GVH Women at the Double

There was a slightly curious piece of scheduling over the weekend of 10th / 11th February as the final Chiltern League Cross Country fixture of the season took place in Oxford on Saturday while the February club league race took place on Sunday at the Love Welwyn 10k.

Fortunately, GVH had built up a large cushion over their relegation rivals at the last fixture in Watford as the proximity to most of our homes no doubt contributed to the largest attendance of the year for GVH. It is also possible that the unseasonably clement weather in Watford also tipped the balance for some people. There was accordingly a degree of scepticism over our ability to raise as strong a team for the final fixture being as it was in Oxford, the longest journey of the season, and following on from a week of almost constant rain.

Personally, I was surprised not to see Steve Newing as I rarely remember him ever missing one since I have been a member of the club. I was therefore very surprised to hear that Steve was planning not to take part because he was “saving himself for his marathon”. I’ve never before heard of anybody needing a full two months or more to recover from a 9k cross country race so this has to go alongside Andy Law’s “planned hangover” excuse back in December into the pantheon of poor excuses not to support the club.

In any case, the men’s race got underway at 1:30, half an hour earlier than is normally the case. 10 minutes or so before the start time we lined up for what was the sparsest cross country team photo in recent memory (only the second time in my 8 years of cross country competing that we’ve failed to raise a full team of 10, both coming this season), with only 7 of us on show. Head coach Ed Price’s later Strava comment summed up the mood pretty well when he said, “I may be slow but at least I turned up!”

The only 7 that made the start

After the photo we made our way with trepidation to the large field which contained the start and finish. As would normally be the case we proceeded to attempt a warm up jog, choosing to run away from the start towards the infamous Shotover Hill, around 500m distant beyond the end of the field. After about 100m of running, however, we realised that a “warm-up” would prove fairly futile as our feet were sinking into the mud about halfway up to our knees. The warm up was thus replaced with a game of “shall we see if we can find any solid ground to run on when the race starts?” (spoiler alert: we couldn’t, there wasn’t any).

Matt was already changed, so he took the dirty photo

In previous years, the hard part of the Oxford course has always been the very long (just over 1km) and very steep hill. Traditionally the men climb the hill twice and the women’s race only takes in one lap. This year, for reasons unknown, this pattern was abandoned with the women also having a two lap course, but which did not climb up the hill. Some of the women were relieved to avoid the hill but others were disappointed with the change, preferring a single long lap over two “shorter and more boring” laps. 

After completing one lap and having run across the entirety of the main start / finish field once, at the end of lap one and the start of lap two, it was clear in the minds of the men that, our expectations about difficulty were mixed up. The extreme bogginess of the field was in stark contrast to the mainly firm footing of the climb, meaning that climbing the hill in fact gave respite from the slog through the calf deep mud. Thus, if the reason for the change to the women’s course was to make it easier, it completely failed.

The clean ladies team

Having reached the top of the hill, and traversed the ridge, the men’s long lap descended at speed through relatively firm paths to Brasenose Wood, at the bottom. In more “normal” times, there has been the odd area of standing water and mud in this wooded area but this time it could only be described as a series of very muddy rivers linking several ponds of various sizes leading to a field (previously mentioned) that resembled one of those pictures you see of the aftermath of the fighting on the Somme.

A group of shellshocked survivors after the Somme

In short, it was the hardest cross country race most of us have ever encountered. Whilst most of the elements of the challenge have been present at times in various races, it has never been so concentrated or so all encompassing. When a 50% climb of over 1km duration offers respite, it is pretty clear that you aren’t going to have a great time on the flat parts of the course. Men’s captain Andy Wells summed it up by saying that it was drier than the last time he’d gone swimming.

Concentrate on running, don’t look at the photographer!

After the 7 men set off, they quickly established a familiar pattern. Matt Ashby finished first for GVH, in 21st position, picking up a mighty 194 points. Matt was just under 6½ minutes ahead of Tom Evans, who continued to show that he is a valuable addition to the club. Tom scored 106 points. Not far behind Tom was James Birnie, he struggled over the last 100 metres or so, somehow managing to find even less purchase on the sodden ground than those around him. Afterwards, the only explanation given was that “I could barely move, 4 people literally outwalked me to the line!” James picked up 98 points.

Annoyingly, he still made it look easy

Andy Wells wasn’t far behind James, who had overtaken Andy about halfway through the second lap, on the flat part of the course at the top of Shotover Hill, the only part of the course that allowed any momentum to build. Andy was only 25 seconds, and 5 places, behind James. Next across the line for the club was Roly Kendall, he picked up 55 points, having found the going particularly hard, being as he is, around 12 inches taller, and heavier, and more sinky in the mud, than most. Roland shared the distinction with James of being the only GVH men to compete in all 5 Chiltern League fixtures this year.

It wasn’t fun but, weirdly, I enjoyed it

Jono Marval and Ed Price weren’t far apart when they crossed the line, with Jono scoring 39 points and Ed Price scoring 34. As the GVH Oxford 7 gathered covered in mud to debrief the race, one final surprise was in store as we noticed that Simon Morris had entered the finish funnel a minute or so behind Ed. None of us had seen him before the race and he confirmed that he had arrived at the start line after the entire field had already left the massive field through the gate in the far corner. 

