Why the National Cross Country Relays has the X-factor

Explaining the appeal of the Saucony English National Cross Country Relays to someone who has never run in them is a bit like describing why one song is a hit and another isn’t.

It just is.

It has that X-factor, that certain something that makes it stand out from the crowd.

Of course, the relays, which have graced the mud of Mansfield’s Berry Hill Park since 1989 have significance in that they’re an early season national title for the lucky few who cross the line first, but more importantly there’s the history and heritage, and the relays are a timely form guide for coaches and athletes.

But more than anything else, the relays offer that rarity in cross country running – it’s all about the team.

Rachel Clutterbuck, a member of the under-17 women’s gold medal winners Windsor Slough Eton and Hounslow summed it perfectly after anchoring her teammates to the victory.

“It’s a team effort,” she said, echoing a statement you’ll hear all day, every year in Mansfield.

Of course, one runner will fly around their leg faster than anybody else, but that’s not what the day is all about. It’s about race plans, leg order, and confidence that it will all play out as you hoped. Team managers are almost like football managers for the day as they spend the week agonising over leg order to formulate a race plan that really will make a difference.

Mansfield, 5 November 2022. Start of the under 13 girls race. Photo by Mark Shearman

Alex Molly of Cambridge and Coleridge’s winning under-20 team agrees:

“It was all about controlling the position early on and not getting too silly,” he explained. “And it was great to see it all come together.”

And for both new runners and experienced internationals, it’s a hugely important race to include on your winter calendar if events like the National and English Schools are on your radar. Given the longest leg is just 5km for the men and much shorter for the age groups, it’s very much a blow out when it comes to seeing where your running is.

“I loved it when I was competing,” said Spencer Duval, an Olympian, multi-time winner of the National and Event Group Lead for Endurance at England Athletics.

“You just have to run flat out and it’s over before you know it,” he laughed.

England team manager Eamonn Martin, also a previous National winner, is on hand to add a wise word to anyone who recognises him in the crowd. The last Briton to win the London Marathon, Eamonn says events like this are massively significant when it comes to getting teams together for the winter and he was hugely impressed at the numbers taking part.

Mansfield 5 November 2022. Race official at the start of the under 13 boys race. Photo by Mark Shearman

Indeed, more than 6,000 individuals entered, which saw 218 teams in the men’s 4x5km. and 166 in the women’s 3x3km.

But it was the age groups that really caught the eye. More than 100 teams took part in the under-15 boys’ race (105) and almost as many (101) in the under-15 girls’ event.

The future is most definitely looking good when it comes to age-groups with solid numbers taking part in every category.

It's good to see and as clubs are discovering, massively important.

“We’ve really focussed on this event in recent years,” Wolverhampton and Bilston reported after crushing the field in the under-13 boys’ race.

“The youngsters love it and it’s great to see the club returning to where it was so many years ago.”

Wolves were a powerhouse in the cross country world in the late 1970s/early 80s, but had since faded away. But thanks to a very active young athletes’ programme, they’re back and in a big way, recognising that building the young athletes’ section will help create a healthy future for a club that in the past has produced Olympic gold and silver medallists in the form of Tessa Sanderson and Kathy Cook to name but two.

Mansfield, 5 November 2022. Race official at the start of the under 13 boys' race. Photo by Mark Shearman

In case you’ve missed it

Ever since 1989, the country’s and, in fact, some of the world’s best distance runners have taken on the rolling, occasionally muddy woodland of Berry Hill Park in Mansfield. The route is always more or less the same with the men running 4x5km, the women 3x3km, and the age groups running anything from 3x2km up to 3x3km.

Speed and teamwork are what this event is all about. And it also has that magnificent heritage. Checking where your 3km time or 5km effort would rank you in other years is almost as important as the race itself. Just how fast did Olympian Spencer Duval run back in 1990? Where would you rank? It was, after all, the same course – although as cross country runners will know, possibly the conditions might have been slightly different.

In fact, it has even been dry in Mansfield on occasion – rare indeed for a Saturday in November, but what was it like a decade ago? Who knows, but it’s fun to trawl back through the results and note that Steve Vernon, World Class Programme (WCP) Endurance Performance Manager at UK Athletics, ‘only’ ran 16:02 that day, helping his team Stockport Harriers to bronze.

Interestingly, this year’s winners Leeds City picked up silver in 2012. So, make sure the Saucony Cross Country Relays are on your club’s fixture list, truly it’s a day not to be missed and a must for every runner.