Mike Down’s National Cross-Country/Road Relay Countdown No 1

16 Feb

It’s just under ten weeks now to what we hope will be the highlight of the season for our men’s endurance team – our everlasting challenge for the National 12-stage road relay title.

Not only do we want to retain the English championship we won last year when finishing second overall to Swansea, but finally match the achievement of our legendary team led by Nick Rose and including Keith Brackstone that won the race in a record-breaking time in 1980.

But before that we are set to contest the National cross-country championship seriously as a team for the first time since 2011 when, perhaps inevitably, we finished fifth – our bogey position in National events on so many occasions in recent years. The team that day was led home on a real mud-bath of a course at the Alton Towers Country Park by Robbie Bugden, who as you all are aware subsequently suffered a tragic parachute accident that ended his running career, Phil Wylie and Tom Russell, both of whom are no longer with the club.

Since then most of our top distance runners have opted to concentrate their efforts on the road and track, but with the race this year back at the universally acknowledged home of cross-country at Parliament Hill Fields in London and a growing number of cross specialists in our ranks, the decision was made to have a real go at restoring our credentials.

Actually our record before 2011 following the re-branding of the club as Bristol and West in 2003/04 had been more than respectable as detailed below. In fact remarkably the bronze medal secured in the 2008 race was the first time in the long history of the club that any of our teams had ever made the podium. Our previous best in B&W colours had been yet another fifth place in 2005 at Cofton Park in Birmingham when Rob Whalley took the silver medal, the club’s best individual performance and only solo medal since Nick Rose’s lone victory at Leicester back in 1979.

The table below indicates our patchy team record and our leading individual positions since the club’s rebranding:

2005 – Fifth (2 Rob Whalley, 12 Kevin Heywood, 38 Nigel Leighton, 83 Alec Woods, 101 Dan Moore, 106 Phil Parry)

2006 – Ninth (4 Rob Whalley, 12 Kevin Heywood, 107 Phil Parry, 116 Alec Woods, 117 Dan Moore)

2007 – Twelfth (8 Kevin Heywood, 62 Phil Wylie, 84 Alec Woods, 108 Dan Moore)

2008 – Third (17 Phil Wylie, 22 Kevin Heywood, 35 Rob Whalley, 56 Tim Wallis, 82 Phil Parry, 91 Jon Wills)

2009 – No team

2010 – No team

2011 – Fifth (16 Robbie Bugden, 17 Phil Wylie, 19 Tom Russell, 77 Owain Jones, 102 Tom Merson, 104 Andy Chambers)

2012 – Fourteenth (20 Phil Wylie, 58 Jon Wills, 121 Owain Jones)

2013 – No team

2014 – No team

2015 – Twenty-seventh (87 Tom Merson, 102 Pete Le Grice)

2016 – Nineteenth (14 Will Christofi, 47 Pete Le Grice, 64 Jarlath McKenna)

2017 – Twenty-third (36 Owain Jones, 50 Jack Millar)

You can see from these stats that if your six scorers can make the top 100, you have a very good chance of being in contention for a position in the top six, if not a medal. Our best for instance at Parliament Hill back in 2005 was achieved with a score of 442 points – an average of just over 70th is certainly within the reach of our current squad, though to medal this would need to be closer to 50th, as evidenced by our bronze in 2008 with 303 points.

While we will not have the assistance of our leading road runners , such as Dan Studley and Steve Mitchell, all of our cross-country specialists with the exception of Pete Le Grice, who is away training in Kenya, and Tom Merson, temporarily out of commission due to his latest toe operation, are down to run. The team is headed in alphabetical order by Will Christofi, Owain Jones, Jarlath McKenna and Jack Millar, whose fifth place in the recent BUCS championship was the revelation of that race. All four of them appear to be coming into form at the right time and are well capable of finishing well inside the top 50 to provide a really competitive platform on which to base our overall score.

Will was not far behind Jack in the BUCS race despite falling twice in the closing stages and is something of a Parliament Hill specialist, while Jarlath and Owain were second and third respectively in the latest Gwent league race last weekend.

With Pete and Tom we clearly would have had a gilt-edged medal shot, but even in their absence the team is not short of a strong back-up, headed by former South West silver medallist Andy Chambers, who recently rejoined the club and was in that fifth placed team in 2011, our dog racing champion Ben Robinson who was only just outside the top 20 in the recent Midland championship race, and interestingly ex international track star Rich Peters, who is coming out of temporary retirement and threatening to finish!

Others who could figure in support are recent joiners Harry Allen and Andy Watt, who were both only just outside the top ten in last month’s South West championships but who have come on a lot since with Harry flying in training last night on the Downs and Andy a very strong sixth in the hills and mud of Pontypool in Sunday’s Gwent League. Also capable of giving good support are Jack Bancroft if over his recent injury setback and Andy Salmon (who was seventeenth at Pontypool).

There is certainly everything to play for, and very much in our favour is that having not targeted the Midland area championship we will not be on the radar of the other leading contenders. Cross-country races are often decided by the ability of team members to run off each other, particularly if they are running in close proximity, and that could well be an important element that our present squad can benefit from. So let’s do it guys! Now it’s over to you!

Mike Down