South of England Senior CC 2009

Kat and Ronnie Sparke
The endless sea of grim mud at the 2009 South of England Cross Country Championships hosted a glittering performance from our women's team as they missed out on gold medals by a single point. They were led home brilliantly by 21-year old Katherine Sparke who won the race by 24 seconds. A "first" was scored when her brother Ronnie won the under 20s race. It is believed to be the first time that siblings have won races at these championships. A decimated men's team nonetheless had 15 finishers and retained the Essex Cup for the fourth year in succession, but could only finish 10th in the main team race.

New: Interviews with Ronnie and Kat Sparke on "Running in London" website!!



Some great news to raise spirits during the credit crunch – the UK is a world leader in mud production. And most of it was dumped on Hillingdon House Farm in Uxbridge yesterday. This was "old skool" cross country – one for the connoisseurs, the cloth-cap brigade. Light years away from the typical, firm, modern international championship course. It was a day when anyone who got around without stopping deserved a pat on the back.

Our women have avoided illness and injury well this winter, and our team for the race looked powerful. In the absence of Olympian Steph Twell, who is too young to run the senior women's race, Kat Sparke stood on the start line as the favourite, given her 7th place at the European U23 CC Champs in mid-December. Kat isn't one to stand on ceremony and, having seen brother Ronnie take the U20 men's title just minutes earlier, took the bull by horns as is her wont. In the early phases of the 8K race her only challenger was fellow international and Essex athlete Faye Fullerton of Havering. But there was no stopping Kat, who turned the screw relentlessly and never looked like losing. Extremely determined, Kat is unfazed by any opposition and one wonders just how far she can take her career.

41-year old Linda Jackson strained a knee kicking a football an hour before the race began, and was unable to exert herself 100%. Given that, her finishing position of 20th was a testimony to her great ability. She herself felt that she would otherwise have been looking at 12th, around 40 seconds faster. Lauren Stewart has been a huge bonus to the team this winter and had a terrific run in conditions that she had never experienced in South Africa. Her 31st placed her amongst some very good club athletes in the field of 311 finishers. And closing the scoring team of four on this occasion was Kat Gundersen (68) who, for once, got the better of Diana Kennedy on a day when Diana (98) had a terrible day at the office after a taxing week at work. Kat moved to our club eighteen months ago in order to give herself exactly this type of opportunity, so it was justification for that difficult decision.

When the team scores of Aldershot 118, Woodford 119 were announced, all of the girls – except Kat Sparke, for obvious reasons – felt that maybe they could have caught one more athlete. But silvers was a terrific result, bettering the bronzes of 2006 with a completely different team (Morser, Griffiths, Greenhalgh, Pritchett). Great credit must go to manager Alex Wardle, now 13 years in the job, whose work has enabled a competitive squad to develop from zero.

At Uxbridge we had nine women finishers – in itself an impressive statistic. Behind a miserable Di Kennedy came Rachel Lund (109) who was a whole two minutes down on Kat Gundersen, suggesting that she had struggled in the mud. Maggie Powell seems to be improving race on race and did well to finish just 37 seconds behind Lund in 120th.

A course like this, of course, means that the slower runners are simply toiling away for even longer. Manager Wardle had a pleasing run for 236, taking around 50% longer than winner Sparke. She, Julia Shannahan and Stef McCarthy have been fighting out their own personal rivalries recently, and Wardle took around 80 seconds out of Shannahan (252), who in turn took 35 seconds out of McCarthy (261) as the runners were increasingly strung out. Finishing in 48 minutes, Stef was through the line 18 minutes before the last finisher.

Teams: 1, Aldershot 118; 2, WGEL 119; 3, Havering 129; 4, Highgate 153

Hywel Care
The high hopes manager Terry McCarthy had for his men's team faded in the week leading to the race as the squad was decimated by a raft of forced withdrawals. But the day's positives included a top-class run from Hywel Care, two particularly heroic performances, and the retention of the Essex Cup for the first Essex club to close 12 men.

