Ian Kennedy reports from the National XC Champs, Nottingham
It was an early start travelling up from Dorset on the morning. I was absolutely determined to be in Nottingham in good time. Of the five athletes I would be supporting in Wimborne colours, two of them were in the first race of the day … I couldn’t be late. I’m pleased to say all our athletes travelled up the day before so didn’t need to have such an early alarm call, they would be fresh and ready to race.
We’ve seen some significant weather over the past few weeks, Storm Ciara, followed by Storm Dennis. The rainfall that came with those storms had played havoc with the course in Nottingham. The ground was completely waterlogged. I walked part of the course with Holly, and in one section we entered a body of water (puddle doesn’t do it justice) a little gingerly as we were concerned that the water would come over the top of our wellington boots! We managed to keep our socks dry but Holly’s would be getting a proper soaking a little later!!
Emily Shaw, our other under-17 woman had also arrived in good time. She’d returned from holiday in France the previous day. There was, however, an elephant in the room. As she was doing her warm-up, much of it with Dorset team-mates from Poole AC and Poole Runners, I became aware that she had picked up a cough. Banishing any negative thoughts we might have (we just didn’t talk about it) we just concentrated on the task ahead.
I love this venue, Wollaton Hall is a magnificent Elizabethan pile and it stands high on the hill surveying the magnificent deer park. Hollywood selected this imposing structure as Wayne Manor for the Batman movie The Dark Knight Rises.
I’ve been to this venue a few times now, and each time the course seems to be set up differently. The start line faced the opposite way to what I’ve been accustomed to, and then formed an inverted horseshoe-shape, before heading off towards the lake and open grasslands (more like wetlands on this day). Depending where you were on the start line, you could find yourself splashing your way through standing water having run just 50 metres.
One thing I knew for sure was that our two under-17s are super-resilient athletes. After about 2km Emily was lying about 20th, conceding some places to the leaders, but not too much distance. How would that cough affect her race I wondered? Holly was also well-placed. Having done a small lap, the runners headed off out of sight for a big lap. They came back into view with about 1km to go. Emily had worked her way through the field and was now chasing down those ahead of her, although the first and second place runners had got away. Coming off the final bend with around 300m to go Emily was targeting the third-placed runner. As is her way, she was finishing very strongly, but that final podium position proved just out of reach. Holly also had a strong race, there is top quality competition in both the under-17 and under-20s races, and Holly was comfortably in the top half of the field.
Even with some concerns about whether Emily was 100% fit, she maintained her extraordinary record in major events. On this, her 16th birthday she recorded a 4th place finish at the National Championships while running year-young. Less than four weeks earlier she had been 3rd at the South of England Champs at Parliament Hill. Her record at English Schools competitions both cross-country and on the track also shows she has the head to handle the big occasions. What a fine start our under-17 women got WAC off to!
Under-17 women (257 finishers)
4 – Emily Shaw – 22:14
112 – Holly Nixon – 25:39
Tom Jackson came late to the party. This is his first season with us, and it was some encouraging performances representing his school (QE) in the English Schools Cross Country Cup that led to him signing up to the club and taking his training more seriously. The hard work has very quickly brought rewards. Because he’s new to club cross-country I’m not certain he fully appreciates how well he has done in his rookie season. Here he ran in his first National Championship and finished in the top 25% despite being one of the least experienced runners out there. Great work Tom.
Under-15 boys (364 finishers)
91 – Tom Jackson – 18:35
There were no WAC vests in the under-15 girls race, but there was a red and black vest out there I was taking an interest in. Hebe Hunter (2nd claim WAC) was running in the red and black hoops of Herne Hill Harriers her first claim club. Comfortably in the top half of the field, she was first HHH runner home in this race.
Under-15 girls (394 finishers)
154 – Hebe Hunter – 22:32
We had two athletes lining up for the under-20/junior women’s race – Grace Copeland and Alice Sullivan. Both Grace and Alice are at university, with Grace at Cardiff Met and Alice at Exeter. At the start of the month they both competed at the BUCS (British University & College Sports) Cross Country Championships in Edinburgh. Despite only just returning to racing after a lengthy injury lay-off, Grace finished an excellent 14th (of 734) on the long course, an extraordinary performance. Meanwhile Alice competed over the shorter course and was108th of 495.
As the day went on, with each lap in each race, the course in Nottingham cut-up and conditions deteriorated and the conditions got heavier … even to the extent that the favoured racing line altered as the day progressed. Grace started well, and in the early stages was comfortably in the top 20. Unfortunately it was too much for her foot, and she had to pull-up. She’s done really well to stay positive and rebuild since her injury back in May, especially so when it’s also her first year at uni. Grace’s resilience will be tested once again but athletics, and sport more generally, is often a rollercoaster ride.
One of the reasons I have such fondness for Wollaton Hall is due to what happened at the Nationals when it was staged here in 2014. That day Grace delivered the first of the REALLY big results by anyone from the WAC Endurance Squad … she won the Nationals as an under-13. The thoughts of that day were clearly in her mind when she said to me, ‘Sorry I didn’t get you a rose today’ … Grace had been presented with a medal and a rose by the Sheriff of Nottingham in 2014.
Maintaining your form when you head off to uni is some achievement. Alice has done a great job of staying competitive. Of all the age-groups, the most competitive by a distance is the under-20s. Alice did a great job for 78th.
Under-20 women (131 finishers)
78 – Alice Sullivan – 31:18
The last race of the day that I watched was the senior women. More than 900 lined up on the start line for this one. There was no WACer out there, but I was rooting for Elana Albery in the red and white hoops of Kettering. Elana is studying at Bournemouth Uni, but currently on a work placement at Swanage. She has made huge progress in the past 12 months, and despite the hideous road journey from Swanage to Blandford for training, she’s been getting the regular sessions in … and she’s been smashing it. Confidence and self-belief are so important when trying to achieve anything, but when it comes flooding in it’s such a good feeling … and as a coach watching it happen to an athlete it is no less of a good feeling.
A year ago I saw a quite tearful Elana come 121st of 130 in the under-20s race. This time she stepped up an age-group, adding more distance, and she came comfortably in the top third of the women’s race. She was the first of Kettering’s women and also had the satisfaction of running in the same team that included her (very proud) mum. It’s just a joy to watch someone take a leap forward of that order.
Senior women (919 finishers)
281 – Elana Albery – 43:53
With the women’s race done, it was time to head home for Dorset. I’m not sure of the venue for next year’s Nationals is known yet (I’m hopeful it will be Parliament Hill), but it would be good not to clock up too many miles to get there.