Just 16 seconds after some four hours of racing was our nail-biting margin of victory over Birmingham’s premiership club Birchfield Harriers in the Midland area 12-stage road relay championship last year, but even their introduction this year of new signing Olympian ELLIOT GILES on their anchor leg could shave only another three seconds off our margin of victory in another thrilling finale to the race at Sutton Park on Saturday. To land the title again for the fourth year in succession in a time more than six minutes faster and without our prospective two fastest long stage runners DAN STUDLEY and PETER LE GRICE as well as our fastest short stage man last year MIKE WILSMORE has clearly raised our hopes for the UK and English championship on Saturday week.
More than anything this latest triumph is further proof of our growing strength in depth this winter, with seven of our team clocking times among the top ten fastest on the long or short stages and three of the others only just missing a place on that exclusive list. Perhaps too it is no coincidence that more than half of the current team are training together as a group in Bristol, a fact that without doubt has increased the competitive focus of the whole team, not forgetting too the natural local cohesion of the B and C squads who both came out clear winners of their unofficial supporting contest.
It was one of that emerging Bristol based group HARRY ALLEN, who has made spectacular progress this winter – he was only in the B team last year – who gave us a near perfect start by chasing Cheltenham’s Duathlon international and former B&W stalwart PHIL WYLIE (26:20) all the way on the opening long stage in the 5th fastest time of the day of 26:27. Next up ANDY WATT, who for domestic reasons had to switch to one of the early long stages, did all that could be expected, and though being passed by Notts international DOUGGIE MUSSON, who was the only runner to dip under 26 mins with the day’s fastest of 25:59, kept us well in touch with a respectable time just outside 28mins. He handed over to the evergreen JARLATH MCKENNA, who soon had us back in front of Cheltenham, but was not helped by not being able to see the Notts runner STUART SPENCER who was as much as a minute and a half ahead. Even so his time of 27:12 was still only just outside the day’s top ten.
WILL CHRISTOFI found himself in the same situation on the last of the long legs as he was chasing Notts’ other international JOHNNY THEWLIS, whose fitness and ability is well known to us as he frequently ends up setting the pace in our Bristol training group. Despite this and losing a further half minute or so to Thewlis (26:23), Will’s time just inside 27mins of 26:59 was still the 8th quickest of the day. It left us now just over two minutes in arrears, while behind us Birchfield after a steady start had moved up to third thanks to a fine leg by WILL RICHARDSON, whose 26:22 was even faster than Thewlis.
With Notts now well out of sight our short leg runners were consigned to a series of sole time trial efforts in a bid to close the gap, and first up OWAIN JONES made a fair fist of it. Although still working his way back to full fitness following a calf muscle strain that had interrupted his training for a couple of weeks before the National cross, he was pleasantly surprised to find his time of 15:48 turned out to be 5th fastest of the day. Next up RICH PETERS, at last back in harness after a year long absence due to his chronic achilles problem, could also feel satisfied with his 16:02 having only been back running regularly for the past fortnight. It was good enough to clip another half minute off Notts’ lead. However it was KURT TAYLOR on the next stage who really brought the leaders back into sight. Encouraged by a ground-breaking final training session at Aztec West alongside JOSH MOODY and just behind JOHNNY THEWLIS, he ripped round in the day’s 4th fastest time of 15:43 to provide a perfect platform for MACIEJ BIAGOLONSKI to continue reeling the leaders in. Nor did Maciej let the side down, for his time of 15:52 – less than ten seconds off Kurt’s and 7th fastest overall – proved, like Harry Allen had in the Bath half, that his impressive new pb in the previous weekend’s Reading half marathon was an indication of a significant breakthrough.
So it was left to JOSH MOODY to all but make the catch, Though unhappy with the twists and turns of the undulating 5K lap, he maintained the remarkable consistency of our short leg runners, clocking the 8th fastest overall to leave JED BARLETT right on the heels of the leaders. It must have been a nerve-wracking scenario for Jed on his debut for our top team, but fortunately he had Notts supervet TIM HARTLEY for company, and taking no chances stuck like a limpet to his rival before eventually pulling clear on the run-in to finally put us in front in a creditable time of 16:15 with just two stages to go.
