As usual, we travelled down to Sevenoaks the night before the main race, staying in the comfortable - if not quite luxurious - Day’s Inn hotel. A quiet morning for most (though a GCSE biology trial exam for our Fifth Formers) and then it was down to Knole Park for pre-race inspection and final preparations.
Having undertaken five days of pre-season training in the Lake District prior to the start of term, our squad were well prepared, albeit without key personnel in the boys’ squad due to injury.
Last year our girls’ squad had broken into the top 10 for the first time, and in the race report I noted that this was “our best ever result and with Third Form girls arriving next year, the result provides a strong foundation for the momentum that is gathering with the Girls’ Hunt. We believe that in the coming years the girls will begin to experience some of the recent successes of the boys, and they too will become established as one of the leading clubs in the country.”
Our predictions that girls’ running would go from strength to strength with the advent of co-education has become a reality, with numbers higher than ever before and some real talent not only in our new Sixth Form entrants, but also in some very talented junior runners in the Third and Fourth Form.
The girls’ team took to the startline brimming with confidence, and despite their race inexperience they raced in such a manner that this was not made apparent. Over the 3-mile course, our top performers from the past term- Tati Watt (G LVI) and Olivia Papaioannou (EDH LVI) were fighting hard at the front end of the field and both looked to be capable of hitting top 20 spots (out of a field of over 150 runners). Indeed, by the end of the race, both girls did achieve this with Papaiaonnou in 20th and Watt 30 seconds ahead in 12th in a time of 22.03. This was a superb achievement in their first Knole Run and if they can drop a minute between now and next year, both can look towards hitting the top 10 next year.
Crucially for the team score (with four runners to ‘count’) we were packing in well behind with newcomer Sally Joyce (G LVI) crossing the line in 24 minutes flat in 48th position, helped enormously in the final stages by our experienced captain Tory Mobley (EDH UVI) who pushed her on in the final run-in with Mobley just behind in 49th. The team score of 129 points was good enough for 5th position overall, just behind last year’s winners Southend High School for Girls. This marked a tremendous step forward for the girls' Hunt following last year’s ‘best ever’ mark of 10th position, and with so many returning next year, they will hope to challenge for the medals next year, if not the title itself. Interesting to note was the fact that our ‘B’ team placed 16th out of 28 teams, beating ‘A’ teams from such prestigious schools as Wellington College, Charterhouse, Tonbridge and King’s Canterbury. They were led by ‘B’ team captain Abby Attenborough (MSH UVI) home in 66th position with Lower Sixth Formers Martha Pownall (MSH LVI) and Susie Watts (MSH LVI) not far behind in 70th and 78th respectively both in the top half of the field. Perhaps the standout performance, though, came from Sophia Dixon (MSH) in 64th, a remarkable run from a young athlete who is only in the Third Form.
In the boys’ race, a Third Former also provided one of the standout performances of the day, with newcomer Harry Remnant (Ch) tackling the legendary 9.5km course with ease, coming home for our ‘B’ team in 114th position (out of 300 runners) in a time of 40.30, an outstanding run from such a young runner. He was a valuable asset for the ‘B’ team who packed in well, headed home by fellow Churchillian Henry Newbould (Ch LVI) in 85th, a resurgent Jake Samuel (O UVI) in 91st, short-distance specialist Scott Hatton (S V) in 108th, Charles Wade (PH LVI) just behind in 109th marking his return to the club, and a terrific run from Fourth Former Monty Hardcastle (I) in 112th. A team total for the ‘B’ team of 619 points ensured their best ever performance in 12th place overall out of 36 teams (again, beating ‘A’ teams from prominent schools such as Manchester Grammar, Wellington College, Charterhouse, Brighton College and Haileybury amongst others). With all but one of the ‘B’ team in the Lower Sixth or below, this signals considerable promise for next season and was a terrific achievement from the runners.
The ‘A’ team fought hard in a highly competitive field and were certainly hoping to maintain our position on the national podium that had been our domain for the previous three seasons. However, the absence of one or two key personnel would make this difficult and we knew we would have our work cut out. Indeed, whilst tactically the runners got it right and ensured that they didn’t get off too quickly in this long and undulating course, a top 10 spot for a Hunt runner seemed out of our grasp, though Oscar Dickins (R LVI) can be very pleased with his 19th position in a time of 35.51 to come through as first Hunt runner home. He’ll need to drop a minute next year in order to dip into the top 10, perfectly possible, though he’ll need a clear run of training through the Michaelmas term if he is to do so.
Huntsman Theo Clarke (S UVI) ran a superb captain’s run over a distance that doesn’t necessarily suit him, coming home in 24th, with fellow Severn Hill runner Charlie Tait-Harris (S V) just behind in 25th. For two years in a row, Tait-Harris has placed in the top 25 and, whilst disappointed not to have improved on his outstanding 18th position last year, his time will come. Having won the Hector Rose Bowl at this year’s Tucks and demonstrated his ability consistently over the past three years, he can certainly target a top 10 spot in future years, if not higher.
It is also worth pausing to note the performance of Charlie Rogers (Rb LVI) who only seriously took up running last year and has made phenomenal progress over the past year, partly through the generous award of the Will Ramsbotham Award from Old Salopian and former Huntsman Oliver O’Callaghan-Brown. The Award is intended to recognise an up-and-coming Fifth Former who has shown potential but hasn’t yet pushed into the top ranks, with the intention being to enable this athlete to make that step up through various means, such as a week-long residential training camp in the summer. Charlie Rogers - last year’s first recipient of the award - is a fantastic example of the way in which this award can really help, and his 40th position in this year’s Knole Run demonstrated quite clearly just how far he has come in a year, given that the previous year he had placed 115th.
The final two ‘counters’ for the ‘A’ team were William Hayward (R V) in 49th, and Senior Whip Charlie Godman (M UVI) in 53rd. Godman’s run was truly gutsy and perhaps his best ever performance, and he can be very proud of his efforts for the team. Hayward was hoping for higher (more like top 30) but issues with shoulder pain continue to plague him. A top 50 place despite this discomfort and pain did not surprise us, given the hardened reputation of the Iron Man Hayward!
A team total of 210 points would not this year be good enough for the podium, with 5th place being the outcome for the team. Our old adversaries Abingdon College came home ahead of us in 4th, with ever-improving Sevenoaks School the hosts taking team bronze for the first time in many years. Judd School reclaimed the title that they probably view as their natural right, with last year’s winners St Alban’s School having to settle for the runner’s up spot this year, despite captain Robbie Lightowler’s individual bronze.
Whilst the first race of the season was tinged with some disappointment for our top boys’ squad, there were nevertheless considerable positives to take from the event, in particular the ascendance of our female athletes and the strength in depth in both boys’ and girls’ squads, with high team placings for both ‘B’ teams.
The next major focus is the prestigious King Henry VIII Relays in Coventry, effectively a national schools’ relays with other 50 teams taking to the startline at the beginning of February. Our boys’ squad will probably still be without two of our main men so may well find it hard even making the top 5, with Judd and St Alban’s in such fine form and real threats from Loughborough (my ‘wild card’ for the title), and with Sevenoaks School clearly displaying their intentions at the Knole with a young and impressive squad, and further strength from Abingdon and probably from Sedbergh, who this year came down to the Shrewsbury Relays in a raiding party to take the title away with them.
It will certainly be a fascinating race, and the boys will want to do all they can to ensure that they place highly. The girls, too, sense that there is an opportunity at Coventry to do something truly special, and will look to go one better than last year’s 4th position with the intention to make a team podium at a national race for the very first time.
Watch this space…