Record Numbers at the National
The skies were blue overhead and there was little wind blowing across Hampstead Heath on Saturday, but a layer of overnight snow was still present on the ground for the early risers to see around the North London park. It didn't last long, and for the 5000 athletes making their way to London it was just that little bit more water to add to the quagmire like conditions that were developing on the heath.
There was a decent contingent of runners and supporters from Leighton who travelled by various means for the iconic race around the fields of Parliament Hill. It has been noted by cross-country officials that the last couple of years has seen a resurgence in cross-country running with leagues and big championship races getting record numbers and this combined with the good weather on the day meant that over 5000 people took part all told.
By far the largest race of the day was the senior men, which for the first time since Noah was a boy had over 2000 runners complete the 7 miles slog around the far flung corners of the heath. It makes a refreshing change that the course is only two laps, as the vast majority of cross-countries for the men are three these days. The problem with having such a large field is the beginning, as the start line is about 100m wide but at the top of the first hill 400m in you are down to about 7m width. As a result, anyone that isn't right at the front was slowed to a walk before the first corner.
Once the first couple of corners were negotiated there was a little bit of space to pick a line through the increasing depths of mud, even if it didn't really thin out until 2-3 miles into the race. Everyone was in the same position regarding the conditions and numbers, it was really just a case of how you dealt with it. From a Leighton perspective, no-one had gone off too fast and so each of us had one eye on the teammate in front for a while and there was a little bit of chopping changing as Ian Grimshaw briefly overtook Pete Mack.
The thing about the national is that it's relentless as there is an equal spread of up, down and flat, but it seems that all of the flat bits are where the most mud is, so there is no opportunity to settle into your stride and relax a little. Andy had the most dramatic run of the day as he noticed that he was starting to gain on Ian at the beginning of lap two and with 1.5 miles to go had got to within 10 yards, but then just overstretched when trying to cross one of the footpaths and ended up sliding on his side in the mud whilst emitting various expletives!
Meanwhile up ahead Pete was trying his best to sneak up on Simon Coombes (who was in his Herne Hill vest) but once again Simon sensed the danger and just had the energy to get a ten second gap and finish in 46 minutes while Pete's 258th represented his best ever position and completed another full season of 8 cross-countries for the club and his fifth consecutive National. After his fall, Andy seemed to have a burst of adrenaline and so refocused on his efforts to catch Ian who was on his debut in the National champs and running on espresso power after his pre-race coffee that worked so well the previous week. Dripping with mud and a dribble of blood Andy caught Ian with 600m to go and just stayed ahead as they finished seven seconds apart, both very pleased with their efforts in 321st and 331st respectively and a minute behind Pete.
Also making his national debut was Adam Haylock, who had experienced Parliament Hills in the Southerns last year but not quite the scale of this event. He had a solid run round to just get into the top third of the field in 650th place and 51 minutes. Our new club captain, James, was also making his debut at the event and seemed to enjoy the challenge as he waved at a couple of cameras on route, although he did have to work hard to keep Warren at bay as he came home just 30 seconds behind as they both narrowly missed out on the top half.
Nick Clay was relieved that he was the 7th runner on the day as there was reduced pressure on the team competition but he ran strongly to complete his first national since the infamous Alton Towers event of 2011. All of these efforts meant that the team finished 55th out of 145 on the day, which is our best ever result – at least in the last 20 years. For the first ever we also had three runners in the top 20% of the field.
From a Leighton perspective, the women's race didn't really go as planned with only one of the three women in attendance making the start line! Amy was that solo runner and she had a decent run, but did feel she could have gone a little quicker over the five mile course as she finished in 219th out of 865 finishers.
In the U13 age group we managed to get four girls and two boys out on the course with most of them a year young in the age group. The boys race saw Dom Grimshaw come home just under 15 minutes for 233rd with Scott Towell less than a minute behind in 319th. They certainly pack in quickly in the youngest races with 200 lads finishing in 2 minutes in the middle!
The U13 girls saw Sadie Towell and Ellie Rabbits have a battle for most of the race with Ellie just getting ahead of her teammate by 8 seconds in the end. Chloe may and McKenna Keefe also gave great support to the club by successfully completing the course ahead of a lot of other runners and closed out our team of four, which no other age-group managed.
All three of our junior men journied down to London for the race and were met with a tough 10K course that is somewhat further than they usually run. Jordan didn't quite get up to his level of the Chiltern leagues but did break 40 minutes in the mud to take 110th. Billy was not far behind in just over 41 minutes to finish 136th, with Charlie looking like he might get him worried on the first lap before coming home another 90 seconds further back in 155th.
Our final two competitors have been real stalwarts for the club over a few years now, and once again represented the club excellently in the U15 girls race. Megan Westrope has done all of the races this season and despite falling on one of the very slippery parts of the course still finished the race ahead of a number of other competitors. Sarah Plummer is excelling at the moment with some really good training on a Monday night and looked very strong on Saturday as she came home in the top 200 of a field of nearly 400.
There should also be many thanks to Dave Adams, Pete Watkins & Chris Norman for coming down to support us all on in the various races as well as Richard & Lesley who were there in an official capacity and Fi Towell & Katie Haylock who ended up supporting rather than running!
All in all it was a good day out to close the season for most of the runners with some really solid performances across the board. The race will be somewhere up north next year where we have struggled to get participants in the past, but it really is an experience so I would wholeheartedly encourage you to consider a trip. At the very least, the Southern champs will probably revisit Hampstead Heath in January so get your name down for that.