Similar to Jed CALLUM JONES, one of the South West’s leading middle distance runners from Cornwall and now based in Bristol after graduating from the University, was faced with the unenviable task of not only holding the lead, but ideally extending it since behind us in the meantime Birchfield had been relentlessly closing the gap to the front of the race. Although unfamiliar with the course he used his experience to take no chances, measuring his effort to pull away from Notts with a time of 15:56 which was only just outside the day’s top ten.
All however was far from done and dusted, for in an almost uncanny deja-vu of last year’s thrilling finish Birchfield had closed the gap to 37 secs at the final changeover, and as if in anticipation had recruited Olympian ELLIOT GILES to deal the coup de gras. Confident as they may have been, cometh the hour riseth the man, and while JACK MILLAR may not posses the same pedigree as his international rival in hot pursuit, he has not only developed during his spell at university into one of the most improved runners of his age in the country, butb also learnt to race with his head as well as his heart. Admittedly when lobbying me for the glory leg, he had almost certainly not anticipated a denouement like this, but confident of his own form and aware I am sure that Giles would throw caution to the winds in trying to close the gap and set off too fast, he purposely held something back with the punishing uphill run to the finish in mind. The stage was set for a grandstand finish as Giles duly took 15 seconds out of Jack’s lead in the first mile round the initial loop before the long climb to the top of the course, with the Birchfiield supporters’ confidence soaring by the minute. Up the hill and across the long run to the turn at the stone Gilles knocked almost another 15 seconds out of Jack’s ever diminishing lead and as they finished the long downhill stretch to Keeper’s pool there was little more than a cricket pitch between them. All this time however Jack kept his cool, and undeterred by the baying shouts of the Brummy club’s fan base, he had kept something in hand for the final uphill battle, and showing no sign of fatigue he turned on his own afterburners as Giles suddenly and predictably ran out of starch. With the boot now on the other foot Jack actually took as much as five seconds or so of what he had conceded back on the run-in to what must have been one of the closest finishes in the history of the race. The outcome of their barnstorming duel was that Giles was credited with the day’s fastest short stage time of 14:59 with Jack’s 15:23 third fastest less than ten seconds behind Birchfield’s Ethiopian OMAR AHMED’s 15:14.
It would be idle talk to say that your team managers Chris and I did not suffer a few heart-stopping moments, but we were confident the Giles was not 40 seconds quicker than Jack over 5K, and that however inspired he would suffer at some point for his reckless early pace, while for his part Jack knew that he would cop some stick from his team mates if not successful after collaring the glory leg. He’s right, he would have! Nevertheless responding to pressure situations like this can be the making of a runner’s confidence, so all credit to him for rising to the occasion. It’s a confidence too that the rest of our jubilant team can benefit from as we head for the blue ribband of the road relay season back at Sutton Park on Saturday week. The Leeds, Tonbridge, Aldershot, Cardiff and Swansea squads may be faster on paper, but we have been improving year on year and can more than match their desire to go the extra mile to success. It would be remiss not to mention the achievement of our B team. Boosted by two impressive opening legs by PETE BAINS (28:57) and GRAHAM BREEN (28:30) and three sub 17min short stages from ROBBIE STEWART (16:34), ADAM WILSON (16:45) and MILES CHANDLER (16:53), they produced our best ever 8th position, which means that only six other clubs across the whole Midland area beat our second string. While this surely brought Chris great satisfaction, he will have been equally chuffed to see that our first ever C team did well enough to have qualified for the National, if permitted, by finishing in the top 25 of the 71 teams that started in 24th position.
In conclusion I cannot help but reiterate my long held view that it is surely time to change the current format of the event to 12 short stages The gaps between the teams are now such that the 4th team on Saturday – our old rivals and friends from Cheltenham – were as much as six and a half minutes behind us, while the 10th team was more than 25 minutes down. Altering the format as suggested would not only eliminate marshaling problems and cut the race time by up to an hour, but even more importantly make the race less of a procession. As things stand now, the decision a couple of years ago to lump the long stages together at the beginning of the race to ease marshaling commitments has made the event into even more of a procession than it was before as it just plays to the strength of the major clubs. My proposal has the support of all the principal team managers and runners I spoke to on Saturday. So come on Midland officials, let’s make the event more enjoyable and interesting for everyone, particularly the smaller clubs. I am not by the way challenging the traditional format of the National, but with there only being two weeks between the two events these days, you will find that most of the better runners would prefer to run the shorter distance as a sharpener for the National. It also means of course that times can be compared across the board , so helping in team selection for the National.