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For Whom the Bell Tolls – Our Ultimate Challenge!

Mike Down previews the senior men's chances at the National Cross Country Championships.

This year the English Cross Country Association will be hosting its 135th championship event. Our club was one of the founder members of the English Cross Country Union, as it was formally called, and is the proud holder of the special award that goes every year to the top men’s team of the ten founder clubs.

But – and there’s always a but unfortunately – we have never won the senior men’s team title. Not that in recent years we have not established an impressive record in the race. In fact, it is remarkable that to even maintain the average we have set across the last four championship events, we need to take the bronze medals, and that bear in mind is from a line-up every year of well over 200 club teams.

It’s a daunting task but after once again dominating the South West championship and successfully defending the Midland area title that we had only won for the first time in the club’s history last year, the bell is tolling again for what is the ultimate challenge of becoming English champions for the first time at Bolesworth Castle, near Chester, where the event is being staged on Saturday.

What always makes the event particularly enthralling is that you can surmise as much as you like about the main contenders you are up against, but despite all the pre-race rumours you never know whether your main rivals have succeeded in getting all their top names out until the gun goes. That of course is what makes such challenges in sport so compelling.

So, everything being equal, which it never is, what exactly are our chances? Perhaps most significant of all is that we are hoping to field a stronger team than we have done for the past four championship races when we have finished 2nd,3rd, 3rd, and 4th respectively. To start with all of last year’s scoring team, apart unfortunately from BEN ROBINSON whose training has been seriously compromised by illness recently, return to the fray again, four of whom – KURT TAYLOR, JACK MILLAR, FELIX MCGRATH and OWAIN JONES, along with this season’s star recruit young MAX DAVIS, were in the team that helped us retain the Midland area title last month.

Those five will again form the backbone of our medal challenge, but admittedly they will certainly need further support to have any hope of overall victory, and that could just be supplied by not only Australian TIM LEFROY, who unfortunately has had to miss most of the winter races due to an ankle injury he picked up during his stunning second place effort in the Leeds Abbey dash 10K, but also star vet JARLATH MCKENNA, whom we will be welcoming back to the team from his current North East base, as well as one of our top roadmen JACK BANCROFT who is set to make a rare appearance over the country that admittedly has never been his favourite surface.

Nor will Max be the only younger member of the team as UWE student LUKE BURGESS, who mind you is currently heading the Gwent League standings, and recent Bristol graduate OWEN HIBBERT are both down to run.

There is still hope too that former Midland champion JOHNNY THEWLIS, who has been fighting off a calf strain, will add further strength to our line-up that is completed by marathon man ADAM STOKES, former GB U23 international WILL CHRISTOFI, RICH ELSTON, AARON BRUCE, WILL MAULE, ALEX HOBLEY, and HARRY PARKER.

On the debit side DAN STUDLEY, who at last seems to have solved his long term achilles problem and to be showing signs of the form that won him international selection over the half marathon distance a year or two ago, has regrettably, but sensibly in the circumstances, decided he cannot risk racing over uneven ground and instead will be representing the Midlands in the following weekend’s Trafford 10K.

So given the runners, what does a winning formula look like? Generally speaking, you need a score of around 200pts for your six scorers. Southampton for instance won last year with 209pts. That’s an average of around 35th place per runner, and bear in mind again that you are talking about positions in a field of well over 2000 runners. Our best score was in 2018 when we took the silver medals with a comparatively high score that year of 291pts.

Having said that our three previous bronze medal performances in 2008, 20119 and 2020 were all with scores of just over 300pts – an average of around 50th for your six counters – so anything under that should always put you in medal contention. What is certain is that the team we have down to run - on paper at least - are capable of achieving a score close to the critical 200 mark.

To create an analogy as a talking point let’s say your six counters finished literally in ten position groups – 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 and 60 – you could end up with a potential winning score of 210pts, and to illustrate that’s surely well within our compass.

To start with our top two runners Kurt and Jack. After their unexpected performance of both finishing just inside the top 20 in the European cross trials at Liverpool last year and their recent respective 3rd and 4th places in the Midland championship race, added to Kurt’s stunning new 5k best of 14 mins flat when representing England in the Armagh international road race earlier in the month and Jack’s own fine individual record in the National, both would probably be disappointed if they could not finish in that top 20 again.

Taking Tim next. Despite his obvious lack of race fitness following his long absence due to the chronic ankle problem that has plagued him since October, his proven ability should enable him to at least shadow his two in form colleagues, while the remarkable consistency shown by Max - from his South West championship bronze medal to 8th in the Midland event and 21st in the BUCS championship capped by a huge 20 second plus 5K new pb of 14:14 in Armagh - makes a position at least in the top 40 a realistic target for the youngest member of our team.

That then would leave us to find our last two scorers to finish between 40th and 60th, which seems more than possible. Felix needs only to build on his South West silver medal and 11th place in the Midlands to be one of them – and bear in mind he was 56th last year – while the evergreen Jarlath could certainly be another if he can reproduce the outstanding form he has been showing in masters events in the North East.

Even if any of the aforementioned have a bad day, and even if that rules out any chance of victory, we do have the back up to compensate - from the other Jack to Luke on his National debut, while who knows what effect team captain Owain’s altitude training, albeit on cross country skies, might have on his performance in a race that I can’t recall him ever being out of the team’s scoring six.

One warning I have for all of you is that the race is over 12K, but always raced like a 10K, and as we have found every year if you pace it right and avoid any traffic hold ups you can make up vital places in the closing stages, and that goes for all our runners who can support the team by finishing as high as possible.

How easy it is to speculate. The only problem is that many of our main rivals are equally capable of matching that 210pt score! They look likely to be headed by last year’s silver and bronze medallists Leeds City and Cambridge and Coleridge, both of whom are rumoured to not be travelling to make up the numbers. Even so many pundits reckon it may well turn out to be a battle between the two clubs who dominated the Southern area event Highgate and Tonbridge, the latter in particular having a redoubtable record in the National and was the team that beat us to the title in 2018 with an incredibly low score of 131!

All those four clubs, along possibly with Aldershot and even our old sparring partners Notts whom we only narrowly defeated to retain our Midland title, are all capable of mounting a winning challenge for the medals if at anything like full strength. That of course is the critical factor. The secret of success depends so much on getting all your best runners to the line on the day. It rarely, if ever, happens, though Southampton, headed by the two Mohammed brothers, who finished 1st and 4th, managed it last year.

As previously commented it is the glorious unpredictability of who is going to turn up that makes the National such a compelling spectacle and one which we have been trying seriously to crack for the past six years. Maybe there’s some truth in the universal claim that success goes to who wants it most. As you all are well aware I have been trying to crack it for more than 60 years as first a runner, then coach and team manager, so please guys let’s go the extra mile this year and as Nike urge us just do it!

Mike Down

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