Wow you’ve done it again lads! Yet another history-making achievement. It started with last year’s 12-stage when we took the English road relay championship for the first time in the club’s history and now we have followed it by producing the club’s best ever performance with the silver medals in the English National Cross-Country Championships. To put that in perspective the club was one of the eleven founder members of the ECCU (now ECCA) in 1884 and has been contesting it off and on ever since.
We have only medalled once before, taking the bronze medals ten years ago in 2008, but finishing runners-up to the holders Tonbridge in a record-breaking field of nearly 2,500 runners and some 200 teams is yet another landmark achieved. It also won us the cup for being the top Midland team as well as the trophy awarded to the best of those founder clubs.
Saturday’s race was something of a landmark for myself too as it was pretty well 60 years to the day that I competed in my first National at Parliament Hill as a youth (Under-17) in 1957, but I can honestly say that I have never seen a better team performance than you guys produced last weekend. It was a perfect demonstration of how to pace a race like the National, which is unique in the challenge it presents both due to the extra distance of the race (12K) and the tactical considerations demanded in dealing with such a massive field.
I have frequently preached that the extra 2K distance compared to the more conventional 10K or under length of most cross-country races is not be underestimated, particularly as the National is always run at a frantic pace from the off in order to avoid any hold-ups that can occur in such a huge field. When you add in the brutal contours and leg-sapping ground of the iconic Parliament Hill course, pace judgement and effort distribution are crucial to success or failure. And how the approach of our scoring runners paid off.
At the end of the first medium lap – just under 3K – we were advised by some of our more vociferous Southern colleagues that Tonbridge were milking it – which admittedly was true as they ended up with six in 35 – and that the other medals would go to Shaftesbury-Barnet and Highgate. At that point with our eventual first scorer WILL CHRISTOFI not even in the top 50, you might have agreed with them. JACK MILLAR was leading the way, but even he was only around the late 30/early 40s, so medals must have looked a remote possibility.
But during the first of the two large laps all four of our leading runners began to move through and pick off many of the over-zealous starters. Will caught up with his student colleague Jack and they were running in the mid 20s, while our stalwart pair of team captain the evergreen OWAIN JONES and our original Green Man himself JARLATH MCKENNA had linked up and were working together in the late 50s, with our other prospective counters ANDY CHAMBERS and BEN ROBINSON running independently but more than holding their own some way further back. ANDY WATT was close by offering good cover while HARRY ALLEN was dropping back – one of the few to get carried away with the quick early pace.
However it was the last lap that must have shaken our early detractors, as all six of our guys benefited from their more conservative pacing in the gruelling conditions. Will just seemed to be going faster and faster and incredibly eventually hit the top ten to finish in ninth place only around a minute or so behind the winner Adam Hickey in what was arguably the best cross-country run of his career. Nor did Jack flinch, for having worked his way into the top 20 he too produced a run to match his stunning recent fifth in the BUCS championship by taking sixteenth place. How satisfied their supporting coach DAVE BEDWELL must have been at the progress the two of them have made under his caring and vigilant tutelage.
Meanwhile behind them Owain and Jarlath kept each other going and never let up, only just missing out on the top 50 in fifty-second and fifty-third positions respectively. It gave us the platform we needed to challenge for the medals, but would it be enough? As predicted it would all be down to our last two counters, and cometh the hour they more than met the challenge. What a re-signing Andy Chambers has been. Not only did he hold his position in the mid 70s, but finished so strongly that ultimately he ended up only some 20 seconds adrift of Owain and Jarlath in a career best sixty-eighth position, while Ben looked as if he was being towed by his beloved world-title winning dog Blake as he too powered home to finish well inside the top hundred in 93rd place. It is just possible that their late charge gave us the twenty-three point advantage we ended up with over bronze medallists Aldershot.
The back-up that we hoped might give us a tilt at the nine to count award if we had failed to make the top three was provided by ANDY WATT, HARRY ALLEN and KURT THOMAS. All three comparative newcomers to our elite squad more than lived up to expectations, with Andy, who is clearly another cross-country specialist, only just failing to make the barrier-breaking top hundred in 107th place. Harry admitted to finding neither the muddy surface nor extra distance to his liking, but though fading towards the end still finished as high as 133rd, while Kurt, too perhaps paid for starting too ambitiously, yet still stuck it out well to come in well inside the first 200 at 175th. Both of them look as if they will be happier back on the firmer surface of the forthcoming road relays, as I am sure will ANDY SALMON, who ended up 360th. Behind them DAN TITHERADGE finished 575th, ANTHONY HALL 779th and STEVE GRANT 1,526th as the senior men completed not only their most successful but also their most numerous day at the Nationals.
Finally on behalf of all our team members I would like to thank my co-team manager CHRIS ELSON for his endless efforts in rallying our runners to the cause, and to him and KEITH BRACKSTONE for the organised training sessions that they selflessly put on for your benefit.
Meanwhile the Gwent League at Blaise Castle this weekend will conclude the cross season, hopefully with a team win if we get sufficient support to defend our 68 point lead after the first four races of the season, following which our focus switches to the Midland 12-stage two weeks later. Please chaps make an extra special effort to be available as we must qualify two complete team for April’s National.