MIKE DOWN’S NATIONAL CROSS COUNTBACK

27 Feb
Will Christofi in action

Fortunately sometimes in life you get what you deserve, and the bronze medals we won in Saturday’s National cross-country championships were certainly no more than our runners derserved having agreed at the start of the season that this was the event on which they wanted to be judged. As team managers Chris and I have nothing but praise for the unity and commitment in making this our main goal of the winter. Let’s too not underestimate the scale of the achievement. This is not parkrunning! Some 2000 runners competed representing as many as 250 clubs, and to come third team in this line up of all England’s top clubs once again underlines our position as one of the top three or four endurance running clubs in the country. This too was only the third time that the club has medalled in the 136 year history of the race, all three of which have been since the club was rebranded 15 years ago.

Notwithstanding that such is the standard that our runners have set themselves that I sensed there was an air of disappointment in the camp in the immediate aftermath. So much so that we even missed the presentation ceremony, though to be fair there was no announcement to indicate it was taking place due it seems to a breakdown in the PA system. Then somehat downbeat reaction was because one or two of the team felt they had underperformed, though it was also a .consequence of the overwhelming superiority of our con  querors host city Leeds and defending title holders Tonbridge. It may have been over optimistic as we had genuinely hoped to be at the races with them, but have to concede that we still have some way to go to close the gap. At the same time on the credit front we well and truly avenged our defeat in the Midland championship race by Notts and Birchfield to retain the trophy for thew top Midland team as well as the unique plinth that goes to the leading club among the eleven founder clubs of the English Cross Country Union back in 1884. Both are now sitting proudly on the sideboard of our most improved runner this winter Josh Moody.

So what of the race itself? You could hardly have found a more magnificent setting in the picturesque grounds of the Harewood House estate with ite rolling downland punctuated by a series of leg-sapping climbs that made the race a true test of speed and stamina. In order to ensure that there was less lapping than occurred at Parliament Hill last year the organisers opted for a longer 6K lap that had to be covered just twice. There was very little pure flat running on a course dominated by endless climbs and sweeping descents, terminating in a very fast downhill run-in that certainly did not favour the majority of our longer distance runners. The race too was made that much more testing by the long uphill start that allowed little respite after the traditional opening stampede of a National field, the speed being exaggerated by the firm underfoot conditions.

From the gun our top two runners PETE LE GRICE and WILL CHRISTOFI both showed their ambition by going with the searing early pace and settling on the heels of the leading phalanx that numbered 20 or so runners. Despite admitting a mid-race energy crisis, which was more than likely due to the unremiiting pace at the front, Pete hung on to a position not far outside the top ten, but Will found he had overcooked it and fell back on the closing lap to be passed by his Oxford room mate JACK MILLAR, who as reliable as ever was never far off the top 30.  Pete was actually in 13th place up the final climb, only to be a victim of the fast finish referred to earlier that saw him lose four or five places and end up a still very creditable 18th. Jack for his part held on well to finish little more than half a minute down on Pete in 32nd place, with Will close up in 37th admitting he may have overdone it early on.

Behind our leading trio JARLATH MCKENNA as usual found the early pace too hot to handle, but was always picking off runners on the second lap to eventually come in only a couple of seconds behind Will at 41st – more than ten places up on last year. This gave us a total of 128pts that was actually 22 better than our silver medal-winning team managed last year, so everything was going to depend on our last two scorers expected to be HARRY ALLEN and OWAIN JONES. Harry has been in the form of his life this winter, concluding in his massive pb in the Armagh international 5K, but he is never really happy on any ground that breaks up your rhythm and even more so up hills. Try as he did you could see the frustration on his face at not being able to cope the way he wanted and he ended up 135th, while, Owain who was nursing a calf strain and  would not have started had it not been the National, naturally set off cautiously, but having missed almost two weeks training had to be content with just getting round and being sure to finish in case required to score. It was a real team captain’s effort and just as well as he ended up as last counter in 102nd. Meanwhile behind Owain and Harry it was JOSH MOODY, who was to have the run of his life. Showing grit and determination, like Jarlath up ahead he was always moving forward and eventually passed both Harry and Owain before producing a rousing finish to come home way ahead of expectations as our fifth scorer in 84th place.

This gave us a total of 313pts, which was 22pts the other way compared to last year, and with the Northern and Southern champions Sale and Aldershot appearing to have packed in ahead of our last two scorers, my first impression was that we were just going to lose out on the medals. However in the hurly burly of the finish I had been unaware that their last counters were much further back and as so often is the case that proved decisive. So in the end it was the unsung Bedford squad whom we thwarted by a mere four points to secure the bronze medals, with Sale and Aldershot 5th and 6th.

We had always been confident that in the separate nine to score competition we would be relatively stronger and so it proved as we again took third place well clear of Bedford and the rest. Our other two counters along with HARRY ALLEN were ANDY WATT  and RICH PETERS. Andy for his part did well to even start as he was suffering with a heavy cold, but after taking some time to get going did well to work his way through to finish 179th right behind former clubmate PHIL RADFORD. As for Rich, who is still unable to put together more than a couple of days running, let alone proper training, due to his career long achilles problem, he struggled to get round and finished a well chastened 202nd.

Right on Rich’s heels ALBERTO BELTRAM had easily his best race since coming to the UK to finish 203rd, but further back MILES CHANDLER never looked happy and had to be content with 239th position. Not that far behind Miles GRAHAM BREEN 254th and National debutant JOE BALLARD 284th were within a minute of the top 10% of the field, while PETE BAINS 470th and newcomer MATT BOND 742nd completed the Bristol and West contingent.

My only reservations about the venue, which provided a specataculer backdrop to the championships, concerned the chaotic access to the estate. We took nearly an hour to cover the last two miles partly it transpired due to the archway entrance not permitting two way traffic as there were a considerable number of those who had already raced trying to leave the estate at the same time. Besides that issue the PA system was inadequate – hence our missing the presentation ceremony – while the course design could have been much more spectator friendly as it was really only possible to view the race twice on each lap.

Attention now switches to the spring road relays, and with 12 runners to count our growing strength in depth must give us confidence that we can be even more competitive. Chris has taken on the challenge of entering three teams for the Midland 12-stage championship on March 23rd, so please check your diaries and make yourselves available. The Midland event will also serve as a selection trial for the National two weeks later. As usual I shall endeavour to keep you in touch in the meantime with our build up to the blue riband of the road racing year.