MIKE DOWN’S NATIONAL ROAD RELAY FINAL COUNTDOWN

04 Apr

Now for the final chapter in what has proved something of a ground-breaking season. It brings to a head the challenge we set ourselves after the chastening experience we suffered in the autumn’s National 6-stage championship. For   whatever reason 18th position that day was not an acceptable result for any team wearing a Bristol and West vest. It caused a serious rethink and at around the same time spawned the birth of a niche “track club” that evolved from the establishment of an exclusive concentrated training group. Targets were needed and duly set for the rest of the winter season: to win the three Regional championships contested and medal in the corresponding National championship events. In the circumstances at the time these were ambitious goals, but by pulling together and a more concentrated focus from all concerned, the team has gone a long way to reasserting our position among the country’s leading clubs.

First up at the start of November we put the disastrous autumn road relay performance behind us by finishing a close and creditable 5th in the National cross relay championships at Mansfield. But the renewed focus really begun to blossom in the New Year when we successfully defended the South West cross country championships at Haldon Hill with a commanding performance headed by team captain OWAIN JONES, and later in the month despite fielding a far from full strength team took the bronze medals behind Notts and Birchfield in a close finish to the Midland cross championships, which we had not contested seriously as a team for more than five years.

By now things were on a roll, and at the back end of last month in the first of the year’s major challenges in the National cross country championships at Leeds we exceeded our own expectations by landing the bronze medals in a huge field of more than 2000 runners representing over 200 clubs behind Leeds and defending champions Tonbridge as well as
avenging our Midland defeat by Notts and Birchfield. With confidence duly boosted we accounted for the same rivals the weekend before last when we successfully defended our Midlland 12-stage road relay title for the third consecutive year to create something of a legacy.

So far so good, but it’s this weekend that everything’s been geared towards: the National 12-stage championship at Sutton Park. It’s the highlight of the winter season and universally regarded as the blue riband of inter club competition, our Cup Final if you like. The club has only won the title once back in 1980, a race that will never be forgotten as our team set a record time that was never beaten before the recent changes to the course four years ago. The quest for a repeat of that triumph nearly 40 years ago has been one of our key ambitions since the club was rebranded as Bristol and West back in 2003. It has been a long and frustrating haul, but progress in the meantime has been relentless, rarely finishing outside the top ten, with a podium position finally cracked three years ago when we took the bronze medals before going on to take the English title the following year, albeit finishing second overall behind Welsh champions Swansea.

Everything seemed set fair to take the final step last year, only to be cruelly frustrated by an injury to team captain STEVE MITCHELL that cost us at least three minutes and resulted in a long rearguard action to salvage 7th place by the finish. We reckoned that was the strongest team we had ever fielded, and yet Saturday’s line-up with six internationals
on board looks even stronger. So what are our chances? If stats are anything to go by our prospects look promising. Our best time for the relatively new course was when we finished third in 2016 in 4hrs 18mins 08secs. If we can only repeat the average times we set in winning the Midland title  – 27:10 for the long legs and 15:52 for the short – we would have recorded a time only just over a minute slower than that, a time that could still put us in medal contention, for when we came second two years ago our time of 4:19:55 was significantly slower than this.

What’s more with our two potentially strongest long stage runners DAN STUDLEY and PETE LE GRICE to come in, as well as our possibly fastest short leg man MIKE WILSMORE, an average of 26:45 for the long stages and 15:45 for the short, given of course comparable weather conditions to those experienced in the Midland event, looks achievable. That would equate to a finishing time of 4:15:00, which would in fact just break Swansea’s course record of 4:15:08 set in 2017. Oh if only races were won on paper!  Yet even that sort of simplification takes no account of what the opposition is likely to be capable of, with Leeds in particular having taken everything before them this winter by winning all three National titles – 6-stage, cross relay and cross championships – and their current star-studded team must be more than capable of breaking Swansea’s record after they won the Northern relay last week by an incredible five and a half minutes. This obviously makes them hot favourites to go through the season unbeaten and certainly take the English title, and while both Swansea and Cardiff at full strength might dispute their claim to be favourites for the accompanying UK championship, the word around is that neither anticipates being at full strength, though it is worth pointing out that Swansea were still third last year despite missing several of their star names to the Commonwealth Games.

The Southern 12-Stage, like the Midland championship, was much more closely contested than the Northern, and won not for the first time by Aldershot, who if able to assemble their motley group of recruits could even rival Leeds for favouritism. Apparently they have internationals ANDY VERNON and RICHARD ALLEN to reinforce their winning
Southern team and must be leading medal contenders. Highgate, who followed them home in the Southern, are past winners and traditionally always make a huge effort at the National, while Bedford, Kent and Belgrave, who were not far behind all have the strength in depth to be competitive, as of course do last year’s winners Tonbridge who took the
silver medals behind Leeds in the National cross. Nor should we underestimate our other Midland rivals Birchfield and Notts, who will surely be out to avenge the narrow defeat we inflicted on them two weeks ago.

The net result of this kind of prognosis suggests that we could clock our fastest time ever and still have to be happy with a place in the top six, not that that is any disgrace at National level. Yet I know our guys have higher hopes than that, and it would be hard to disagree that we have never turned out a stronger 12 man team. So our aim must be a medal in the English championship, if not the UK, which would cap a remarkable season. Whatever the outcome, you can rest assured that our B team, that is by some way the best we have ever fielded for any event, will not be satisfied if they don’t come out on top in the second strings contest. They will actually only have seven teams to overcome, headed inevitably by Leeds and the other Northern powerhouse Liverpool. Only the Highgate and Kent teams made it through in the Southern, and apart from ourselves just Tipton and Cheltenham in the Midlands.

As you are all I am sure aware, this is a race more than any other that has been a lifelong dream of mine for us to win. So now it’s over to you, guys, and don’t forget he best way to make any dream come true is to wake up and relive it!!  As regards to how to go about winning it, Chris and I have thought long and hard about the best tactical running order for the two teams and trust you are all happy with what’s been decided.

Teams (in provisional running order with each long stage being followed by a short):

A: Will Christofi; Kurt Taylor; Harry Allen; Callum Jones; Jarlath Mckenna; Rich Peters; Dan Studley; Josh Moody; Pete Le Grice; Owain Jones; Jack Millar; Mike Wilsmore. Res Jack Bancroft; Andy Watt.

B: Jed Bartlett; Alberto Beltran; Jack Bancroft; Billy Cochrane; Andy Drake; Miles Chandler; Andy Watt; Adam Wilson; Pete Bains; Otis Mondir; Graham Breen; Nick Roberts.