On the men's side, Matt Gunby and Matt Shone both made the 20 fastest long stages, while Martyn Cryer was 6th fastest short stage. For the women, Jess Sparke and Jodie Swallow were amongst the 15 fastest overall.
Though the men went to Milton Keynes with a fine team, there are clubs with stronger squads than ours so, of course, we look to see what lineups those clubs have managed to piece together. Rumour abounds prior to the race. Bedford were written off, but so were Aldershot, and the latter proved far from down-and-out. We had medal hopes, Yes, but the proof of the pudding really is in the racing and anybody can pull a hamstring 4K from the takeover point.
Matt Shone's winter has been filled with work and study - anything but running. Yet such is the talent of the man that training sessions in the fortnight before the race enabled manager Terry McCarthy to move him to a prestigious long stage, Stage 1. Shone duly performed marvellously. He was with the lead group until it broke up after around 2K, and then ran with a group of 4 contesting positions 6-9 before outkicking them all to break the 25 minute barrier for the first time on this 7.978K stage, with 24.59.
Stage 2 man Tim Prendergast had to thoroughly reconnoitre the 5.506K short leg beforehand to study bollards and tight turns, as he has a mere 5% vision. But Prendergast - a hero in his clubmates' eyes - overtook two athletes as he clocked 17.40 to put us in fourth. On Stage 3, Daniel Agustus was making his debut for us in a major championship race. He passed Basildon to put us in third place, a minute down on the dangerous Aldershot and 1.16 down on the not-so-dangerous Windsor outfit, who chose to begin with their top men. Daniel clocked 25.39 and still has a little way to go before hitting his form of 2-3 years ago.
Craig Berg had the unenviable situation of being the last man selected, as much on his relay pedigree as his current form and, as such, he was under some pressure from other aspirants to a short leg. On stage 4 he was passed by Shaftesbury and Belgrave as he ran 17.59. The whole situation will have enhanced Berg's experience of running under pressure. On Stage 5, eventual winners and defending champions Belgrave took the lead, never to relinquish it. Behind, Bertie Powell was passed by Bedford but himself passed Shaftesbury to keep us in 5th as he clocked a good 25.34.
It is many a long year since club stalwart Kevin Murphy has run a short stage, as he is a perennial rock on our long stages. But times change and Murphy stepped up to the plate to deliver the 23rd fastest short stage of the day, 17.30, during which he passed Windsor but was passed by Newham & Essex Beagles, one of the race favourites. Still 5th at halfway, then.
On Stage 7 Hywel Care, basking in the glow of his first Welsh international vest in the Home Countries CC International last week, ran a solid leg of 25.27, passing Newham and leaving us 1 minute outside the bronze medal position. On 8, Stuart Maxwell set off looking in fine form and closed the 1 minute gap to just 20 seconds by around 4K, but was then struck by a particularly vicious stitch which - to the poor guy's panic - forced him to actually stop!! Exactly the sort of nightmare that troubles every club-loving relay man. Struggling towards the finish line, Maxwell lost all his gains. His 17.52 illustrated what might have been and he was distraught at the thought that he'd failed his teammates. But, luckily, the two teams nearest to us - Newham and Basildon - had 19-minute runners on Stage 8, so we had 90" in hand over 5th-placed Newham. (Footnote: Stuart's problem was later diagnosed as hay fever).
On Stage 9 Matt Gunby was returning to action after months of injury. By halfway he had discovered that he was lacking race-fitness, and he struggled and slowed through the second half. But, in clocking the 19th fastest long stage time of the day - 24.58 - he closed to within 13 seconds of third-placed Bedford and added 30" to the gap over Newham. It was Ben Hope on Stage 10 that put us into the bronze medal position. Currently not doing any "fast" running, studying for exams and often sleeping 5 hours per night, Ben toughed it out and ran a sound 17.39, giving us a 15 second gap over Bedford. At this point, 2nd-placed Aldershot were 1.37 ahead but had GB international Andy Vernon heading off on Leg 11.
