L to R: S. Beedell, T. Beedell, Angus Holford, J. Stockings, H. Wyber, D. Steel, K. Murphy
To misquote Nottingham legend Brian Clough, the National Cross Country course at Wollaton Park did not include the worst mud our senior men's team had ever run through, but they could all agree it was in the top one. Still, our 10-strong team all fought courageously through the gloopy mires, and after the collective shellshock of the toughness of the course and strong winds had died down, they could congratulate ourselves on 18th position in the 133rd Senior Men’s Championship. This replicated our team position at last month's Southern championship, and we were first Essex club home to boot, beating serious Newham and Havering outfits. This marked improvement was heralded by the return to the race-day squad of Ed Shepherd. Being unsure of his cross-country fitness, Ed planned to adopt the conservative strategy that took him to his historic bronze at the 2019 Southern championship, and he delivered a very solid 35th place to lead the team home.
The day had started with a positive omen for two of the squad, entering the park by a side entrance to be greeted by a herd of deer that could have sprung straight from our club crest. There followed, during the earlier races, the annual tradition of cheering on as Woodford runners our fellow green-and-white hoop wearing rivals - a select group of Tipton, Gosforth, and now Derwent Runners of Derby, a diversion that kept three of our scoring team amused for literally minutes. But this mood didn't carry over to the Gothic scene presenting itself from the start line. A murder of crows pecked at the first water feature not 50m in front of us. The line of trees ahead looked black against a darkening sky. But silence very much did not fall, as the absence of allocated pens led to much argy-bargey in the inevitable free-for-all.
Once under way, the pushing and shoving continued, some accidental or by reflex, perhaps driven by anxiety to find a good line or get a competitive edge in the narrowest and muddiest sections. Only once out in the middle of the second, 'medium', lap about 3k into the race, did this calm down.
Our 2nd man throughout the course was Angus Holford, holding a fairly steady position, before pushing on a little once through the final quagmire at the end of the penultimate 'long' lap (and avoided on the final 'extra-long') to finish 152nd. He was followed by James Stockings in 190th place. Continuing his upward trajectory in cross country this season, he ran the first half in close proximity to Tom Beedell before pulling away. Tom himself did a double take on first hearing a count on his position from the sidelines two laps in, placing him 250th (ish), but this was soon confirmed, and reflects the reality of the increasing competitiveness of the event. Noting the real slowing of many of those ahead, stung by the rough conditions and harsh wind, he felt encouraged and gained an impressive 40 places to be 210th at the finish.
The former Maldon mud race champion, Harold Wyber, was next in at 421st. That race, across the Blackwater estuary at low tide, proved remarkably good preparation for the conditions in this National, not 13 years later. Turning next to an uphill-only challenge in Kitzbuhel, Austria, what inside information does the strategic Harold have about the 2033 National? He was closely followed in by Dan Steel in 427th, closing our 6-man team on 1435 points, and with his 26-second gap behind Harold at Trent Park closed to just 4 seconds here. After the tumult of the government reshuffle in the last two weeks, it is pleasing that the new Chancellor recognizes Dan's importance to our Southern Road Relay team, leaving the Budget date to be left unchanged and Dan available to race for us on 22nd March.
We had high-quality back-up close behind in Simon Beedell (506th) and Kevin Murphy (518th). Simon was pleased to finish, shepherding a recent hamstring niggle that resurfaced on the hill on the first large lap, and Kevin delighted to race another National, at the venue he led out the Essex team at the Inter-Counties, half his impressive career ago.
Paul Stockings closed our 9-to-score team in 1492nd, giving us the same solid 18th position as in the main competition. He made the most emphatic statement of the unique awfulness of the conditions heard all afternoon, but he is too young to have competed in the the inaugral championship in 1876, declared void after every competitor got lost in the snow of Buckhurst Hill. Our final man in was Alistair Holford, in 1556th. At 30 minutes longer duration than any training run Alistair has done this year, this was 'his London Marathon' in more ways than merely being his target race. Finishing 150 places higher than the 2017 championship held on the same course, with a very similar numbers of finishers in total, this was an encouraging run for the Vet 60.
So by the finish, no-one was lost to the depths of our many filthy river crossings, and every team member kept both spikes, a feat not achieved by Essex champion Adam Hickey, who came in 4th after completing half the race with only one shoe. But it took some time for everyone to recover and get moving again. How the seasoned seniors had chuckled at the Young Athletes' hyperbole about the conditions earlier in the day. And how these seniors came to admit the Young Athletes were completely right. Thanks must also go to our travelling support of Charlie Crump, Stef McCarthy, Andy Coleman, Dave Barrett and Chris Brogan, whose vocal encouragement lifted many a tired spirit.