aldershot and Northern champions Lincoln Wellington, with Shaftesbury-Barnet pipping the latter for the bronze meals that we had taken last year.

Meanwhile  behind our B team of MILES CHANDLER (16:35) , ROSS GRAINGER (16:39), HARRY LANE (16:49) and OWAIN JONES (16:43) , whose times like their A team colleagues were all separated by less than 15 seconds, also worked their way progressively through the field from 37th on the opening leg via 29th to 23rd and finally an impressive 16th. It made us third best of the B teams to yet again underline our position as one of the top clubs in the country.

For the record I am appending our positions  in the event since the rebranding as Bristol and West:

2003 – 42nd in 1:07:28 ( our last year as Bristol AC)

2004 – 22nd in 1:05:46

2005 – 9th in 1:01:56

2006 – Incomplete

2007 – 7th in 1:01:04

2008 – 21st in 1:04:57

2009 – 3rd in 1:01:37

2010 – 15th in 1:03:58

2011 – Incomplete

2012 – Incomplete

2013 – 3rd in 1:03+ but disqualified

2014 – 4th in 1:02:23

2015 – 6th in 1:02:17

2016 – 3rd in 1:02:34

2017 – 5th in 1:05:01