27 Jan

Stalwart Six hit bronze again

Tall order it may have seemed, but our six stalwarts who made the long trek to Loughborough for the Midland cross country championships rose to the challenge as if to the manor born to repeat last year’s bronze medal success.

With defending champions Notts out to make it ten senior men’s titles in a row and their arch Birmingham rivals Birchfield determined to avenge their frustrating two point defeat last year, it was clear from their line up that both clubs had targeted the event with a near full strength squad of runners. In the circumstances our skeleton six were always destined to be fighting a rearguard action, but what a brave fight they made of it.

The three lap 12k course set on farmland, some of it under cultivation, in the spacious grounds surrounding Prestwold Hall provided a genuine cross country test, a mudfest to boot, which was manna from heaven for our lead contender JACK MILLAR who announced his intention from the off by joining Birchfield`s Ethiopian pair OMAR AHMED and KADEV ABDULLAH at the head of the 370 plus field along with young GB triathlete BEN DIJKSTRA from Leicester.

Jack enjoying the mud close behind Jonny.

The race was a real acid test for Jack, who had given up the previous two months to prepare for the major winter championships at altitude in Kenya, and while he was unable live with the three leaders, his early effort took him clear of the chasing pack together with Notts’ Bristol based international JOHNNY THEWLIS. While the leading trio fought out the battle for the individual medals, with the pre-race favourite last weekend’s record breaking Speedway 10k winner Ahmed (36:44) eventually taking the gold medal ahead of Dijkstra (37:03)  and Abdullah (37:18). Jack and Johnny interchanged positions several times, with Johnny making the most of the few better underfoot sectors and Jack countering on the muddier ground that he loves. There was never more than a cricket pitch between them until the last lap when Jack (37:44) finally secured the bragging rites for 4th place pulling clear of his BTC associate (38:01).

Meanwhile behind them Jack’s former Oxford student partner WILL CHRISTOFI also went off quickly before settling down to prove that the three week block of training he has managed to put in since New Year is already paying off. He was however soon passed by ANDY WATT, who has made such startling progress this winter, though at halfway they were still only positioned just inside and outside the top 20 respectively, with team captain OWAIN JONES and JED BARTLETT close together some ten places further back and GRAHAM BREEN, surely our hero on the day, surprisingly handling the conditions that by his own admission he hates much better than he had anticipated just inside the top 40.

All five of them then showed just how to race this longer distance in the second half of the race gaining nearly 30 places between them, Andy (39:18) improving from 19th to 12th, Will (39:28) from 23rd to 15th, Owain (39:57) from 30th to 25th, Jed (40:08) from 31st to 27th and finally Graham (41:03) 38th to 34th. It was a classic lesson in how to pace a gruelling course like this, for which they all deserve great credit.

Graham, hero on the day!

Andy simply never knows when he’s beaten, while Will is clearly on the comeback trail and now has a month before the National to hone the form we know his past record proves he is capable of. As for Owain, what can one say? He only managed to run once last week due to his dicey knee, yet he always somehow defies the formbook, and to emphasise the point he was only just outsprinted by Cheltenham’s top runner DOMINIC JAMES (36:56), who had clocked 29:48 in the previous weekend’s Speedway 10k and had been in the top ten here at halfway! Jed for his part has been able to shadow Owain in races this winter and did so again here to emphasise the continued progress he has been making over the past year. And finally to Graham, the Mr Consistency of Chris Elson’s Gwent League team, who as the elder statesman of the team must have felt the pressure in not wanting to let his colleagues down, but not only did he come up trumps by exceeding all expectations, but even provided us with a tent to ensure we had a base of operations! My thanks to Graham and all our runners who may have been up against it, but more than did the club proud on the day.

As for the team race, with two of the three medallists Birchfield always looked to have the edge in their bid to avenge last year’s narrow defeat by the defending champions Notts, and so it duly proved as they had two other runners in the top ten to post an impressive winning score of 49pts, with Notts for the first time in ten years having to settle for silver with 74pts ahead of our total of 117pts, which was just 14 more than last year and streaks ahead of nearest challengers Tipton (289) and Leicester (383).

All roads now lead to the National, be it via the BUCS champs and Alsager 5m next weekend, the Gwent League race at Chepstow the following weekend, or even possibly the legendary Armagh 5k a fortnight Thursday.


PS POINTS TO PONDER – We had 22 runners representing the club in the previous weekend’s Speedway 10k, but just 6 for one of the club’s major championship targets. The Midland cross country championships were first staged in 1879 – that’s 141 years, and believe it or not we have never won the senior men’s title. Isn’t it about time we did??


Photos courtesy of Charlie Wheeler: https://flickr.com/photos/146851665@N03/albums/72157712832222078/