Despite it raining throughout the day on Saturday, the weather certainly didn’t dampen spirits at the 2023 English National Cross-Country Relays on bonfire weekend. The crowd lined the course to show their support, club mates were seen cheering across all age group races and the camaraderie was better than ever.
With such a good atmosphere on the fields of Mansfield, not to mention an exciting and challenging course, it promised to be the perfect recipe for a great day of racing. All that was left to determine was who would be crowned this year’s National Champions.
From gun to tape
With the senior women’s title being decided over 3 x 3km legs, the competition seemed set to be fast and furious. Belgrave Harriers’ Kate Axford was more than ready for the challenge, taking the lead and maintaining first place all the way to the finish.
“This was my first experience of racing in this weather and it’s only my second cross country race so it was a bit of a shock to the system; but I love a team event and hopefully this one goes to plan.”
With Gemma Astin on the second leg, the race certainly was going to plan where Belgrave Harriers were concerned. Gemma maintained the lead for the club, holding off Niamh Brown from Aldershot and Farnham District who finished the course in a time of 9:55, the fastest of the day.
After the race we spoke to Niamh about her performance:
“I usually thrive in the mud. It doesn’t seem to bother me, I just seem to flow through it so I used that as confidence. It’s only 3k so my mentality was to push from the start. I’ve just come back from a training camp in Font Romeo where I was training with some amazing girls so that gave me the confidence to push on. I love this event, it’s such a fun race.”
With Niamh pulling her team up to second and the other Aldershot Farnham and District team in third, it looked like they were the only club likely to challenge Belgrave Harriers for the title. Belgrave were in safe hands, however, with the current National Cross-Country Champion, Sarah Astin, on the anchor leg.
Looking strong the whole way, Sarah extended the club’s lead over the rest of the field, ensuring Belgrave Harriers took victory. After the race we spoke to Sarah:
“I’m really happy. I knew we had a strong team but you just don’t know who is going to show up to these things. Obviously with it being three women in a team it makes it even more exciting. With the conditions being like this, I was quite happy as I know we’re quite strong as a team. I was a little more nervous than usual with it being a team event but I just tried to make the most of the pressure. Pressure is a privilege and I really enjoyed the race.”
A battle all the way to the line
As is always the case, the Senior Men’s race promised to be an exciting encounter. It was City of York AC who took the early lead thanks to a strong run from Angus McMillan. His time of 14:55 ended up being the fastest of the day. Angus handed over to triathlete Sam Dickenson who held off several fast-finishing teams to ensure his club was in first place at the halfway mark:
“The conditions were tough out there but all the credit has to go to Angus for a stellar first leg. Nobody thought he’d be the guy in the lead, however we all knew he was capable of doing that. He set the team up really well. For me, I was just lucky to get a lead. To hang onto that lead was the aim and thankfully I did so as I handed over to our last two. Top 20 was the aim for the City of York today so with any luck we’ll get that.”
With 10km of country left to run, the race was far from over. Jack Gray looked a man on a mission and quickly moved through the field to take his team to 2nd, just metres behind the City of York AC. An impressive run, especially from a man who has been battling a cold:
“I didn’t expect us to be quite so far back at the start of my leg but in a way it’s been nice to be chasing people. I think the key thing on the cross relays is to get the first half a lap right. When you’re chasing it’s easy to go off like the clappers. I’ve been fighting a bit of a cold so I kept telling myself to keep it sensible and I managed to do that. I think I went from around 10th to 2nd, so yes really happy.”
With the World Road Mile silver medallist on the final leg for Cambridge and Coleridge, they looked like the team to beat heading into the final stage. Callum Elson quickly took the lead and was setting a strong tempo from the front. Aldershot Farnham and District’s Will Barnicoat, however, wasn’t going to let the Cambridge men have it all their own way. With one lap to go, the gap was shrinking between the two teams and with less than 500m to run it was almost neck and neck. Using his 1500m speed, Elson just held off the fast-finishing Barnicoat to ensure Cambridge and Coleridge went home with the trophy. We spoke to Callum about what the win meant for him and the team:
“Awesome. I joined Cambridge and Coleridge about a year and a half ago when I moved down there. Since then, we have medalled at every relay, but we’ve never quite won. Today, we knew we had a good chance but with cross country the conditions are unpredictable so you never quite know how people are going to respond. The great thing about the relays is that it’s a team effort and it’s the best average across all four people. A little bit exciting at the end for me but I managed to hold on for the win.”
The battle for third and fourth was equally as exciting with Roger Poolman from Highgate Harriers taking on Shaftesbury Barnet Harriers’ Dylan Evans. In the end it was the Highgate man who just edged in front, claiming the bronze medal position by 0.6 seconds. Another thrilling finish to end a brilliant day of action.
Congratulations to all who ran, as well as the volunteers (and indeed spectators) who battled the cold and rain to make the event such a success.
1st – Belgrave Harriers (Kate Axford, Gemma Astin and Sarah Astin)
2nd – Aldershot Farnham and District A (Lauren Hall, Louise Small and Amy Griffiths)
3rd – Aldershot Farnham and District B (Kate Estlea-Morris, Niamh Brown and Millie Jordan-Lee)
1st - Cambridge and Coleridge AC (Thomas Keen, Jonathan Escalante-Philips, Jack Gray and Callum Elson)
2nd – Aldershot Farnham and District (Joe Blacknell, Callum Charleston, Ellis Cross, Will Barnicoat)
3rd – Highgate Harriers (Terry Fawden, Jacob Allen, Alexander Lepetre and Roger Poolman)