Our men's team heads to the iconic venue of Parliament Hill for Saturday's National Cross Country Championship with an unblemished record as South West and Midland champions.
On the face of it that surely must make us one of the contenders for the title, but just as it's taken us 140 years to win the midland senior championship for the first time, we have also never been really close in that time to winning the National crown.
Perhaps that's not surprising when you consider we will be up against a record entry of some 390 clubs in a potential field of just over 3,000 runners. That's the magnitude of the task our runners face.
Having said that, our current team - on performance possibly the best the club has ever fielded over the country - has established an impressive record by medalling the last three times the championships have been staged. But while no one can dispute our credentials, as already inferred, we have never actually been close to winning it, our best being within 55pts in 2020. So the crowning glory has remained as elusive as ever.
To take that final step will need a massive effort with all concerned needing to exceed current expectations on known form if we are to match the pre-race favourites, who are headed from the north by 2019 winners Leeds and their new champions Salford, and from the south by Tonbridge – winners for three of the last four championship races – their recently crowned area champions Southampton as well as Aldershot, Bedford and Highgate, who have home advantage.
The reason those clubs start as favourites is that all have at least two top internationals in their line-up, all of whom are contenders for positions in the top ten. Leeds for instance have Emile Cairess, who was the silver medallist two years ago and the 2020 bronze medallist Linton Taylor, who have both been preparing for the race in South Africa, while Southampton have 2019 winner Zak Mohammed and another past medallist Alex Teuten in their ranks.
While Jack Millar hopefully can give us a place around the top ten, as he did when the championships were last staged at Nottingham two years ago, several of our aforementioned main rivals are capable, on paper at least, of having as many as two or even three runners in the top 25. This means that if we are to have any chance of medalling again, we will need our other five counters to pack in before our main rivals' other three scorers.
That's the size of the challenge we face. To achieve it, both Kurt Taylor and Ben Robinson will need to translate their recent ground-breaking form on the road to the Parliament Hill mud, while our other three more seasoned cross-country runners Felix McGrath, Owain Jones and Andy Watt will all need to take a step up on their admittedly fine top 20 efforts in the recent Midland championships. Our evergreen team captain Owain has already indicated that he can do just that, by proving a convincing winner of last weekend's Gwent League race that was held over a testing muddy course at Blaise Castle.
While these six, Kurt apart, have been the backbone of our South West and Midland victories, our team will be strengthened by the experience of marathon international and former Midland champion Johnny Thewlis, as well as former U23 international Will Christofi, who is on the comeback trail and loves the course where he finished 9th four years ago when we surprised everyone by taking the silver medals for the first time.
Among others who could spring a pleasant surprise are newcomers Will Parkin and Tony Orvain, the latter proving his credentials by finishing as high as 6th in last weekend's Gwent League race, as well as our midlands' final counter Joe Connors and Andy Salmon. There is still hope too that both Josh Moody and Ben Westhenry, who have been struggling with minor injuries, will be able to join what will be the biggest contingent of runners we have ever taken to the National.
However to have a real chance of winning the title you need a points total of little more than 150 - a formidable average of 25th place for your six counters - and almost certainly no more than 250 which, on both current form and past performances, to be realistic looks a tall order indeed. To put that into perspective our three medal-winning totals have been remarkably similar: 291 (2018), 313 (2019), and 301 (2020) when we were the closest we have been to the winners Tonbridge that day at 55pts.
Having said that team races are not won on paper and number of PBs, and certainly not in the unique conditions that are all but guaranteed at Parliament Hill after the recent stormy weather, which can prove a great leveller. No one either can dispute that we have been knocking at the door since 2018, and arguably are fielding a stronger team, certainly in depth, than contested the previous three championships.
One of the fascinating quirks of big field cross-country events is that often runners of the same team pack together during the race and pull each other through, and that could well be our trump card as most of the leading members of our team are of a reasonably similar standard and should see plenty of each other during the race.
If all else fails, that should help in the separate ‘nine-to-count’ championship for teams that don't make the top three on the day, while those that don't make the scoring six can still make a valuable contribution by beating runners from any of our main rivals. The National is really the ultimate test of a team's overall strength in depth.
As we all know this has been the final hurdle of our three-fold target this winter. With the South West and Midland titles safely in the bag, can we now go the extra mile and produce another memorable day!