Ewen Malloch, departing on our Stage 11, recently ran sub68 for half-marathon. Useful? Perhaps. But a threat remained, not from Bedford but from Moumin Geele, Newham's quick Somali, in fifth place, 2.18 behind Malloch. Impossible? Maybe. After Vernon had burst back into view having blasted a mighty 23.12 (!) in second place, Malloch reappeared to clock 25.20, now 3.40 behind silver. Off went Martyn Cryer on Stage 12. Cryer, with a 14.09 5000m time to his name from 2005, has been working his way back to some kind of "respectable" form and reckoned he was around 15.00 shape. But!! Here came Moumin Geele, just 29 seconds behind us having run 23.31, handing over to the extremely useful Sam Farah for Newham.
Woodford supporters, already plentiful around the course, headed out to shout Cryer on should it be needed. But this was a man who thrives on pressure, and any Farah gain was minimal. Cryer crossed the line with by far the fastest Woodford short stage of the day, 16.50, and Farah gained just 5 seconds.
Beautiful bronze medals for the 2nd year running. Manager Terry McCarthy tried to put the performance in perspective, "We have worked very hard indeed for these medals. We've got a large percentage of our best men to the line and worked our socks off. One or two other clubs have richer resources but haven't necessarily made as much of them as we have. It's a fabulous achievement and we must never get complacent about performances like this."
He went on, "Races like these also show our young athletes what running at the top level is really about. I don't want any U20 athlete to think that running 17.45 on a short stage is great. They have to want to break 17 minutes and then aim at 16.30. That's what the top athletes and top clubs are doing."
The women's team came to the race with a mixture of tried and tested quality and far less tested youth. In a late shuffle of the pack when GB U23 international Kat Sparke withdrew, 18-year old Kathrine Foy took on the tough first leg. She probably ran too fast too soon, a trait commonly seen in 800m specialists, but she justified her place in the team by clocking 21.48, faster than any 'B' teamer. That gave her 23rd place on the stage. It was a dream scenario for Georgie Sales, recently 4th in the English Schools Senior CC, on Stage 2, with slower runners lined up for her to overtake. And, indeed, that was manager Alex Wardle's intention because Sales is also new to this level of relay competition and needed to be blooded with care. She took full advantage of what was offered her and passed 11 athletes to come home in 12th place in a good 20.21.
On Stage 3, Katherine Gundersen ran a similar time to many of the women around her - 21.16 - which was reflected in the fact that she gained one place, passing Brighton. Gundersen has had a terrific season, contributing to absolutely everything the club has strived for - the sort of asset that every club desires. Stage 4 saw the return to action of GB U20 CC international Jess Sparke after 7 months' injury. Considering this was her first race of her comeback, the fact that the race-rusty Sparke recorded the overall 7th fastest time of the day - 19.09 - sums up her ability. She also passed 6 athletes to leave the team in 6th place.
Linda Jackson never responds well to waiting around to run, and Stage 5 was not ideal. This probably accounted for a slightly under-par run of 19.58, but she moved the team up to 5th, albeit 2.14 down on the bronze medal position, which looked impossible. Olympic triathlete Jodie Swallow (a recent interview with Swallow) is more at home with a race lasting hours than 20 minutes and found this tiny 5.5K blowout a shock to the system, but her time of 19.28 gave her 13th fastest of the day overall and pulled us clear of 6th placed Serpentine, though we remained 90" behind the bronze medals.
The team had finished 11th in 2008 and 10th in 2007, but 3rd in 2006 remains manager Wardle's best performance in this race. But none of that team ran today, and it is one of the challenges Wardle faces as a manager, dealing with the relatively heavy turnover of talent at her disposal. However she accepts the challenge and, as always, was eager to emphasise the positives, "It was great to have Jodie and Jess back in action, and girls like Georgie and Kathrine gained experience which will make them better athletes. Fifth is definitely very acceptable!"
Men's 'B' team
The men's B team had been set the difficult task of making the top 25 in order to be invited to the National championship. We have tried repeatedly in recent years and always fallen short. But this year we had a bunch of vibrant young track specialists taking on short stages. All products of Richard Thurston's training group at Ashton, they were involved in their own, extremely healthy sub-text - the battle for bragging rights.
