Chris Elson and Mike Down report on a triumphant day of racing at the 2022 Midland Counties Cross-Country Championships. Congratulations to everyone who raced the Midland Champs at the weekend.
Kate Maltby, 3rd, 29:22
Annabel Granger, 26th, 32:49
Catie O'Donoghue, 27th, 32:55
Rebecca Pierce, 29th, 33:00
Jack Millar, 3rd, 38:00
Ben Robinson, 10th, 39:12
Felix McGrath, 13th, 39:40
Owain Jones, 14th, 39:44
Andrew Watt, 20th, 40:17
Joe Connors, 31st, 41:15
Andy Salmon, 47th, 42:59
Graham Breen, 57th, 43:25
Graham Donald, 80th, 45:07
Matt Brydon, 81st, 45:17
Under 17 Men
Liam Spector, 40th, 24:06
Jacob Franklin, 50th, 25:28
Ismail Rashid, 55th, 28:56
The sun shone, the going was good, but the wind was something else. The mature, stout tree I leaned against bent ominously, tents were floored and runners were busy trying to take shelter behind the person in front. No one could recall running in such a howling gale. Nothing daunted our Senior Women, who excelled themselves losing out by only 5 points on bronze medals to City of Stoke.
Kate Maltby reminded everybody what a class act she is, running in second place exposed to the wind for most of the race, only to be overtaken with about 1km to go by Birchfields’ Lily Partridge to take home the bronze. Kate remarked that she is currently running around 40 miles a week and consequently hadn’t quite got the stamina for the conditions.
With four to count in the team competition and only four B&W athletes on the start line, the chance of team medals depended on all four performing. They all delivered. Evergreen super-vet Annabel Granger and Catie O’Donoghue ran together throughout the race with Becky Pierce around 20 metres behind, a formation they maintained to the finish, with Annabel finishing in 26th, Catie 27th and Rebecca 29th. All in all, the results bode well for the National Cross-Country Championships on 26th February.
Senior Men: Jack’s Bronze Caps Historic Midland Team Triumph
Jack Millar may have had to settle for the bronze medal in his brave bid to add the Midland to the South West cross-country title he won at the start of the month, but he had the prize of leading the Bristol and West team to a historic victory in the Midlands Senior Men’s championship.
It may be hard to credit, but it is a fact that not since our club was founded in 1882, some 140 years ago, have we won the senior men’s Midland Cross Country team title. After our team of Jack, Felix McGrath, Ben Robinson, Owain Jones and Andy Watt had completed a near clean sweep at the South West championships earlier in January, taking five of the first seven places, optimism had been growing that this year’s Midland event could be our best opportunity for years to win the title.
It’s certainly a race too that our runners will never physically forget, as the gale force winds, gusting at times from 40-60mph, brought some of the competitors almost to a standstill on the more exposed hillier sections of the undulating 3k lap that had to be covered four times to complete the 12k championship distance. I can’t claim to have been around for 140 years, but in a career of exactly half that in the sport, I can’t recall a championship race contested in such extreme windy conditions.
The unprecedented weather conditions certainly changed the character of the race and turned it into a tactical masterclass. It was essential to shelter in a group whenever possible, but at the same time paradoxically any gap created that anyone managed to create was doubly difficult to close, as both Ben and Felix found out early on. Felix and Ben just failed to hold onto the back of a nine strong leading group that formed soon after the gruelling start that cruelly sent the runners off into the teeth of the gale.
Jack for his part was already well ensconced in that leading group, but naturally with no one keen to kick on at the front, there was little change for the first half of the race. Ben, however, unluckily found himself stranded frustratingly just off the back of the lead group, albeit still just inside the top ten, while Felix was also struggling to make further progress a couple of places back and being closed by Owain, with Andy doing his job just inside the top 20.
Behind them all eyes were out for whom the vital sixth counter was going to be, for with Notts already holding the advantage of having three in the top seven of the lead group and their fourth scorer just in front of Andy, it looked as if the team race was set to go down to the wire. It’s uncanny how often a club’s sixth and final counter proves decisive in cross-country team championships, and so it was to prove again with Joe Connors the unsung hero on the day. Proving a worthy substitute on the day for the injured Josh Moody and Will Christofi, he settled into a position in the mid 30’s by halfway, sandwiching Notts’ two final counters, and it soon became clear that it was back there that the team result would be decided.
Meanwhile back at the front of the race the cat and mouse battle had been reduced to just three: former holder of the title Jack Gray, Notts’ international steeplechaser Douggie Musson and our Jack, who several times tested his rivals on the short punchy climbs in the woods but to no avail. As events turned out, it was probably to both Jacks’ disadvantage that the gale force winds ensured that the race was not run at a consistently fast pace all the way. That played into the hands of Musson, who has a middle-distance pedigree, and as Jack feared, he waited until the final woodland stretch on the last lap to put in a searing burst that neither Jack had any chance of matching.
With Musson away and clearly unassailable, the fight for the silver medal produced a desperate duel into the brutal headwind down the short finishing straight, with Gray straining every sinew to hold off Jack’s final challenge. While he was obviously disappointed not to have achieved his ambition of taking the title, it was Jack’s first Area championship medal and a fine performance in conditions that certainly didn’t play to his strengths.
“Overall I’m satisfied and really chuffed with the team’s success, but I certainly wasn’t helped by the unusually fast underfoot conditions, while the extreme winds made the race something of a lottery,” he concluded, before adding: “Roll on Parliament Hill now and hopefully the mud and soft underfoot conditions that I thrive on, but have not yet experienced this winter because it’s been so dry.”
With Jack home in third place, Ben did remarkably well to hold on to his 10th position, while Felix kept grinding away into the wind and predictably outsprinted his team captain as they finished 13th and 14th respectively. Not too far behind them either, Andy also buried himself to finish 18th and give us five runners in the top 20 of a field not far short of 300 runners.
It all now depended on whether Joe could hold his position on the last lap, but cometh the hour, cometh the man, and not only did he hang on, but put in a storming finish to gain four places on the run-in to come home only just outside the top 30 in 31st position, well clear of the final two Notts counters who faded in the closing stages.
The net result was a convincing victory with an average of 15th position for our six counters, scoring 91pts to Notts’ 125, with Tipton a distant third on 271.
The pick of those who didn’t score on the day was Andy Salmon, who was happy to have made the top 50 in 47th position, ten places ahead of supervet Graham Breen, who admitted he was still not fully race fit after moving house recently. Graham Donald in 80th position, just ahead of Matt Brydon in 81st were our other two finishers, well inside the top third of the field.
With the South West and Midland titles both now in the bank, the challenge is on to complete the hat-trick and land the golden fleece at Parliament Hill in a month’s time. Just for the record two years ago, when the championships were last held, we finished 3rd in the Midlands followed by 3rd in the National. If we can match that progression, who knows what the outcome might be!
We should certainly be able to field a bigger line-up for the National, and with Kurt Taylor, Johnny Thewlis, Josh Moody, Will Parkin, Will Christofi, Ben Westhenry and hopefully Pete Le Grice all down to join the fight to make the scoring six. It should produce the most competitive team we have ever sent to the National.
So concerned is our team captain Owain to preserve his record of never having failed to make the scoring six in the National - how does he keep doing it as a vet now you tell me - that he is setting the example by heading for a high altitude cross-country skiing foray in Austria, ostensibly of course to boost his oxygen carrying capacity for the big day!
As for the rest of you, we need one final concerted effort to make the difference, so please do try to attend the final Saturday cross sessions.
Finally as always too our thanks are due to my colleague Chris Elson for his ever passionate support.