Having placed third in the national long run at Knole Park at the start of term, there was real optimism going into the annual Coventry Relays, effectively the national schools' relay event, and certainly the most significant event on the schools' running calendar. Past athletes at the event have included Seb Coe, and World Triathlon Champion Jon Brownlee, and the standard is always extremely high. The Hunt have twice taken the national title - in 1995 and 1996, though we have not placed within the top three in the past 10 years. However, as the race programme intimated, our recent rise up the placings in the past few years was "ominous". Indeed, having placed 24th in 2009, we won the John Vickers Cup for Most Improved Team in 2010 having risen to 11th, then last year (despite being without Huntsman Cal Winwood), we placed 6th, the first time since 2003 that we had featured amongst the top 10 schools.
In what is a large-scale relay event (indeed over 50 six-man relay squads compete in the boys' race, with a total of over 300 runners), it is always important to secure a solid start, and we knew we could rely on 5th form speedster Otto Clarke to get us out of trouble early on. A 12.37 leg for the 2.3 mile course was pretty much bang on what we had asked him to do, and though we were only in 8th position after the first leg, this was to be expected, with many teams placing their top runners first and second if they do not possess a consistently strong squad. Indeed, at the close of the first leg, past-winners Manchester Grammar School were in the lead, though later they would fade to 7th overall, and they were tailed by QEGS Penrith, who could not match their strong opening leg and faded to 22nd. Our second leg runner - Senior Whip Tom Cousins - ran a similarly solid 12.39, and despite dropping down to 9th position during his leg, by the close of his lap he was able to regain position. Our tactics were to attack hard in the middle of the race and follow it up with a strong final lap, and it was during the course of the third lap that our strength in depth began to show. Seb Blake ran a blinding 12.08 lap (narrowly just outside the top 10 times for the day out of all athletes), and with typical boldness, he picked off the athletes one by one, eventually taking us through the middle stage of the course into 3rd position, our target placing for this year. We had spoken for many weeks about our prospects of reaching the top three and medalling at the event, and having done our research into our competitors, we were sure we had the quality and depth to achieve this.
Indeed, over the course of the fourth lap, despite facing pressure from Manchester Grammar's Ryan Ganose, Huntsman George Mallett broke the 12-minute barrier with an impressive 11.53, which we would later learn was the joint third fastest time of the day (with only seven athletes dipping under 12 minutes). We held position in 3rd, and handed over to 5th former Rory Fraser, who had been briefed the previous evening at our pre-race pasta dinner about his role in the squad. We thought we would be in touching distance of St Albans who by this point were in 2nd position behind Judd, leaders of the race since lap two and eventual winners. Rory's task was not only to hold position but to try and keep us within sight of St Albans, who we believed were beatable, despite their squad having been selected to represent England U16 at the World Schools' in Malta later this year. Rory ran a hard 12.27, which was important as it was three seconds quicker than the St Albans runner. And so Ed Mallett took over in the final leg, with a distance of 20 seconds between the two teams, but certainly still in sight. Despite being up against St Alban's Joe Redwood (winner of the 2011 King's Cup in Wimbledon), Ed was determined to run the race of his life and try and do all he could to close the gap. As the two runners approached 'The Garden Section' of the course with just over 1.5km to go, Ed had unbelievably closed the gap to a mere matter of seconds, prompting Hunt coaches PJM, IPH and OKT to (almost) lose composure completely in their excitement! Later, Ed would reflect that it was at this moment in the leg that he knew he could take Redwood, and to do so, he knew he would have to kick hard for 20-30m to get past him and put distance between them. That he did, and as he sprinted down the final section and towards the finish in Memorial Park, the result was not in doubt, and Ed eventually finished 10 seconds ahead of St Albans, turning over the 20 second deficit, and in the process running the second-fastest leg of all athletes on the day, an incredible 11.49, improving over 1 minute 20 seconds on his time from last year. In the end, despite their lead of over a minute and a half in the opening stages, the gap between Shrewsbury and winners Judd was a mere 30 seconds.
Next year (6th February 2013), it is our belief that we can challenge to take the National title for the first time in 17 years. Whilst we will lose both George Mallett and Tom Cousins, we need only look at our 'B' team's fabulous 12th position at the relays to see the depth coming through. It was only two years ago that our 'A' team placed 11th, so this result was almost as impressive as our 2nd place, with the team (3rd former Oscar Dickins, Junior Whip Will Spencer Jones; George Nugee; Ed Lloyd; Angus Hayward; and Toby Lansdell) beating over 20 schools' 'A' teams, including past winners St Anselm's and King Henry VIII.
Further encouragement came from the girls' team of Becky Home, Imola Atkins, Libby Naylor and Anna Thompson, who were hoping to build on their excellent performance at January's Knole Run. Following a solid opening lap of 16.44 from Becky Home, Imola Atkins's time of 15.37 pushed the team up the placings, and following further strong performances from Libby Naylor and Anna Thompson (17.47 and 15.46 respectively), the Hunt came home in 15th place overall out of 28 teams, an excellent achievement, particularly since last year we placed 24th. There is a really strong sense of cohesion within the group, and they go into Saturday's County Championships full of optimism as we attempt to take the team trophy there for the very first time.
BOYS' TEAM RESULTS (out of 51 teams):
1st Judd 73.01
2nd Shrewsbury School 73.33
3rd St Albans School 73.43
4th Sedbergh School 76.20
5th Abingdon 76.26
12th Shrewsbury School 'B' 79.02
GIRLS' TEAM RESULTS (out of 28 teams):
1st Loreto Grammar School 58.21
2nd Loughborugh High School 58.22
3rd St Aidan's School 59.45
15th Shrewsbury School 65.54
INDIVIDUAL FASTEST TIMES (out of 306 runners):
1st Tom Purnell (Marling School) 10.56
2nd Ed Mallett (Shrewsbury School) 11.49
3rd=George Mallett (Shrewsbury School) 11.53
3rd=Ryan Ganose (Manchester Grammar) 11.53
3rd=Beau Smith (Lancaster Grammar) 11.53
6th= Adam Thorpe (St Albans) 11.59
6th= Robbie Lightowler (St Albans) 11.59
8th= Alistair Duff (Abingdon) 12.02
8th= Alex King (The Judd School) 12.02
10th Tom Devlin (The Judd School) 12.03