But for long legs we needed the leathery muscles and lined features of the battle-hardened veteran. For example, Richard Holland, a mere 50 years old, who set us on our way by running 27.38 on Stage 1. Admirable but, at this level, only good enough for 35th out of the 46 starters. Next off was 18-year old Gavin Lewis. A contender for an A team place, Lewis duly did the business and recorded a very useful 17.45, which hoisted us to 27th.
On Stage 3 Andrew Clare had spent most of Saturday in his sickbed, but insisted on turning out "come hell or high water". It was an uncomfortable run for the sore throat victim and he dropped back to 32nd, but his 29.00 was a very welcome contribution. Andrew Mariani, who had run 15.56 for 5K recently, was another with a claim on an A team place and he certainly caught his team manager's eye as he stormed round in 17.36, faster than 4 men in our A team. One hopes that this will give him the confidence to forge ahead, because he is a talented runner who has struggled to translate training form to race accomplishments. We were back in 27th again.
On Stage 5, 55-year old Dave Cox contributed his usual no-nonsense portion of solidity, passing Garden City Runners as he clocked 28.04. Omar Mansour is still 17 and another 800m specialist, a late draftee into the team. He held onto 26th as he ran a very respectable 18.11. Martin McLean was a B teamer of the "Pip" type, for whom his manager had "great expectations" due to being a genuine, non-veteran 10K-type. He duly recorded 27.10 and passed Brighton, Thames Valley and Nene Valley to put us into the top 25 for the first time - 23rd. McLean should be dreaming of getting close to 26 minutes next year.
Although 800m man Jon Long's time on Stage 8 - 20.05 - did not look too promising on the surface, it was good enough to keep us up there in 23rd. In the process, Nene Valley had gone back past us but Long overtook Bournemouth to compensate. On 9, Matt Molloy went out and struggled. After the race he reported mild illness, which accounted for his falling around a minute short of expectations, with 29.08. But he was in amongst guys running 26 minutes and we dropped back to 25th. On Stage 10, university student James Meadows was also a late and welcome addition to the team. His 19.20 could not prevent us slipping another place.
Harold Wyber will not think us harsh if we suggest he has lost a little fitness since venturing into the demanding world of management consultancy. But he did a yoeman job in reinforcing our rearguard as he ran 29.41, losing one place in the process.
Then, on the anchor leg, Angus Holford was faced with the task of overtaking two people to clinch our place in the day's top 25 and our invite to the National championships. Wells were just 14" ahead, but Hillingdon were a whole 1.23 up. Angus, as first reserve for the A team, had performed the invaluable task of waiting around all day in case an A team man suffered some mishap prior to running. Far from the ideal preparation, but Angus was uncomplaining. Not only that, he proceeded to run down both Wells and then Hillingdon to put us back into the coveted 25th place. His time of 17.57 was just a few seconds down on some of our lads, but his race situation had been the least helpful of all.
The team were 3rd B team behind Aldershot (16) and Belgrave (21). Manager Jim Roche, a glass of champagne in his hand as the team celebrated, pointed out that "the healthiest aspect is that our short stages are full of young lads who are being inspired to improve and make the A team, and not settle for mediocrity". He added, "We're massively fortunate to have classy vets such as Coxy and Richard Holland still propping us up, but we have to build a future. And that's what we're doing."
Women's B team
The women's B team had everything to run for - pride in the club colours. 35 women set out on Stage 1, and we had skipper Alex Wardle for the B team and Kavita Solder the sole representative of the C team. Wardle ran a respectable 23.41 but at this level it was only good enough for 31st, while Solder's 25.40 was good enough to beat Thames Valley B. But on Stage 2 there were only 30 finishers, so we automatically moved up even without Rachel Lund's nippy 22.03 which left us 26th. It was a satisfactory end to Lund's first season in the sport, and there is much room for improvement if she is motivated.
81-minute half-marathon runner Angharad Care has been out of action a long, long time, and this was a tentative return to action off limited training. But talent never disappears and her 22.24 eased us into a promising 21st place, ahead of 9 teams. It was Sophie Seingier's relay debut and a learning process. She ran 25.59 and dropped one place to 22nd. W50 Stef McCarthy took over and ran well on her comeback from long-term injury, running 25.33 and dropping one more place. And Julia Shannahan, another relay deb, clocked 26.56 on the anchor leg to close the team in 24th place, and 5th B team behind Serpentine, Arena, Windsor and Ealing.
