CLOSER – BUT STILL NOT, CLOSE ENOUGH!
To make the podium for the third year running in what is surely one of the most competitive team championships in British sport is no mean achievement and rightly cause for celebration. Yet there was a sense that our bronze medals in this year`s National championship race were something of a consolation prize, for unlike our success in the previous two years. This year for the first time we arrived at the event with our strongest ever team and a realistic, if outside, chance of challenging for the overall title. Such was the tangible nervous tension beforehand that one sensed our runners would have considered it a failure if we had not medalled.
While that may be so, there is no disputing that we have closed the gap in our title quest, finishing just 54pts down on winners Tonbridge who regained the title they had won at Parliament Hill two year ago, when very much against the odds we had taken the silver medals but with a deficit three times that much. What`s more this time we were only 20pts behind the favourites and holders Leeds City, who beat us by more than 200pts last year. Even more significantly in the subsidiary 9 to count classification only Tonbridge beat us and our score was nearly 200 pts lower than we totalled in third place last year.
Perhaps these stats help explain any disappointment felt, for to have taken the title our six scorers would have each only had to finish some ten places higher, and apart from JACK MILLAR for whom that would have meant winning the race(!), our other counters PETE LE GRICE, CALLUM JONES, KURT TAYLOR and ANDY CHAMBERS would probably have all been expecting to do at least that, depending of course on the prevailing conditions, and so too our team captain OWAIN JONES on his past record in the race, while to be honest in terms of performance on the day only Jack, possibly Callum, Owain (due to his enforced lack of training) and JED BARTLETT exceeded our pre-race expectations. All this surmise merely highlights how close we are getting to the ultimate goal, for we have now built a squad that is capable of challenging the best in Britain every time we turn out. As for this year we have kept our bronze medal position and retained the trophy going to the top Midland club, comfortably avenging our defeat by Birchfield and Notts in the Midland championship, as well as the engraved plinth awarded to the leading team among the ten founder member clubs of the organising English Cross Country Association.
The race itself was a genuine traditional cross country test – a mix of rolling fields, gravelled tracks, water ditches, and above all stretches of squelching mud that after all the previous races had turned into a gruelling slurry underfoot – conditions that we felt would favour most of those expected to score, in particular JACK MILLAR, ANDY CHAMBERS, WILL CHRISTOFI and FELIX MCGRATH, as well as OWAIN JONES and JED BARTLETT. Of those as events transpired only Jack, Owain and Jed were able to capitalise, with the others not coping as expected, with Will the first to admit that his limited training time this season due to job commitments left him underprepared for such an arduous course.
Jack had planned his whole winter since finishing at Oxford University in the summer to peak for the major tests of the cross season. After a couple of impressive early season performances in UK cross challenge races at Cardiff and Milton Keynes, a ten week altitude training trip to Kenya provided the groundwork to achieve his goals. His confidence duly boosted by a best ever 4thplace in the recent Midland championship and subsequent selection for an England team in the latest Belgian cross cup race, where he finished in 11th place, he underlined his ambition from the start by wasting no time in following the early leaders of the huge near 2000 strong field. Relishing the underfoot conditions that he had been praying for, he was always in the top 20 , and while others faltered on the final large lap of the 12K course he never showed any sign of weakening to end up in a career defining 10th place.
It was just the start we needed, but PETE LE GRICE, who had led the team home in 18th place last year, knew he was not in such good shape and ill prepared for a race on such testing ground as he has only recently started his long build up for the London marathon, which is his priority this year. Consequently despite a determined start that saw him only just outside the top 20 after the first small lap, he soon found his level in the mid thirties and that`s where he stayed to eventually end up in 33rd place.
Behind Pete CALLUM JONES proved a real revelation. He had only finally decided to race on the day – he was there as part of the Saucony team that sponsored the championships – as the intensity of his training has been limited this winter by a chronic groin strain. However in the testing conditions the big mileage he has managed to get in as compensation, certainly appears to have payed off. He was never far behind his fellow Cornishman and held on grimly to finisnh just ten places back in 43rd place.