Simon confirmed that it was only when he had ascended Shotover Hill the first time that he finally caught the backmarker and started to make up ground on the rest. Naturally we wondered if the earlier start had caught Simon out, this being his first season competing for GVH in the Chiltern League. It turned out that this wasn’t the case as Simon admitted that he had been watching “Six Nations: Full Contact” on TV (a program about rugby, Ed told me) and had simply left his house too late as a result. Almost, but not quite, up there with Steve Newing’s excuse.

The points go on chip time, right???

And so to the women’s race. Unlike the men they had plenty of runners, 13 to be exact. So there were more GVH women than men for the 4th out of 5 cross country fixtures this season. Also, similar to other races, although only 6 women score points for the club, every member of the women’s team took points from other clubs by outsourcing at least one scoring runner and every member of our team would have scored points for at least 6 other teams, including Marshall Milton Keynes who were the overall league winners, but only mustered 5 senior women on the day.

Another making it look easy

Heather Timmis was the first GVH woman across the line. She finished in 13th place overall, fully 2½ minutes ahead of Teresa Reason. I didn’t get back to the big field in time to see the ladies’ team finish their first lap (Will’s buggy was very hard going through the mud) but I was told that Teresa had lost a shoe. When she came into view she was still only wearing one shoe, carrying the other. I didn’t manage to speak to her after the race so I’m not sure if she tried to get the shoe back on and failed, or just gave it up as a bad idea. I’m sure she must have been tempted to just give up the race at the point when she went shoeless. Heather scooped 116 points and Teresa bagged 88.

Teresa is the lady in the foreground carrying a shoe

Club legend, and recent entrant into the Specsavers Hall of Fame, Vicky Crawley Wise was next to finish for GVH. She wasn’t far behind Teresa and picked up 80 points. Women’s captain Kim Morgan finished the season strongly, finishing in 60th place and collecting 69 points. Only 9 seconds behind Kim was club legend Claire McDonnell, she scored 66 points. The final scorer for GVH on the day was Ines Trent. This was the first time Ines has scored points for the club in Cross Country and is a tangible reward for all her hard work over many months.

Lost your glasses in the mud?

Jenny Stubberfield was next to finish for GVH, only 15 seconds and 2 places ahead of Robin Lower. Katie Ellis was next, just ahead of Kitty Cole and Susie Ivin who finished only a second apart. Anita Fenoughty and Mary McCluskey completed the lineup for GVH on the day. 

Teresa is the lady with “Teresa” written on her vest

Of the women, 4 completed every cross country race: Vicky, Claire, Katie and Mary. It would be unfair not to mention that Kim Morgan also attended, and started, every race but was unable to finish the race at Teardrop Lakes because of injury. I’m not sure if that counts or not, I guess we’ll ask the captain.

It was close but the conditions prevented any notion of a “sprint” finish

Reaction of the day at Oxford came from Katie Ellis who screamed and hugged me when she found out that the tiffin had branched out into vegan territory for the first time ever. I wasn’t sure how it would turn out, so I made a small batch alongside the real batch. Katie’s comment (when she had calmed down) was to say that, “for months I’ve looked at everybody eating that stuff and got SO jealous! Thank you so much!” For me this was an unexpected bonus as I’d just responded to several passive aggressive requests for “dairy free” from Vicky (I now know if I told her there was no milk in it, she wouldn’t be able to see the difference anyway).

Just like running through molten vegan chocolate

As ever the cross country races were great fun and hopefully we’ll have even more taking part next year. Despite criticising the turnout from the GVH men on the final day, it is worth noting that Watford Harriers, who obviously benefitted from a “home” fixture last time out, only managed to field 3 senior men and 2 senior women. The relative poverty of the Watford team enabled GVH to gain 373 on them and leap above them into 12th place in the final table. After the chaos of the Battle of Teardrop Lakes and the devastation that wrought on the league committee, it isn’t clear how many teams will get relegated, but we are pretty certain we aren’t one of them, so we are looking forward to yet another season in division one of the Chiltern League (if there is anybody left to organise it come October).

On Sunday the Love Welwyn 10k race formed the February round of the club league. I had been sharpening my virtual pen to heavily criticise any cross country regulars that failed to get to Oxford but showed their faces in Welwyn. I had intended to be particular scathing on Steve who, after “saving himself for the marathon” that was still 11 weeks away, ran a parkrun in under 20 minutes on Saturday.

Slightly disappointingly from a literature perspective, the proximity of the league race to the cross country did not seem relevant to the attendance at the latter. There were two men in attendance, Guy Wollett and Vince Ellerby, neither of whom is a regular cross country competitor in recent years, and 3 women, all of whom were doubling up, having raced at Oxford on Saturday. There was a slight curiosity, and perhaps the hidden hand of Steve Newing at play, as all were running for Gade Valley Hairiers. The net is perhaps closing on the Hairy culprit.

The Hairiers at Welwyn

Guy Woollett was the first to finish for GVH. He clocked 40:38, finished 11th overall and was 2nd in his age category. Vince was next home in 43:15, also second in his age category. Kim Morgan was first lady home for the club, in 46:23, 4th lady overall. She had decided to take it easy as she and Ines had planned a 20km “warmdown” run after the race. She did live to regret that decision as her time wasn’t far off a podium position. She was quicker on chip time than the 4th placed lady and within a minute of the final podium place. Ines Trent was next for GVH, achieving yet another PB of 55:27. Mary McCluskey was third home for GVH ladies, achieving her best 10k time for a long while, 59:03.

She takes her own PB bell to races now