Men's C team
The men's C team seemed determined to live up to their pre-race billing as "maverick geniuses". Skipper and M50 Terry McCarthy accepted the hot seat of Stage 1 in his lary green-and-white hooped socks and even larier orange "Mayfly" racing shoes. McCarthy believes they are designed for "the swifter runner", while Paul Stockings insists they are disposable shoes for a disposable runner. And indeed, McCarthy "disposed of" no fewer than 4 runners on Stage 1. Namely, the might of Herne Hill 'B', Huntingdonshire AC, Belgrave 'C' (Pete Marsh - "I thought they dug him up in Cheshire in 1984", joked gardener Andy Coleman) and Brighton 'B'. He ran 30.16, 22" faster than as a young whippersnapper of 49 in 2006. 42nd out of 46 starters.
Maverick genius #2 was Ed Messer, not officially eligible to run as he is 1st claim Chelmsford, but cut Ed's veins and he bleeds Ashton track sessions. Messer ran a super-snappy 17.46 as he vied with his training partners from our B team. 39th. Maverick genius #3 stepped in at 6 minutes' notice. When Paul Clarke rang through to say he was stuck behind a wide load on the M1, Martin Mack took one step forward and saluted, Corporal Jones-style. "I volunteer to run Stage 3, Sir". And off he went at a fast lick to run a not inconsiderable 32.54 whereby we eased backwards to 42nd.
Maverick genius #4 was Darren Southcott, also not officially eligible to run by dint of his young age. But Southcott is an athlete of formidable character and team manager Michael Murphy had no fears about blooding him in this hothouse environment. Southcott laid down a marker for future years by running 18.51 and clawing back 2 places. Our 5th maverick genius was Steve Dawkins, new to everything - running included. But in the age-old Woodford tradition, willing to turn his hand to anything. 32.12 and back to 42nd for Dawkins. Now there were just 3 teams behind us.
We were dealt a devastating blow on Stage 6, as Herne Hill 'B' took 5 minutes 30 out of Steve Lambert which, unsurprisingly, was enough to go past him. The acclaimed dramaturg took his bow from the big stage with 24.07 to his credit. On Stage 7, Andy Coleman was unlucky in that Belgrave C failed to start the stage, thus leaving him with just Huntingdonshire behind him, making him look mediocre. However Coleman rose to the occasion and came to within 18" of his team manager with a quasi-sublime 30.34 clocking.
Maverick genius #8, Michael Murphy, was left with the unenviable task of chasing Norfolk Gazelles, 5 minutes ahead of him, and fending off the dogged Huntingdonshire outfit, 2.20 down on us. But the Gazelles matched Murphy step-for-step while the suspiciously-sounding "John Smith" of Huntingdonshire threw in a suspect 21.24 which usurped Murphy's 22.37 by a tidy margin.
Then - disaster on stage 9 as the greatest maverick genius of the lot, Paul Stockings, watched Huntingdonshire's man float past him as he toiled homewards. Stockings' 32.19 was respectable, but it was 7th heaven for Huntingdonshire. Trevor Powell (25.45) was helpless as the grey men from John Major's former constituency rubbed salt into our wounds. Our hopes of avoiding last place ignominy dashed!
At this point, fearful that the team would not close 12 men, photographer Dave Barrett answered the call, not of nature, but of duty, and pinned the Stage 12 vest to his ripped bosom. Paul Clarke, meanwhile, having eventually passed the wide load, set off in pursuit of our Huntingdonshire foes - but in vain. The chaps from the separatist region had rallied strongly in the latter part of the race and were growing the gap. Clarke's 31.05 still left us over 3 minutes adrift. Barrett - a 2.44 marathon man as recently as 2005 - always looked smooth and in control as he gracefully achieved a 21.06 clocking, leaving us almost 5 minutes behind our foes from the fens.
We were the only club to close a C team and although manager McCarthy admitted that two of the guys were only semi-official, everybody agreed that it was a feat worth celebrating, and another bottle of champagne was opened to acknowledge the fact.
In all seriousness, it was a marvellous display of club spirit and the athletes thank the supporters for their encouragement and enthusiasm. Long may it continue!!