Congratulations to everyone who competed at the Midland Road Relays on Saturday! The club recorded a fine set of results, with the Men finishing second and eleventh, and the Women finishing sixth and eleventh! The results ensured that all four teams qualified for Nationals in a fortnights time.
A shout-out also to Kurt Taylor (15:11) and Jack Millar (15:26) for recording the second and fourth fastest individual short leg times of the day!
Mike Down reports on how the men got on.
Title Defence Gets Knotted
There is a saying in the racing world that favourites are made to be beaten, and we certainly discovered the truth of that in Saturday's Midland Counties 12-stage road relay championship. Our rivals for the title, Notts AC, lowered our high expectations in no uncertain style when the event was resurrected after a three-year absence due to the pandemic at its traditional venue of Sutton Park in Birmingham.
There is no avoiding the conclusion that it was disappointing to lose the title that we had won and defended the last four times the race had been held from 2016-2019. After our Midland Cross Country victory over Notts I had been guilty of underestimating the threat they posed, while the three-year gap since we last won it in 2019 meant it has been very difficult to assess form as there are so many new faces on the scene.
Taking the silver medals in a championship contested by as many as 77 teams is no mean achievement; however, our performance meant that our overall finishing time of 3:58:34 was three minutes slower than our time of 3:55:33 when we won the race when it was last held in 2019. It suggests we have something to find if we are to mount a serious challenge at the National championship in two weeks' time.
Nevertheless, hopes were as high as ever after Felix McGrath had given us a near perfect start coming home a close fourth on the first of the four long stages just five seconds off the lead and marginally ahead of the Notts team. His time of 26:52 was the eighth fastest of the day on the four long legs.
Taking over form Felix, Johnny Thewlis, who was making his debut for the club after a year punctuated by injury and illness issues, had the unenviable task of being up against Notts's star distance man Alistair Watson, who proceeded to post the day's third fastest long stage (26:31) and put his team into a commanding lead that they were never to relinquish. Though slipping back to seventh, Johnny (28:13) was just relieved to have come through his return to racing unscathed.
Next up Dan Studley (27:32), who was also making a comeback after a protracted absence due to a chronic Achilles problem, continued his renaissance with another encouraging effort by lifting us up to the bronze medal position behind Notts and BRAT.
It was then up to Jack Bancroft (27:18), who is in heavy training for his marathon debut at Manchester next weekend, to make some inroads on the leaders, and although he made up a small amount of the deficit, he did move us up into the silver medal position for the first time and just held off Birchfield's flying Ethiopian star Omar Ahmed who duly set the day's fastest long stage of 25:30.
At least Ahmed's effort meant that Adam Stokes (16:28) had company on the first of the eight short stages, and though eventually losing out to his Birchfield rival he kept us in contention, albeit still well adrift of pacesetters Notts.
The onus then was on our cross-country hero Jack Millar (15:26) to start making serious inroads on the long-time leaders, and he certainly succeeded in reducing the deficit by about a minute to just over a minute and a half at halfway with the day's fourth fastest short stage.
Will Parkin (16:04) oh his first appearance for the club in the road relays then again confirmed his nascent talent by reducing the Notts lead to just 47 seconds at the changeover, which as events were to turn out, was the closest we got.
Ben Westhenry (16:25), though unable to close the gap any further on the eighth stage, kept us within striking distance, and there was still everything to play for when Harry Allen (16:55) took over. But in the event, it was too much to expect Harry to make any further progress as, like Johnny and Dan before him, he was returning to competition after more than a year out due to illness and business commitments, and while he managed to hold onto second place more ground was lost on the leaders.
It was left to the ever-reliable Owain Jones (15:59) to put us firmly back in the silver medal position ahead of Birchfield by posting the fastest time on his leg that turned out to be the ninth best overall on the day. Following Owain, Josh Moody (16:10), who was second fastest on his stage, further consolidated our position ahead of Birchfield but still over three minutes down on leaders Notts.
It left Kurt Taylor (15:11) with an impossible task on the anchor leg, but boy did our team captain give it a go! He had been anticipating trying to match strides with Notts' track international Dougie Musson, but Musson failed to turn up and Kurt was left to chase late replacement Notts' evergreen vet Tim Hartley (16:41). While there was never any chance of him catching Hartley, who started four minutes ahead of him, he tore round the lap in a time only two seconds slower than the day's fastest of 15:09 set earlier by Freddie Hessian for Notts to reduce their eventual winning margin to less than two minutes with Birchfield a distant third.
Turning to the fine effort by our B team, who beat their Notts's counterparts, their main task was to make sure they finished in the top 25 places to qualify two teams for the National. Not only did they succeed. but finished only just outside the top ten in eleventh place overall.
They were never outside the top 20 after Marcus Dunsford (28:48) had given them a fine start in 18th place. Pete Bains (30:22), Dan Shepherd (29:38) and Will Christofi (31:26) kept the team just inside the same position on the other three long stages before our supervet Graham Breen (16:49) lifted us into the top 15 places with a fine run on the first short stage.
From thereon there was a remarkable consistency among the times of our other short stage runners, with less than 20 seconds separating seven of their times. Chris Neilson (17:05) and the fastest Andy Salmon (16:46) strengthened our position before Adam Wilson (17:02), Hugh Brashaw (16:59), Graham Donald (17:41), Andy Drake (16:57) and finally Tom Foxon (16:57) improved it to eleventh place by the finish.
We did start an incomplete C team who were well inside the top half of the field when they stopped. Their times were Tariq Kurd (32:48), Lee Gawler (29:43), Joe Lyne (34:03), Phil Parry (31:29} and Will Carter (17:44).
All that remains to say is let's make a big effort to avenge our defeat by Notts in the National and retain our place as top Midland club. While likely to be without Jack Bancroft we should be strengthened by the return to the line-up of Ben Robinson and Mike Wilsmore as we face the ever-stronger challenge of the top Northern and Southern clubs.