The men's race consisted of 4 laps totalling 15K. Each lap included just one single section of 400m of firm going, thus 1 mile out of 9 in all. The rest had become a morass by the end of the day. You either run well in those conditions or you don't. Even county-quality runners such as Kevin Murphy (52) and Ewen Malloch (61) were reduced to "just getting around" rather than racing per se.

But Hywel Care WAS able to race properly and he turned in one of his best performances in a Woodford vest. Having next week's Welsh Championship in mind, where he hopes to place very highly, Hywel's attitude was not one of pure aggression, and in fact he only turned up to help the team. But things worked out very well as he finished 20th in a field of real quality and 672 finishers. It was, in fact, pleasing to see a great many of the South's top runners put themselves on the line in the challenging conditions.

The first performance of true heroism was that of Tim Prendergast. Manager McCarthy was awestruck as the Kiwi with just 5% vision, running his first-ever CC in the UK, and certainly his first-ever in this type of mud, finished 96th. In the latter stages of the race his problems were increased by the lapped runners, but he tagged onto the shoulder of an athlete of similar pace and used him as a guide to weave through the field. Nonetheless he became disoriented as he approached the finish. He took a wrong line, realised his mistake, turned, fell, jumped up, and used his 1500m speed to overtake the 3 men who had passed him in the meanwhile. Not for nothing is Tim the captain of New Zealand's Paralympic squad.

And the second hero was Bertie Powell who ran knowing he was ill and feeling dreadful. But, to help the team and to continue his bid to retain the club's consistency trophy, he refused to settle for his sick-bed and battled around, well below his best, to finish 117. Needless to say, he was in huge discomfort at the end. But this is a man who has little or no fear of discomfort. Some would say his heroism was misplaced on this occasion, but you cannot alter a man's essential character.

Closing the scoring six, in 172, was Harold Wyber. For a man who finished precisely 100 places higher in 2008 but who has been losing fitness in recent months, this was a wake-up call, and he has to ask himself, "Shall I have a lie-in?" For Alex Chklar, 209th looked like a very good run, and Alex seems to go well in the mud, perhaps partly due to his muscular swimmer's physique which must lend him stability.

Some 3 minutes down on Chklar were Matt Molloy (270) and Iain Cumming (272), who were never far apart and enjoyed their personal battle. Molloy won this one with a well-timed sprint in the last field. That was 9 men home for us, and we were looking for the final 3 scorers. Next came that old war-horse Paul Stockings (347) who nobody can accuse of lacking strength. He was 3 minutes down on Molloy and Cumming – not bad. Then Tim Prendergast's Kiwi mate Andrew Clare struggled home in 381. During the race "Noddy" had assumed a stoical facial expression that appeared to say, "What the hell am I doing here?" Even on Sunday he remained stunned by his introduction to UK cross-country – and this a man who ran a 2.59 marathon in December! And Iain Thompson wrapped up the crucial 12th scorer spot in 390, half a minute behind Noddy, struggling badly in the mud, but still smiling.

With a risk of men ahead abandoning, our remaining runners also played their part in ensuring we secured the Essex Cup. Andy Smith (420) has had a decent season and again beat Alistair Holford (445), for whom 9 miles of mud is not a forte. And Johnny Hargreaves did not disgrace himself in 481, beating almost 200 runners in what was a strong field.

Team Manager McCarthy sought to put the disappointing 10th place in perspective. "Today's performance was brave rather than classy. We were the best-placed Met league club and closed 15 men. County champs Chelmsford failed to close a team. County silver medalists Springfield were 41st. It was a day for applauding the women's team and our two individual winners. But we will be back!"

Teams: 1, Winchester 162; 2, Newham&E Beagles 201; 3, Bedford 210; .... 10, WGEL 518; 11, Shaftesbury 570....15, Serpentine 868... 40, Orion 2302.

Footnote: special congratulations to Ronnie Sparke who won the U20 race though he has 2 more years to run in it. And on his England junior international vest, awarded on Friday for a race in Italy next weekend. Read the separate Young Athletes report which will follow.