The annual FA Cup of student distance running was a well-organised bout of mud, blood, running and rain by host university Brunel. Cross country as it ought to be.
A winding two-lap route doubled-back on itself in anticipation of the ski slope hill, the first of two features that might well be described as ‘extreme’ and/or ‘edgy’. The second claimed the highest profile of victims – but more on that later.
Stacked. That’s certainly one word to describe the strength of the women’s field. When the current senior national cross country champion finishes fifth, you know it’s been a rather good race.
Consider: nine out of the first ten women ran for GB in Edinburgh three weeks ago. Between them they’ve won more than 25 individual or team medals at the European Cross Country Championships. They also happen to have a collective 17 individual national cross country medals in their sock drawers.
Awesome. That’s another word to describe the women’s race. The stream of women who snaked their way round the Hillingdon course was a sight to see – and the 704 women who finished was almost three times as many as a decade ago. Women’s distance running in the UK is doing alright at the moment – and youth is on its side.
While victory may have been ‘completely unexpected’ for Harriet Knowles-Jones, the best junior cross country runner on the Continent right now was always one to watch for our money.
She put herself in the mix from the gun. A lead group of five became four as Judd tired. Harriet waited for her moment. It came on the other side of the water feature. The baying crowd willed over-zealous striders to come a cropper in the stream. The leading protagonists took on the potential pitfall with aplomb.
Rabid, screaming students breached the red tape that marked the finishing straight, ignoring objections from officials to get up in the grills of the fast-finishing girls. Harriet was clear in a position she knows well. Law held off homegirl Bowden by less than one second to snaffle silver. Loughborough took team gold.
Rapid. Probably the best word to describe the start of the men’s long race. Relentless too, certainly where permanent fixtures Emile Cairess, Mahamed Mahamed and Alex Yee were concerned.
Others came and went, the pace too hot to trot along with for a few, who were shed unceremoniously to the nether regions of the race. One who kept coming back for more: eventual runner-up, Chris Olley.
First he was up with the fancied few. Then he was back with the chasing pack, letting the lead group go tit-for-tat. Then he was up again, a serious pretender in contention with a lap still to run. Pacing like a boss.
Yee made his move with Cairess in tow. It looked as if that would be the final blow. The Leeds Becket runner, also 19, pulled a winning-margin clear with the second ski slope scaled.
That was until the dastardly water feature claimed its most high-profile casualty of the day. Face-planted and eating mud. Importantly, undeterred.
The lone, lean figure of Yee emerged from the woods at the death, a silhouette against the greying scene, solitary and strident in the long run for home.
Just eight months on since a high-speed bike crash left him literally punctured and broken, Yee’s return to winning ways at the first time of asking cannot be understated. Comeback kid he might be, but it didn’t come without its cost.
Olley put a valiant kick in but the damage had been done. It left last year’s short race winner, Cairess, to outkick Mahamed for bronze. St Mary’s took the team title for the seventh time in the last decade.
Typically exuberant, sometimes obnoxiously tribalistic, the men’s short race finished off the afternoon. St Mary’s student, Luke Prior, sped off halfway round lap one and was never bettered. It wasn’t enough, though, to lead his team to gold.
That was, instead, Loughborough’s for the taking. With four inside the first eight, the team’s victory at least went some way to making up for the university’s apparent failure to register a team for the long event.
Words by Bo James
Images from Hannah Viner, Alistair Sleeman and Team Brunel