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Midland Cross Country Championships 2023

Mike Down reports on a medal winning afternoon for our senior teams.

It’s a Real Nail Biter – But We Are Midland Champions Again!

Our men’s team has successfully defended the Midland area cross-country title, that we had won for the first time in the club’s history last year, over a relatively fast but sticky course round Newbold Comyn at Leamington Spa.

The hub of the team’s repeat triumph lay in the remarkable achievement of our leading four runners – Kurt Taylor, Jack Millar, Max Davis, and Felix McGrath - all making the top 11 of the 331 finishers, something we have never matched at this level before.

But while team captain Owain Jones backed them up inside the top 20, it’s six to count in cross country team championships, and as I had suggested in my preview our anticipated battle with our main rivals for the title Notts AC could well depend on the position of our last counter, and so it proved.

For Notts, who had made it clear beforehand that they had come to regain the prestigious title that they had won in nine of the previous championships before being dethroned first by Birchfield Harriers and then ourselves last year, had their seventh runner in well ahead of our sixth, and it was only an heroic last ditch effort by Andy Salmon that pulled him up into the top 50 in 45th place that eventually ensured we took the spoils again.

Despite Andy’s late salvo it was of course the storming efforts of our lead runners that set the tone of what was almost certainly the club’s best performance in an area championship event – North, South or in our case Midland.

Our main contender for the individual gold Jack Millar, having convincingly defended his Southwest title earlier in the month, had unfortunately been shaking off a cold all week, but regardless matched strides with the fierce early pace set by former champion Jack Gray and emerging Notts star Samuel Moakes on the first of the three-lap course.

Behind the flying trio Kurt Taylor, who was mainly interested in getting a cross country race under his belt before next month’s National and had not eased up his training for next week’s Armagh international 5K when he will be leading the representative England team, made no attempt to go with the early pace and had settled into sixth place at the end of the first lap, with our other two South West medallists Felix McGrath and Max Davis not much further back just outside the top ten and team captain Owain Jones also in the top 20.

But even then, it was clear when checking where the other Notts runners were that the position of our sixth and final counter would ultimately prove decisive, and for the first two laps it was Dan Shepherd who was ahead of our other runners, but still outside the top 50 followed by Andy Salmon, Adam Stokes and our supervet Graham Breen.

Meanwhile back at the front of the race Gray really asserted his authority on the second lap and continued to pull away from Moakes, with Jack unable to hold on to the Notts man any longer, while for his part Kurt was clearly warming to the task and had improved to 4th ahead of Notts’ second man Alistair Watson with young Max again exceeding our expectations by having moved up to 7th ahead of Felix, who also still looked to be running strongly just outside the top ten.

That’s almost the way it stayed on the last larger lap, though Kurt (32:55) caught and passed Jack to take his first major cross championship medal behind Gray (32:05) and Moakes (32:41), while Jack (33:06), who had actually been caught and passed by Watson (33:12), produced a strong finish to regain 4th place no more than 50 metres or so down on Kurt.

“Overall, I’ve got to be happy with that as I certainly could not have gone with the early pace following my heavy track session on Thursday, nor was I expecting an individual medal, so it has given me confidence that I’m in really good shape and can look forward to Armagh and of course the National after that,” said Kurt, who was clearly well satisfied with his day’s work.

“For my part I was obviously disappointed that I could not really challenge Gray, who had only just outsprinted me for the silver medal last year,” added Jack.

“Maybe I could have done with muddier ground, while following the cold I’d been shaking off perhaps I would have been wiser not to start so fast, but I came here to try and win the race. Anyway, there’s still a month to the National when I’ll be up to make up for today’s disappointment.”

Behind them young Max (33:23) lost one place on the run-in to end up in 8th place - an outstanding performance for a relative novice at this level - while Felix (33:48) too only just missed getting back into the top ten in 11th place, with the ever-reliable Owain (33:09) only another 21 seconds back in 17th.

While it was clear that everything could depend on whether Andy or Dan could make further headway in the closing stages, at the same time we were helped by Notts’ last two counters also fading somewhat on the last lap to end up back in 21st and 33rd positions. Whatever the ins and outs of the issue, Dan (36:37) lost ground on the last lap to end up just outside the top 50, but fortunately Andy (36:25) did the opposite to eventually move through to 45th at the finish and give us victory in a real nail-biter by just 10 points - 88 to Notts’ 98 - with BRAT taking the bronze medals on 138 and Tipton a distant 4th on 299.

Our other finishing positions, all in the top hundred, were: 62 Graham Breen (36:55); 71 Adam Stokes (37:19); 73 Matt Brydon (37:21); 75 Aaron Bruce (37:30); 88 Alex Hobley (38:16); 93 Aled Anderson (38:26) and 100 Will Christofi (38:41).

Bonus Bronze for the Ladies Too

Earlier in the afternoon our ladies made it a day to remember by defying any expectations they might have had on account of the many missing faces on their team due to injury, illness, and other commitments to take the bronze medals in the women’s championship behind Loughborough club Charnwood (42pts), who also had the individual winner in international Gemma Steel (24:29), and Coventry Godiva Harriers (46pts).

It proved a real morale-boost for our reduced six strong team that owed much to a brilliant debut at this level for recent recruit Chelsea Baker, who remarkably finished only one place outside the medals in fourth place (25:34).

“I was really pleased with my result as I did not really know what to expect. I soon realised I could not go with the three medallists, but to finish next has certainly raised my profile and given me a real shot in the arm,” said a jubilant Chelsea.

More than that the support she was given by Jessie Sanzo (27:18), who just made the top 20 in 18th place, Catie O’Donoghue (28:19) 29th and Cadie Hibberd (29:13) 37th was just enough to beat top Birmingham club Birchfield Harriers by ten points – 88 to 98 - to steal the bronze medals in the team event.

Our other two finishers in the 180 strong field were: 44 Katie Strange (29:32) and 73 Kat Baldwyn (32:01).

Finally, I must thank our captain Owain for all the admin he has done in helping ensure both teams made it to Leamington fit and ready to go!

“That’s fine, but don’t forget we are only two thirds of the way there. Our biggest challenge awaits at Bolesworth Castle next month” was his typical reaction.

Mike Down

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