Often neglected at the arse end of summer breaks and before cross country comes calling, this year bucked the recent trend.
One of the main reasons? Bringing all the age groups together on one day of racing instead of being diluted over two certainly helped. Well attended junior races – enhanced in part no doubt from the pull of a club’s collective effort – brought competition and excitement throughout.
Combining events isn’t always the answer. National cross events often feel too long and drawn out, sucking the fun out for all involved like errant mud might a loosened spike. But the nature of the relay lends itself to such modification.
The number of finishing teams were marginally up in some age groups and down in others compared to twelve months ago – but nothing to provoke delving much further.
Six different clubs took the honours across the age groups, with clubs from Poole to Herne Hill to Macclesfield and beyond funnelling the next generation through to senior competition.
The quick fire punchiness of the short relay loop evoked enough enthusiasm. It was everything a relay should be – runners streaming endlessly by, interest held the whole time, not quite knowing who, what, why or where except for the welcome appearance of the bearded biker leading the young charge.
A nightmare for the volunteer organisers perhaps – something not quite nailed in the senior races later as some runners had to set off without the small tap on the shoulder to send them on their way – but ideal for spectators and just about held together.
Now for the senior humdingers. Has there ever been such an exciting finish as the one between the Welsh wonders Cardiff AC and Swansea Harriers?
While some mightn’t have doubted a 3:39 1500m man such as Tom Marshall would out kick Jon Hopkins – just a paltry 3:53 best to his name – the outcome was far from certain as the pair raced along a vociferous finishing straight lined with runners and spectators from every club.
That the James Thie-coached man – two-thirds of the winning team are coached by the former GB international – prevailed was testament to a team that was never outside the top-5, took the lead on the penultimate leg and took the title for the first time since 1999.
Northern champs Liverpool took bronze ahead of last year’s winners Tonbridge, themselves 55 seconds faster than their combined winning mark twelve months ago.
The drama wasn’t solely reserved for the men’s event. The end of the Aldershot, Farnham and District women’s dominance isn’t yet nigh – even if they did leave it late to take their ninth title in ten years.
Louise Small, a staple of the red, white and green and winning team member in ’10, ’13 and ’14, nicked it from the Midlands champs Birchfield on the anchor leg.
With thirteen complete teams across all the age groups – and three bronze medals to boot – Tonbridge AC enjoyed a decent day out.
‘It was certainly a slicker event than the South of England Championships,’ says team manager, Mark Hookway.
‘Certainly it was a well attended event and busier. Results have been pretty good too. So, overall, a pretty good day – and of course it means we all have Sunday for some normality.’
There is, though, room for improvement next year.
‘One area I feel could be improved at most UK events is the results and announcing,’ adds Mark.
‘If we really want to generate some excitement it would be great to have up-to-the minute team places or display boards. If this was linked online it would be superb as many follow from home or elsewhere.’
Just to add, more toilets to cater for two events now being held as one, more catering facilities and refreshments for the same reason and a few more volunteers in the start and finish funnel to help deal with the relay mayhem would be some suggestions to make next year’s event better.
Final word goes to the excellent individual runs – teams don’t excel without them.
Jess Judd charged through 35 positions on leg two for Chelmsford but wasn’t quite the fastest in the women’s ranks – that honour eventually fell to Kate Hulls (Bristol and West) after initial confusion. What a shame she didn’t have a complete team.
On a more positive note, how amazing was it to see Andrew Butchart returning to Sutton Park to lead his team, Central AC, to seventh?
He may have finished sixth in the Rio Olympics 5,000m final but he’s not too big time to support the national running scene. Butchart bounded along to within four seconds of Chris Davies’ 16.25 record. Bravo monsieur.
More of the same will further serve to restore rightful prestige to nationals events.