ANDY CHAMBERS, like Jack, was expected to take advantage of the tough conditions, but after settling initially around the top 50 and expecting to move forward in the second half of the race, like FELIX MCGRATH further back he failed to capitalise on the sort of soft ground that he normally enjoys and actually fell back in the closing stages to be caught by teammates KURT TAYLOR and OWAIN JONES, who had both measured their efforts to finish the last 2K strongly, with Kurt, who coped with the mud better than he had anticipated, eventually passing Andy on the run-in to finish a creditable 69th. Andy was right behind in 70th and Owain only two places further back our final scorer as he had been last year in 72nd position. No one, not even Owain himself, had anticipated he would be scoring this year due to his training being chronically hampered by a niggling knee problem, but he once again ran a true team captain`s race to close our score at 297pts, some 20 better than last year. As for Andy, his failure to move through in the second half of the race may have been due to incubating a cold that he woke up with on Sunday morning.
Had Owain not produced the goods on the day, we would not have medalled as we had to wait till just outside the top hundred before ANDY WATT, who has been struggling with a hip injury for the past month, came home a reasonable 104th, chased all the way by JED BARTLETT, who lapped up the slogfest conditions to cap the steady progress he has made this winter and finish an impressive 110th. This left JOSH MOODY to complete our nine man challenge. Despite conditions that hardly suited him, big Josh characteristically measured his effort meticulously to work his way through the masses and finish strongly in 122nd place.
Josh was followed closely in 128th position by our Tri-Counties champion FELIX MCGRATH, who has been recovering from a cold and admitted he never got to grip with the conditions that normally he would have no problem with as an international mountain runner. The same unexpectedly applied too to WILL CHRISTOFI, who failed to improve on his Midland effort in 148thplace, while the evergreen JARLATH MCKENNA, who by his own admission is not fully race fit after a busy last six months moving house, still managed to finish 165th and give us 12 runners in the top 10% of the field, which we have never approached before. Clearly Felix, Will and Jarlath have all suffered this year too by having to do all their training on their own and not raced as often as they would not only have liked but perhaps needed due to their work commitments. But having said that everyone has a disappointing day at the office occasionally, especially in a sport like ours that offers competition 52 weekends of the year and we look forward to seeing them all back in action at the spring road relays.
Pick of our other runners was our supervet GRAHAM BREEN, who finished 250th, with LUKE ROBERTS 310th and PETE BAINS 387TH. But to put those positions in perspective Pete had clocked a personal best 5K of 15:47 in Armagh the previous week. Such is the standard of the National.
Back to the team standings. As expected Tonbridge and Leeds maintained their stranglehold on the top two positions, with Tonbridge (243pts) regaining the title they had surrendered to Leeds (277) last year, and to continue the action replay nature of the result, our repeat third place was again at the expense of the luckless Bedford team by the same margin of just five points, with Highgate only another seven points back in 5th and Southern champions Aldershot (348) completing the top six. The other area champions our Midland conquerors Birchfield (511) and Northern winners Sale (583) could only finish 9th and 10th respectively.
Perhaps the most encouraging result from our point of view was that whereas our championship score was only 20 points better than last year, in the nine to count standings, as mentioned earlier, it was nearly 200 points lower and bettered only by Tonbridge to underline the team`s ever growing strength in depth. It was further proof too of the success of the model that led to our rebranding of the club in 2004, with three of our medallists having their roots in the West country. I like to think that the South West now has a club firmly established at the top table of our sport. It`s surely only a matter of time before we bring back that elusive National title to the region, and while there`s no denying that opportunity had knocked this year, the door is still ajar and we will soon get another chance to open it wider at the legendary 12 stage road relay championship. We did win that exactly 40 years ago. It`s surely about time we won it again!
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