This is cross-country for the purists; the boys complete a course of 5.8 miles of hilly and muddy terrain, challenging descents and long straights along the valley floor, while the girls race over a shorter version of the same route. Attracting some of the best school cross-country teams in the country, it is a highly competitive event which has always been a real highlight in the Hunt’s calendar.
Having travelled down the night before in order to be rested and fully prepared, we made our way to Knole Park in plenty of time to walk the course. Conditions were brightening, but a heavy fog still lingered at midday and the ground was soggy from the previous day’s rain. This made for a treacherous start, with lots of slippery mud leading up to the first bend. Having seen the rest of the course though, our runners were able to quell the nerves, knowing what lay in store.
The girls were first up and looked confident on the start line waiting for the gun. Iris D (G, LVI) and our Huntswoman Sophia U (EDH, LVI) got away well, Iris sticking to her gameplan of getting herself somewhere near the front and biding her time. Sophia found herself well up the field as well, with Millie B (MSH, III), Eva H (G, LVI), Ellie L (MSH, V) and Anna B (EDH, LVI) all striving for position around the middle of the pack. It would be our first four finishers to score, so the girls knew they had to fight for every place.
As they headed back down the valley after a big loop at the top of the park, Iris was in an ideal position heading into the last kilometre – just on the shoulder of the leading runner from Magdalen College School, and looking comfortable. Sophia was more isolated, too far back from the position ahead of her to make much of an impact, but defending well from the many runners trying to gain on her further back. Meanwhile, Millie was showing what huge potential she has in this sport; though only a 3rd former, she was in the top thirty positions and gaining on those in front of her! Our remaining runners – Anna, Eva and Ellie – were all packing in well among the next few positions so as a team we were looking very strong.
At the finish, Iris had given everything but the winner was just too strong for her going up the final hill. Nevertheless, a silver medal in a race of this quality is a tremendous achievement and she was rightly proud of how she’d performed. Sophia held on for a terrific 9th place, in what was certainly her best-ever performance in a Hunt vest. Millie – one of the youngest in the field – placed 26th, with Anna a few seconds behind in 28th, completing a team score of 65. Eva and Ellie also ran extremely well, placing 31st and 32nd respectively.
In the boys’ race, it was a quick start despite the slippery terrain, but Kristian T (I, LVI ) and Harry P-M (I, IV) both got away very well in the opening straight, though Harry fell at the first corner and had to pick his way back up through the field. Harrison C (R, UVI) was also a strong starter, and as they began their ascent of the first hill, we looked to be in a strong position. The Hunt were also able to take a very competitive B team to this race, though it was very young – all but one of the team were in the 3rd and 4th form. Nevertheless they got stuck in well to the first climb and were right up amongst the middle positions.
At the end of the first lap, about three miles in, a leading pair from Abingdon had stretched away from the chasing pack. Kristian found himself in a strong position in fourth, with third place still in touch. Harrison was a little further back in around 13th and had places ahead of him to chase, while Brad K (R,V), Jonny P (I, UVI) and Jack K (PH, IV) were all reasonably close to each other around 20th-30th position. Harry had still not quite recovered from his fall and was perhaps also feeling tired from a very busy week involving competitive skiing in the Alps and an important cup fixture for the U15A football team the day before! He was back in around 40th place, with Hamish G (PH, V) and Archie T (Rt, V) a further ten or so places back. From the B team, Johnnie T (Ch, III) was having a storming race, coming through the pack very nicely from the second half of the field and looking very strong. Dom W (Rb, IV) was also running well and keeping in touch of our lowest-placed A team runners. A little further back, 3rd formers Will R (O), Zac W (Rb) and Alex M (Rb) were all running superbly, along with 5th former Massimo W (PH), Ben O (PH) and Archie P-S (Rb).
With one kilometre to go, Kristian was doing everything he could to chase down third place, but he was too strong and Kristian finished a valiant fourth. Harrison finished well having battled amongst a small pack of runners for 12th place. Brad had slipped back a few places but recovered well to hold on for 26th, just behind Huntsman Jonny in 25th. Jack, running a very different sort of race from his favoured 800m on the track, stayed strong for 29th, while Harry picked up a couple of places in the final kilometre for 37th, completing a team score of 133 points. Our last two A team runners were Archie T in 42nd and Hamish G in 49th, both putting in very good performances. The story of the day, though, came from the B team, with young Johnnie placing an astonishing 21st! He got better and better as the race went on, and probably would have picked up more places had the race been any longer. I very rarely select third formers in our Knole teams, such is the gruelling nature of the race, but we have a fine bunch of strong runners this year and this run from Johnnie epitomised that beautifully. Dom also ran a fantastic race to come 45th, with Zac next in 61st, Will in 64th, and Alex in 66th. Massimo placed a very creditable 75th, with Ben a little further back in 87th and Archie P-S just missing out on the top hundred with 101st place.
And so to the results. With very tired legs, the teams trundled back up the hill to one of the chilly courtyards of Sevenoaks School, where we all gathered impatiently to find out how well we’d done. The girls were surprised and delighted to hear that they’d finished second overall. This is a truly momentous achievement for girls’ running at Shrewsbury, and represents by some distance our best-ever girls’ team performance. Having two runners inside the top ten finishers certainly helped, but we really relied on the depth provided by all four other runners in gaining this podium spot, beating third-placed Cranbrook by only five points. We’ve got a little way to go to catch up with the overall winners Highgate, but with the talented young runners coming through for us, the future is certainly very bright.
The boys’ winning teams were announced next, and though we were certain we hadn’t won it – The Judd School once again claiming a convincing victory, their fourth in a row – we knew we were in amongst the next schools down and that it would be a close-run thing. In the event, we placed third, which we were very happy with. Only two places behind second-placed Harrow, we were left to dwell a little on a bit of a missed opportunity, but the boys knew they’d given everything they could and as a coach I couldn’t be prouder of them. The B team were also very happy, placing a remarkable 7th overall – which I believe might be our best-ever B team performance, and considering that it’s also the youngest B team we’ve ever taken, that’s quite something!
It was a tired but elated bunch of runners that made it back up the M40 and home that Saturday evening. A historic two team podium finishes, and an individual silver for Iris, made it a very special day. We now prepare for our next big challenge – the King Henry VIII Relays at Coventry in early February – with real confidence and anticipation.
Master i/c RSSH