Mike Down’s National Road Relay Countdown – Part 5

19 Mar

In retrospect our dress rehearsal for next month’s National went as well as we could have hoped as we duly completed what is a record-equalling hat-trick of Midland 12-stage road relay titles. Admittedly we did need a little late prompting on the last two legs when unbeknown to our runners Birmingham’s top club Birchfield Harriers mounted an unexpected challenge to what had appeared to be an unassailable lead.

To underline the magnitude of the current squad’s achievement Tipton Harriers are the only other club to have secured such a hat-trick since the event was first run in 1977. This was the fifth time we have taken the title since our reformation as Bristol and West AC in 2004. The other two victories were in 2006 and 2012, and to put our current success in perspective the club had never previously won the event since its inception –  yes not even the legendary 1980 record-breaking National winning team ever won it.

These stats however tell nothing of what was surely a unique day in the history of the event. I cannot recall there ever being worse conditions for the staging of the event and there are not many I have missed! The bitterly cold easterly wind and intermittent snow flurries made it an achievement that the race took place at all and it was a credit to the Midland officials that they were able to complete the event. The club tent proved the only protection from the elements and quickly became something of a sanctuary for our runners. Such conditions produce real problems for the later leg men who all deserve to be congratulated for coping so well.

We knew from the outset that with only team captain STEVE MITCHELL available of our established long stage runners, much would depend on how our three other long legs went headed by JACK BANCROFT, who himself had only recently recovered from an enforced injury lay-off, and supported by two relative rookie members of the squad HARRY ALLEN and ANDY WATT. We need not have worried as all three rose to the occasion.

Jack gave us a solid start, pacing the frenetic opening stage well, to bring us home in sixth place of the sixty plus teams in 28:11, while Harry then produced what was possibly our performance of the day to move up to fourth in a fine time of 27:27 that was only a quarter of a minute slower than one of Britain’s leading duathletes PHIL WYLIE and ended up as the fifth fastest long stage of the day. The weather was at its unkindest for poor Andy on the third long leg and he had to run the second half into a blizzard, yet still clocked a very respectable 28:50 that was the fourth best on the stage. It left Steve with a gap of some two and a quarter minutes to close. it was a tall order, but he looked full of running and reduced the deficit by the best part of a minute with the second fastest long leg of the day of 26:51.

We had reckoned that if we were within two minutes of the lead at the end of the four long legs that the strength in depth of our short stage line-up could prove decisive, and so it turned out. JARLATH MCKENNA set the ball rolling by wasting no time in cutting further into the deficit, and despite his commitment to the next day’s Reading half, his time of 15:56 not only lifted us to within a minute of the lead, but also proved to be the second fastest short stage overall. We were still only fourth, but now within sight of the lead being set by Birchfield and old rivals Cheltenham. Debutant KURT TAYLOR was up next, and produced a promising time of 16:30 to move up to third and keep us only just over a minute off the lead.

Everything was set up for our in-form Under-23 international WILL CHRISTOFI to change the complexion of the race and he duly obliged, timing his effort to perfection to catch the leaders in the closing stages with the fastest short stage time of the day of 15:55. Taking over JOSH MOODY needed no beckoning and reaping the benefits of his recent indoor season he powered ahead to extend our lead with the fastest time on the stage of 16:10. Steeplechaser HARRY LANE matched Josh’s performance as fastest on the stage on the next leg, his 16:25 extending  the lead to over a minute for the first time.

At this point victory looked assured, but there was to be a sting in the tail as BEN ROBINSON, who had been knocked out by the Australian flu bug the day after his fine run in the National Cross, had clearly not fully recovered and was soon struggling to hold his normal pace. In the end he was relieved to get round, but his time of 17:20 – up to a minute slower than anticipated – cut our lead to less than half a minute. Unfortunately JACK MILLAR was unaware of what was happening behind and set off thinking we were home and dry, only to be suddenly told that Birchfield were closing the gap. Eventually alerted he finished strongly and ended up losing only six seconds of the lead with a time of 16:08, but it meant that anchor runner LUKE EVANS, who had not raced for months, had less than half a minute in hand at the final changeover.

With the strong band of Birchfield supporters shouting their encouragement as their runner screamed off in pursuit, a grandstand finish seemed in prospect, but Luke to his credit kept his cool and though losing those early seconds to his rival, never looked in danger of being caught and produced his characteristic power finish to give us victory by 16 seconds, his time of 16:22 being the third fastest on the stage. The margin of victory may have been closer than we would have liked  or even expected at halfway, but at least it made for an exciting race all the way with everyone of our runners either in a chase or being closely chased

So where does that leave us with the National now less than a month way? Nothing much has changed, other than that several of the team have been added to the already strong shortlist for the A team, while Chris, who is adding a short report on our B team’s ever consistent top ten place, looks to have an embarrassment of riches to choose from.

With injuries and illness and 24 runners, getting 12 runners to the start line for the B team is always exciting and this year proved no exception with Jon Goodland heading North after his parkrun duties to complete the team. Any doubt that the team would have problems qualifying for the National 12 stage was rapidly dispelled with two runs, both exceeding expectations, on the first two long legs by Josh Habgood-Coote and Maciej Bialongski. Maciej ran the eighth fastest time on Leg 2, taking the team to ninth place. With the many clubs front loading their teams by putting their strongest runners early on, it was perhaps inevitable that Dan Titheradge and Brad Pontin would lose the odd place on the second two long legs. However, they maintained sufficient contact for David Awde to pull five places back to keep the team in eleventh place with a sub-17 clocking on the first short leg. On the sixth leg Henry Sly pulled another place back. Then it was the turn of evergreen M60 Jon Goodland who came in the team at 8.45 p.mon Friday evening! Jon got overtaken by a couple of speedsters early on, but held his twelfth place after that. Next up, making his debut for the club, was Adam Wilson with a speedy clocking and pulling the team back to eleventh.  Robbie Stewart ran a storming leg,  pulling back three places so the team was now eighth. Callum Browns’ training has been severely restricted because of work pressures, so it was a matter of getting round, which he did finishing in eleventh place. By now conditions were deteriorating with bitterly cold snow flurries making it difficult to see. So off went another of out star vets, M50 Matt Robinson, who took us to tenth which left a lonely Michael Chandler lapping the odd back marker to hold on to tenth place. So ninth and tenth for the B team in the last four years! The B team is usually stronger for the National where I hope it will defend its unofficial first B team title. So if it isn’t in your diary, get the date for the National 12 stage in now, Saturday 14th April 2018. In addition, make sure your club subscription is up to date otherwise the magic system won’t renew your England Athletic Registration due on 1st April 2018.  It has caused some frantic last minute management problems in the past!