MIKE DOWN’S NATIONAL CROSS FINAL COUNTDOWN

21 Feb

Perhaps the most engaging feature of sport is its glorious unpredictability. The best laid plans often come unstuck and are subject to revision, be it through injury, illness or other external issues. True to form just as our prospects for Saturday’s National looked better than ever before, we have been hit by a double whammy. First ANDY CHAMBERS has been hit with a career-threatening back injury that has left him temporarily unable to walk, let alone run, while on top of that our team captain OWAIN JONES was forced to make a dramatic withdrawal from the latest Gwent League race within a few steps of the start through what presented as an acute calf strain. Consequently he had to take a complete week off, but after surviving an exploratory run on Monday and a somewhat harder rep session on Wednesday he has decided that he will at least start on Saturday. However Andy will certainly not be on the start line as an MRI scan has indicated a prolapsed disc.

So much for the unscripted setbacks. On a much more positive note there has been plenty to get excited about since my last countdown. Up in the North East JARLATH MCKENNA has shrugged off his recurring I-T band problem to set the fastest time in the latest North East Harrier League race, while in the corresponding Gwent League event at Pontypool ANDY WATT proved he could be running into form at the right time by finishing in a best ever 6th position, with new signing JED BARTLETT 9th, MACIEJ BIALOGONSKI 13th, and JOE BALLARD 16th all in close support. Jed unfortunately joined too late to be entered for the National, while Maciej has had to pull out due to work committments, but Andy, who was only just outside the coveted top 100 last year, is now hoping to make it this time round, while Joe will be making his National debut along with Spanish newcomer ALBERTO BELTRAN, who is sure to remember the experience.

While those latest Gwent League results were encouraging, even more so were those of our select squad that made the long trek to Armagh for Ireland’s World leading 5K road race last Thursday. It’s not often that a whole team smash their personal bests in the same race, but feeding off each other and the exceptional standard of the 200 strong invitation line-up, all five of our runners broke new ground. HARRY ALLEN and JACK MILLAR led the way, both clocking 14:38. This was Jack’s best on the road by some margin, while Harry has never broken 15 mins for the distance before and underlined the remarkable progress he has made this autumn. What’s more not that far behind them both KURT TAYLOR (14:54) and JOSH MOODY (14:55) also dipped under 15mins for the first time, with Josh slashing a full half minute off his previous best in what has been a real major breakthrough and career realignment for him this winter. Further back despite his usual suicidal early pace ADAM WILSON (15:50) achieved his long cherished target of breaking 16mins for the first time. True to form he might have been closer to 15:30 had he not set a 3K pb of 9:10 en route! Once Adam finally learns how to curb his natural speed early on, everyone had better watch out! As for Harry, Jack and Josh they will all go into the National on a high, albeit well aware that a hilly 12K across country is a very different proposition.

So to the point. What are our prospects now? With Andy Chambers clearly out and a question mark over our South West champion’s fitness, both of whom were in last year’s silver medal-winning team, our chances of success are obviously reduced, but by no means destroyed, such is the growing depth and character of our current squad. To have any hope of medalling we need to have four of our runners in the top 50, with the other two counters well inside the first 100 of the anticipated 2000 strong field. It’s a tall order, but in their present form PETE LE GRICE, WILL CHRISTOFI, JACK MILLAR and JARLATH MCKENNA are all capable of meeting the first target, so all may depend on whether HARRY ALLEN, who is in the form of his life, can master the full 12K on what he admits is not his favourite surface. Even if he comes up trumps, we still need at least one of our other runners to step up to the plate in case Owain has problems.

ANDY WATT, JOSH MOODY and MILES CHANDLER are certainly all up for the challenge, while we do have another dark horse in our team in ex international RICH PETERS, who could just make a difference. Admittedly he is the darkest of horses having not raced for a year. Being unable to put more than a couple of days running at a time together due to his chronic achilles tendinitis, he has no idea what the outcome will be. Still even if he is only half fit, if he paces himself sensibly who knows? He certainly doesn’t! But knowing his latent ability as I do better than most, nothing he manages would surprise me.

Even if all these prognostications work in our favour, there are some 250 other teams to consider, headed by the autumn’s 6-stage champions Leeds City, who must surely start hot favourites in their own backyard with a line up including the newly crowned British Students and Northern champion EMILE CAIRESS and international pair GRAHAM RUSH (13:52 in Armagh) and PHIL SESEMAN, who feasibly could all finish in front of our first runner. Despite Leeds’ claims, last year’s commanding winners Tonbridge will surely have a major say if they get anything like their full team out, along with Southern champions Aldershot’s star gallery of imports. Reverting to the strong Northern challenge, Liverpool, whom we always have a battle with, and their new area champions Sale look the main dangers alongside Leeds. Throw into the pot our recent Midland conquerors Notts and Birchfield and the task ahead of us looks formidable. Yet having said all that even if Owain struggles I am sure our guys will be disappointed if we can’t make the top six despite the strength of the opposition.

Remember last year at Parliament Hill, when everything went far better than expected, an overall score of 291pts was good enough to give us the silver medals and our highest position in the race since 1884! Yet that was only an average of just under 50th, and whatever happens we could still match that, so who knows? At the end of the day it will inevitably depend on who succeeds in getting all their top runners out, and we will certainly not fail on that account. You just can’t legislate against injury.

We also must not forget that while the championship may be about a club’s top six finishers, there’s a separate competition for nine to score, which again we finished runners-up in last year with a total of well over 700pts, a total that we can surely better this year.. We will also be defending our title as the leading club among the 11 founder members of the ECCU, as well as the trophy we took as the top Midland club. So hopefully we won’t return home empty handed!

My final call to arms is not to forget thay you can do what you want in life if you don’t think you can’t, so don’t think you can’t think you can! Just go for it guys, we know you can!