Ian Haworth apologised for the length of this report, saying 'I got a bit carried away with writing it. I need to learn to write less like Dickens and more like Hemingway...' Be that as it may, this piece captures the tension and excitement of both the race and the presentations in a way that Hemingway might have struggled to convey so well.
On Saturday six boys travelled to Bolton for the National Final of the ESAA Cross Country Cup, having qualified at the regionals a few weeks ago with a dominant display. This would be a much sterner test; 1500 schools entered this competition at the preliminary stage, and the 24 schools who had managed to reach this final had needed to prove their worth by qualifying in County races and then clinching a top-three position in their region. Each team of six boys, in short, needed to be very good indeed.
The full team
L-R: Charles Wade (PH); Oscar Dickins (R); Ben Remnant (Ch); Freddie Huxley-Fielding (R); Charlie Tait-Harris (Rb); William Hayward (R)
Nevertheless, confidence was high among this team of three 4th formers and three 3rd formers. They had trained hard in the build-up to this and were excited about the prospect of showing what they could do. Of all the things Bolton is famous for, glorious sunshine probably isn't top of the list, but this is what greeted the team as we pulled up to register.
Temperatures were very low, and though the region had experienced (like everyone else) a huge amount of rain in the previous week, conditions were otherwise excellent for cross-country running. Ours was the fourth race of the day, by which time the course had been churned up nicely, probably suiting our runners more than many of our competitors, who will have been used to more track and road-running in their preparation. A walk of the course before the race (which would be three laps, totalling 4500m) identified some key areas to avoid (including a sheer drop of about 150 feet down to a stream below!) and areas suitable for pushing on and making up ground.
As they lined up in their pens, all were focused on what they were about to do. The gun duly sounded, and a terrifically fast start meant that it was vital to get into position early. Going round the first bend after about 400m, the boys had settled into decent, if not dominant positions.
It was clear that this was going to be a very different race from the regional round, where our quality was noticably greater than the opposition. In this race, every single competitor was a strong runner.
The boys found it hard to work together as a pack, largely because of the greater numbers, and they were all faced with the prospect of running their own individual race, picking their own battles irrespective of their teammates. Freddie Fielding had managed to secure a position around 9th after the first lap, but was looking strong and his eyes were firmly fixed on the (rather larger) boys ahead of him. It was clear by this stage, though, that this was to be St Albans's race; five of their runners were very high up the field and were looking very confident indeed. Ben Remnant was our second-placed runner, battling away in around 22nd, followed by Oscar Dickins, further back but looking the more comfortable in around 28th. Not far behind him our three other runners, roughly evenly spaced; Charlie Tait-Harris, Will Hayward and Charles Wade (who, incidentally, had valiantly stepped in to Gene Ratandaros's spikes as the latter was playing Repton in the U15As football match).
The dynamic of the race in the second lap didn't change a great deal, except for the fact that Ben looked increasingly uncomfortable and had to concede a couple of places. Oscar, meanwhile, determinedly pushed on and got close to catching up with Ben. Charlie Tait-Harris made excellent headway in the middle of the field and made up some vital places, while Will and Charlie were steadily battling away against a remarkably strong lower order.
In the final lap, Freddie had the bit between his teeth and made up an impressive amount of ground on his competitors, pushing his way up to fifth and setting his sights on a fourth-placed runner roughly twice his size. It looked on the final straight as if Freddie might have the measure of him, but the longer legs won out in an exciting finish and Freddie took 5th - an astonishing result given that he's a year 'young' in this competition, and thus will be able to get his revenge in this equivalent race next year.
Ben had recovered by the final lap, and was making headway to recover those positions he'd dropped the previous time around. He showed huge determination here, and he was richly rewarded by taking 25th position ahead of a clutch of runners just behind. Oscar, too, had a strong final lap and continued to make up positions finishing 32nd, less than ten seconds behind Ben. Charlie Tait-Harris, another extremely promising third former racing against boys predominantly a year older, had a stunning race to finish 37th, while the other third former in our team, Will Hayward, finished 63rd. It conveys an impression of how close this race was - and of the quality of the middle-order - to note that he was only just over 30 seconds behind Charlie. Charles Wade was our final finisher in an extremely encouraging 94th position. Given that this is his first competitive race against other schools, this suggests real promise from Charles, who ran an extremely sensible and very gutsy race.
This is predominantly a team event, and positions are judged by adding up the positions of the team's first four finishers. Given that St Albans had their first four finishers in the top 20, we knew that the title was beyond us. However, our total of 99 points was very competitive. As we made our way to the presentations, we had a vague idea that we'd be between 2nd and 5th, but we knew that the Judd School are historically extremely strong and appeared to have several runners high up the field.
Tension was running high and as the Judd School were called up to take their 3rd-place certificates, a glance was shared between Mr Middleton and Mr Haworth which conveyed both worry and excitement. We weren't to be disappointed. 2nd place was ours! This was a hugely proud moment for the Junior Hunt, who'd never even qualified for this final before, so to clinch 2nd ahead of Judd - the dominant force in schools cross-country for many years - was extremely satisfying. Huge congratulations to the six runners - and to Gene, for his help in qualifying us for it - who worked so hard for this. The tremendous talent and dedication displayed by these young lads will make this one of the biggest highlights of the year for the Hunt, who are setting their sights on national titles at Coventry and the Knole run in the Lent term.
By a very proud IPH