English National CC 2009: Women 5th, Men 12th

Kat Sparke
This, the 122nd edition of the legendary English National Cross Country Championships, saw a best-ever performance from our women's team, who finished 5th, and a very sound result from our men in 12th place. An injured Kat Sparke led home the women in a very brave 8th, while Hywel Care carried the flag for the men, in 51st.

Parliament Hill Fields, the most taxing of courses, regularly shatters dreams as clubs and individuals who come to the race with high hopes find that the course has a variety of methods of punishing anything less than top form and the best of luck. Even if the athlete has not started too quickly, or lost a shoe, or fallen into a boggy hole, they often find the draining climbs taunting them that they have come to the race tired, hungry or "lacking hill-work". Only the very strong survive to report a success story.




Following their silver medals in the South of England Championships last month, team manager Alex Wardle had the same group of women available this time. However, Southern champion Kat Sparke had had a troubled fortnight after a flare-up of the arthritis she has to live with, in a foot. She only decided to run on the morning of the race and it became ever-plainer to see as the race progressed that she was limping. Her final position of 8th was marvellous for the team, and an extremely brave effort, but she would normally have run around a minute quicker and been closely contesting the medals.

In 35th, Linda Jackson had a superb run in what has been a fantastic season for the 41-year old. She has been rightly rewarded with a call-up by Hertfordshire for the Inter-Counties race in a fortnight's time. Lauren Stewart also ran very well in her first National, for 72nd in the field of 546 finishers. Sprinbok Lauren has had no trouble in acclimatising to our English mud. And again, as in the Southerns, Kat Gundersen (108) out-performed Diana Kennedy (160) in the big race, this time by around 90 seconds, despite Kennedy's tendency to dominate over the shorter distances of league races.

The team total of 223 left them just 3 points behind 4th-placed Havering. The fourth scorer proved all-important as we defeated teams such as Kendal, who closed 3 in 14 (!) but had to wait until 286 for their final scorer. 

Rachel Lund just failed to break the 200 barrier, finishing in 201, a minute down on Kennedy which just about reflects their recent form. Maggie Powell (23) has got stronger as the season has progressed and had another solid run. Sophie Seingier (392) is a recent arrival at the club and is not at her fittest, but she put a lot of ground between herself and Alex Wardle (460) despite them looking well-matched in midweek training. 

Our 5th place improved on last year's 10th and was a superb way to end what has been a very successful season. Manager Wardle praised her team's consistency: "I've been really lucky this season, lucky that the women have avoided injury and illness and lucky that they've been hungry to race. And Nina Griffith, who has been off the scene for 2 years, was on the course supporting and promising she'd be back next season - so things are looking good!"

Amongst the team's beaten opponents were clubs like Met League winners Highgate (12) and Southern champions Aldershot (29)

Teams: 1, Charnwood 49; 2, Bristol 115; 3, Hallamshire 142; 4, Havering 220; 5, WGEL 223

On paper, the men's line-up looked capable of finishing between 8-10, but there were not enough quality runs. Nonetheless, 12th place in the team race equalled last season's position and was certainly sound. We also placed 9th in the 9-to-score competition, underlining that there is nothing wrong with our depth. And we had 24 men in the field of 1455 finishers, which must have been one of the largest contingents. When one bears in mind the fact that there were 300 clubs represented at Parliament Hill, and 112 clubs closed the requisite 6 men, the picture looks very positive.

Hywel Care
Hywel Care brought excellent form to this race but, although finishing 51st, felt he had not done himself justice. He felt he started too quickly - he was 35th at the end of the first lap - and that there was a top 30 place for the taking if he had not got so excited. We failed to close anyone else in the top hundred, but had Bertie Powell, Dave Wardle and Kevin Murphy locked in a battle just outside 100. Powell (125) started in the 70s but paid the price for heavy marathon training; Wardle (120) has been struggling badly in races and knew after a mile that the same was happening again; Murphy (116) was happiest of the three, struggling early on but gradually making up ground.

The visually-impaired Tim Prendergast dismissed concerns about course hazards with a "... when I pull on the green-and-white I'd run through a pool of rabid crocs...". He duly fell headlong in one of the bogs, but generally had a great run for 223. He is looking forward to the road racing season to show what he can do when he is not running defensively. Matt Shone, in his first race for 4 months and off minimal training, tracked Prendergast all the way and out-sprinted him for a very pleasing 218. Martyn Cryer's lack of background found him out as he ran well early on the firm and downhill, but floundered later and elsewhere for 243. Ben Whitworth, in training for the New York marathon, had his best run in a Woodford vest, progressing confidently through the field to a fine 258th. In contrast, Jon Powell suffered badly, but did a fine job for the team by closing the scoring 9 in 406th. 

In 10th and 11th for the team there were two very good runs from Matt Molloy (544) and Andrew Clare (562). Molloy benefitted from having had a forced rest for a few days, while Clare's good result came in spite of taking a header into the same bog as his Kiwi mate Prendergast - proof here!. Alex Chklar (630) had a nightmare, suffering from a bad stomach and drifting backwards throughout. He was almost caught by a trio of our men who had a mighty tussle in the finishing straight, when Iain Cumming (648) outsprinted John Wallis (652) but both were outsprinted by the younger Iain Thompson (646). Just 5 seconds separated the trio after 51 minutes running.

That was 15 across the line. Next in was new lad Steve Dawkins (798), for whom the race was a great experience. Johnny Hargreaves (888) looks to have made good progress as the season has worn on. Alistair Holford (923) was probably unaware that he had well-beaten rival and second-claimer Steve Herington, but Herington (1060) could talk of nothing else in the pub afterwards, to anyone who would listen.

Into the 1200s and there was terrific rivalry as Michael Murphy set the pace throughout, followed closely by Andy Smith, Adam Thorpe, Tom Spanyol and Julian Thorpe. Only 22" separated the first 4 as Julian (1208) passed Spanyol (1233) and brother Adam (1212)  late on, but narrowly failed to catch Smith (1202) and Murphy (1201), who swapped the lead before Murphy prevailed. Bringing up our rear was thespian Steve Lambert who described the drama of losing his shoe in a bog, turning to retrieve it and being faced by an overwhelming sea of running humanity. His sceptical audience in the pub questioned this exciting tale, as Lambert (1413) himself admitted there were few behind him at any stage in the race.

Manager Terry McCarthy came to the age-old conclusion that "the National is tough". He was disappointed not to make the top 10 teams, but found consolation in beating big-hitters such as Belgrave (13), Coventry (15), Kent (19), OWLS (20), Blackheath (28), Shaftesbury (35) and Southern champions Winchester (42). "That was another very good day, especially when you put it in the context of the great results from our women and our U20s." The team celebrated their last race of the club season by passing around the Met League trophy filled with Guinness, Shaftesbury's amiable manager Simon Keane having passed it to us prior to Saturday's race.

Teams: 1, Newham 214; 2, Bedford 224; 3, Leeds 303; 4, Aldershot 359; 5, Notts 407; 6, Tipton 456; 7, Sale 522; 8, Thames H&H 771; 9, Highgate 790; 10, Salford 816; 11, Hallamshire 833; 12, WGEL 853; 13, Belgrave 938; 14, Altrincham 963; 15, Coventry 982.

Simon Plummer finished 9th in the Scottish National CC at Falkirk.

2nd claimers Ed Messer and Jamie Nunn finished 167 and 300 respectively at Parliament Hill, and Jordan Donnelly was 372nd.