The ‘Beast from the East’ had threatened to ruin our plans for a busy weekend of cross-country, and indeed our Saturday fixture at Wellingborough unfortunately had to be cancelled. Thankfully though, Harrow School showed admirable defiance of the wind and snow in refusing to cancel the South-East Schools' Championships, to which – our geographical position notwithstanding – we had been kindly invited. In the event, the temperatures improved dramatically over the weekend and when we got off the coach with two boys’ teams an hour before the races were due to start, it was mild enough to forgo our hats and gloves.
We last competed at the SES Champs two years ago, with strong teams in Junior, Inter and Senior categories. We had been impressed by the level of competition and the excellent race organisation, but unfortunately last year the proposed date clashed with another fixture and we were unable to attend. Knowing that some of the country’s top cross-country schools would be there, including Sedbergh, St Alban’s and The Judd School, I was excited to see how our lads would do. Unfortunately a few injuries and other issues meant that we were again forced to take a somewhat weakened team, with only six runners in each age category rather than the permitted eight.
Our first team to race was the Inters, made up of Third Former Harrison Cutler (R), Fourth Formers Tim Clarkson Webb (O) and Oscar Hamilton-Russell (R), and Fifth Formers Sam Western (PH), Jonny Snell (Ch) and Artur Sarsenov (SH).
In a strong field, Sam and Oscar made good early starts and found themselves in the leading pack as the race stretched out after the first bend. The course itself hugged the boundary of several playing fields, and as the runners passed through one field to another after about 600m, Sam was looking comfortable on the shoulder of a leading pack of three, while Oscar was not very far back, a little ahead of Harrison, Artur, Tim and Jonny, who were in amongst the body of the pack.
As the course wound around up and out of sight after another kilometre or so, we waited anxiously for our next glimpse, which would be after about seven or eight minutes, the runners coming back towards the start before veering off again to complete another half-lap. At this stage, Sam had settled nicely into 5th place, with the race leader from The Judd having built up a healthy lead, stretching the leading pack out. Oscar looked very strong in his position somewhere around 15th, making an overtake as he passed us. Harrison (who should really have been racing in the ‘Junior’ category, given his age) was running very impressively not very far behind Oscar, showing how much he has improved in the last few months. Artur too looked comfortable, with Tim and Jonny working together a little further back.
As they came into view for the final straight, Sam had held his position well and was even making ground on 4th, but the finish line came just a bit too soon for him. Still, this was another mature, confident and positive performance from arguably our stand-out athlete of this year. Oscar claimed an excellent 11th place (he has a good chance of replicating or even beating Sam’s 5th place next year when he will run again in this category as a Fifth Former), while the run of the day might be said to have come from Harrison, who finished 18th. Had he run in the Junior event, I think he would have contended for a podium place, so this was a truly remarkable effort from him.
Artur Sarsenov indicated that he is coming back into some form after injury difficulties, placing 26th, while Jonny Snell and Tim Clarkson Webb completed the team scores, coming 42nd and 45th respectively. Our team score of 147 was enough for 4th place overall, which given we had a few absent (Tom Jackson, Sam Watts and Paddy Barlow, to name just three) was a strong result for us, though we were obviously a little disappointed to just miss out on the medal positions.
In the Seniors race, we were even more stretched, with our Huntsman, both Whips and several others out through injury. Nevertheless, we had some good quality among the six who travelled down, including the in-form Charlie Ockleston (O), fresh from his victory in the Hunt Club Champs on Wednesday. Accompanying him were Tom Hughes (Ch), Will Manley (PH), Ali Harris (R), Toby Pegge (PH) and Will Holcroft (Rt).
The race got off to a blistering start, and Charlie did well to keep in touch with the leaders in the first few hundred metres, but sensibly realised early on that the front two were in a race of their own, such was their quality; he contented himself with battling it out among what remained of the leading pack.
A little further back, Ali Harris had established himself in the top 20 positions, and Tom Hughes was about ten places behind him. Will Manley and Toby Pegge were working together somewhere in the middle of the pack, while Will Holcroft was struggling towards the back, the quality of this field having perhaps stunned him somewhat!
Six kilometres later, the race was won by the local hero, George Grassly of Harrow, with an enormous 52-second gap ahead of 2nd position, who had fallen back after trying to keep up with the winner. Charlie came through in 6th, which marks an astonishing improvement over the past two months (indeed, the lad who claimed the place ahead of Charlie at the Knole Run in January was back in 21st at Harrow, and another who placed seven places above him then, now finished ten places behind). He has been one of the most committed and spirited runners in the Club this year, and it’s great to see him reaping the rewards of this hard work.
Ali Harris finished in 20th, battling well among some very strong runners, while Tom Hughes came through in 28th. Toby Pegge and Will Manley came across the line together in 36th and 37th, while Will Holcroft finished strongly in 49th. The team total of 176 earned us 5th place, which was a respectable score.
It’s a big commitment to give up your Sunday to embark on a 400-mile round-trip in service of the Hunt – especially with exams looming for so many – and I’m hugely grateful to the boys who raced. It was a good day of cross-country against some very stiff opposition and they did themselves proud.
Teacher i/c The Hunt