Mike Down’s National Road Relay Report

Disappointment is an inevitable companion of any sports event when there are winners and losers, but it was frustration more than anything that one felt after our failure to meet expectations in the National 12-stage relay held in Sutton Park on Saturday 14th April 2018. To be denied a true result due primarily to an unanticipated injury suffered by one of our runners when we had succeeded in getting out what on paper looked the best team we could have fielded on the day left one feeling devastated. Instead of celebration there was only that hollow feeling of an opportunity missed.

Yet in the circumstances recovering from twenty-sixth position over the second half of the race to finish seventh was no mean achievement. What’s more all was not doom and gloom for every cloud has a silver if not golden lining, and it came in the best ever performance by our B team that who were unmatched by any of our rivals. To finish in the top 30 for the first time in twenty-seventh place is surely an impressive testament to our growing strength in depth and future potential. New champions Tonbridge for instance could not even complete a second team, and what about this for a pick-me-up. Only 25 of the country’s top club teams could beat our second string!!

So what went so tragically wrong to wreck our expected challenge? In particular it was a combination of the foot injury that ended up forcing our team captain STEVE MITCHELL to limp home on the fifth stage more than three minutes slower than anticipated, together with a much slower run than expected by his own admission by WILL CHRISTOFI on the previous long leg that left us to play catch-up for the rest of the race.

To be frank after that we were never really in it. Even on the opening long leg JACK MILLAR had failed to quite reproduce the revelatory form he had shown this winter, though to be fair his 27:21 left us only just over a minute off the lead in twenty-second position. In his natural keenness  to close the gap on the first short stage LUKE EVANS unfortunately made the mistake of going too fast round the opening loop and up the punishing climb to the top of the course, and duly suffered for it in the second half. Even so he still managed to haul back seven places to lift us to fifteenth in a respectable 16:13.

Hopes were high that Will, following his brilliant run in the National cross country championship, would continue the forward push and put us in the top ten, but his end of season break seemed to have robbed him of his race fitness, and his time of 28:31 – some two minutes slower than hoped – saw us drop back to twenty-first. RICH PETERS,  like Luke before him, set about clawing back the lost ground, and clocking the second fastest time on his leg of 16:05 – not bad after only two weeks of training! – regained three places to hand over to Steve with a gaggle of teams ranged ahead of him in eighteenth position.

It was just the sort of challenge that Steve normally relishes, but he was soon to realise that the foot niggle he had been nursing was far worse than he thought, and far from charging through the line-up ahead of him, he ended up in a struggle to even finish in 30:05. It dropped us back to twenty-sixth, not that far ahead of our B team who were thirty-fourth at the time. To all intents and purpose our medal hopes were as good as gone and the rest of the race became an exercise in damage limitation. So it speaks volumes for the spirit of our team that none of our later runners gave up the chase.

HARRY ALLEN led the way, proving that his outstanding run in the Midland relay was no flash in the pan by advancing five places to twenty-first with our second best short leg of 15:52. Then DAN STUDLEY, fresh from his GB debut in the World half marathon championship, and realising that something special was needed to get us back in the race, produced a scorching effort of 26:18 – the day’s ninth fastest overall – to lift us another seven places to fourteenth.

Next up ANDY CHAMBERS again proved what an asset he is going to be to the team by maintaining our forward charge, gaining another two places to twelfth with the fastest time on his stage of 15:56. He handed over to OWAIN JONES, who though not running as fast as he had hoped, still ticked off another team, his 28:15 leaving JACK BANCROFT at last within sight of a place in the top ten. Nor did Jack waste any time in taking the necessary two scalps, his 16:03 continuing our forward momentum to ninth.

It was left to the ever reliable JARLATH MCKENNA to finally restore us to a respectable seventh position, and although he too was not satisfied with his time of 27:48, he would have needed to run faster than Dan to have got us anywhere near sixth. Unfortunately that yawning gap to sixth left MIKE WILSMORE with no chance of producing the grandstand finish on the anchor we had dreamed of. Even so, as expected, his time of 15:50, albeit in vain, was still our fastest short leg.

It is academic to calculate where we might have finished without the mishaps, but while we certainly would not have beaten Tonbridge, who emerged as worthy champions, we surely would have taken one of the minor medals to maintain our progress of the previous two years.

While our A team faltered, there were no hiccups for the B team, who never looked back after MATT BATTENSBY’S 29:50 had left them just outside the top 50 on the opening stage in fifty-first position. None of our subsequent runners would lose a place, led by JOSH MOODY, whose 16:38 on the first short stage improved us thirteen places to thirty-eighth. ANDY WATT kept the progression going with the team’s fastest long leg – a formidable 28:36 –  to gain another two places, as did DAVID AWDE on the second short leg, his 16:58 moving us up to thirty-fourth.

BEN ROBINSON, who was one of the reserves for the A team, proved that he has finally put the draining effects of his recent  bout of flu behind him on the next long stage with another more than respectable time of 28:52 that lifted us another place to thirty-third. Our leading junior HUGH SADLER then made a promising debut for the senior squad by clocking the B team’s fastest short leg of 16:31 to gain another two places to thirty-first.

That’s where we stayed for the next two stages through MILES CHANDLER (29:56) and ADAM WILSON (17:31) before ANDY SALMON (30:22) finally took us into the top 30. ROBBIE STEWART (17:01) maintained the status quo, while KURT TAYLOR’S  creditable 29:08 continued our advance to twenty-eighth, leaving MARK EDWARDS’ 16:40 on the anchor leg to steal another place for what was a record-breaking twenty-seventh position overall.

Finally on behalf of Chris and myself I would like to thank you all for your continued support. We now look ahead to the autumn relays when the ever increasing competition for places on our teams can surely only produce even better times and results. We may have missed what I felt was our best ever opportunity to win the blue riband of British road running through misfortune. The challenge now is to regroup and make sure that next time the gods are on our side. Never let it be said that the 12-stage was one stage too many!!

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