Podium and international XC vest for Emily – 16 March 2019
Ian Kennedy reports from Temple Newsam, Leeds
For the second successive year the English Schools Cross Country Championships were held at Temple Newsam Park in Leeds. It’s a long way from Dorset and last year’s journey was a horror show, so departure was moved forward two hours so that we wouldn’t arrive too late in West Yorkshire this time. On race day the forecasters were promising ‘Storm Hannah’ … a 90-100% chance of rain at most hours of the day and 40-50mph winds, although not too cold. I think it says something about the sunny disposition of the team that we all thought we dodged a bullet on the weather front. OK it was pretty wet, but neither the rain nor the wind were completely relentless. Those of us who remembered the weather from 12 months earlier were definitely of the mind that things weren’t too bad. Last year there was a bitterly cold wind and snow! Cross-country runners are a tough and resilient bunch. The course at Temple Newsam is a great one for spectators. It’s very easy to follow the progress of the runners during much of the race. It does however offer a formidable challenge to the competitors, with many demanding gradients. The wet conditions ensured that much of the course turned to mud, as did the area around the team tents.
The first race of the day was the Intermediate Girls. We had a strong looking line-up. Wimborne AC’s Emily Shaw got off to a great start and was forcing the pace at the head of the field for a significant part of the race. At around two-thirds distance Emily was lying in 5th position knowing that a top eight position could secure her an England call-up. A second wind from Emily saw her recover places to third, and put daylight between herself and the fourth-placed runner. As she did last year Emilie Castagna also recorded a fine performance, giving Dorset two runners in the top 20. The first six of each team count towards a team score, and so everyone’s results matters. Third for Dorset was Marianna Sawyer, upwardly mobile from the pen order. The form of Emily Parker has been something of a revelation recently. She followed up a fine performance at last week’s Inter-Counties with another very good run here. A few seconds can make a real difference at this level of competition. Only eight seconds behind Emily, Ashia Wilson was 15 places back. Next in was another of Dorset’s more experienced athletes – Holly Nixon. Our final two – Izzy Rabjohns and Emily Wood – were both originally on the reserves list. Once called up they both did an excellent job for their county. An excellent team performance for Dorset’s Inter Girls brought a 12th place finish. When factoring differences in population size between various counties anything above a result in the lower 30s is good. On the individual front Emily Shaw has a fantastic record at English Schools XC. The two previous years she has come fourth, third is her best yet. More remarkably, two of these results have come when Emily has run ‘year-young’. Emily’s reward was England selection for a third consecutive year. She’s heading off to Dublin to take part in a home international. Who else from Dorset could we get Dublin-bound? We didn’t have to wait long to find out.
In the Junior Boys’ race ‘year young’ Will Rabjohns fought his way through the field to claim fifth and earn his first England call up. This race produced the finest Dorset team result of the day. Our boys came fifth. Put into perspective, with the first six runners counting, Dorset were just six points behind London! This is what you call punching above your weight!! To achieve a team score like that everyone has to contribute. Harry Pleydel-Bouverie, Ed Bird and Archie Coates all came in the top 60. Owen Pitcher’s 81st was another memorable performance, he’d only secured the final qualifying spot at King’s Park! Robbie Foster and Mark Ruby kept each other honest all the way to the line, where they were separated by a single second. WAC’s Tristan Green was last of the team home … and he had more than 100 finishers behind him! That’s surely an indication of how good the overall team performance was! At the finish Will Rabjohns was called up for the presentations and then guided into the International tent. An England debut for Will beckons. Dublin here we come!
The Junior Girls race saw the third successive race of the day where the county team was led home by a year-young runner, in this case Darcy Dryden. Four of the next five were from Wimborne AC, with Hebe Hunter second and Iris Courtney third Dorset. This replicated the top three at the Dorset Schools XC Championships at King’s Park in January. Birdie Payne was the most upwardly mobile of the Dorset girls from pen position, but it was extraordinary how close together our final five finishers were – Birdie was two seconds ahead of both Clemmie Crossthwaite-Eyre and Sarah Graham, four seconds ahead of Alice Olliffe-Lee and only 11 seconds ahead of Alice De Pelet!
Five of the eight Inter Boys were WACers, with Tom Fuller leading the team home. He had to work hard to be first Dorset in however, as Zac Cloete kept in close company until the end. The surprise package from this team was Jamie Barrington. Jamie was called up off the reserves list, he most certainly took advantage of the opportunity once it had presented itself. It’s extraordinary that when there are hundreds of runners in a race that team-mates seem to come in clusters. Jamie was within three seconds of three Dorset vests (all WAC). In close succession were Seth Lake, Ben Martin and Joel Green. Next home was Charlie Davies. His participation in this event was put under threat when he contracted a chest infection which led to his withdrawal from the Dorset team at the previous week’s Inter-Counties Championships. He was back for this one, but not yet fully up to speed. Completing the team was Jackson Kennett who along with his fellow Canfordian Jamie, was called up from the reserves, and made his XC county debut.
Charlie Davies wasn’t the only one to withdraw from the Inter-Counties Championships the previous weekend in a bid to be fit for English Schools. Maddy Johnson was nursing a sore Achilles, and it was touch and go whether she would be able to take part. Happily Maddy was there, and she led the Dorset Senior Girls team home. The first four in this age-group – Maddy, Beth Kingswell-Farr, Martha Pawson and Amy Mercer – were all from different schools, but all Wimborne AC athletes. Once again we had another cluster of finishers. Amy was only two seconds up on Ines Mitchell, Ines was five seconds ahead of Niamh Carey with Anna Kelliher six seconds away and Izzie Watkins a further four back! Also, putting in a very impressive performance for Wiltshire, was second-claim WACer Alice Sullivan. Alice was 92nd with a time of 17:02.
The final race of the day was the Senior Boys. With near constant rain all day and hundreds of athletes already having competed multiple laps you can just imagine how the course was bearing up! So off to the start line our final eight athletes headed. We’d fielded full teams in every age-group, and all had returned safely. County Champion Ben Lewis got the job done and led our team home. The eye-catching performance in this age-group came from Dan Baynham. Even though this hilly course suited Dan’s high cadence, short stride style the result he recorded was a massive step up from his Inter-Counties race the weekend before. The Dorset cluster happened again here. Charlie Bird, Chet Gillespie and Harry Heffer were all within six seconds of each other. Then we had Nat Willmore and Michael Johnson cross the line five seconds apart. For Michael it was his sixth successive year representing Dorset at English Schools XC, some achievement. As the green vest of Josh Davey crossed the line, the racing was done for another year.
That brings to a close Dorset English Schools campaign in 2019. Third for Emily Shaw is the best individual performance we’ve seen from a Dorset athlete for many years, and to have Will Rabjohns in fifth too, and the pair of them representing England in Ireland this coming weekend is fabulous.
With the racing done, the team tent was dismantled and we made the long trip home. Almost the entire team travelled together and stayed in the same hotel. This makes a huge difference to the feeling of team togetherness. The mutual support our young athletes give each other lessens pre-race nerves and allows each of them to be their best. The conduct of our young team was exemplary without exception. It’s music to the Dorset team managers’ ears to hear the hotel singing the praises of this squad of 40-odd young athletes from Dorset.
Much valuable experience has been gained, some will no doubt be put to good use at next year’s English Schools Championships in Liverpool.