Following their best performance at the Coventry national relays since 1998 with a second place on Wednesday, the Hunt went into Saturday's County Championships brimming with confidence, and looking to defend their Senior and Intermediate Boys titles, and hopefully challenge for the Junior Boys and Senior Girls trophies as well. Despite the cold weather, over 20 Hunt athletes took to the start-line of the various races at Oswestry, with a number of other Hunt athletes due to compete in a Midlands League fixture in Worksop.
In the first race of the day, our Intermediate boys packed in well in the opening stages, with Rory Fraser, Otto Clarke and Toby Lansdell all tucking in to the lead pack. The pace was relatively conservative, with none of the runners prepared to push on the pace in the opening lap of the race. Indeed, these were the tactics for our lead runners, who were instructed to take things easy in the first lap then push hard in the final lap. An earlier than expected challenge was mounted, however, by the 2010 Junior Boys' Champion Ben Ashcroft from The Grange, though Rory Fraser sensed the danger and kept on Ashcroft's heels. Going into the final lap, Rory pushed hard and secured a lead, eventually finishing the race in some style with a win by a comfortable margin, winning the championship individual title and following in the footsteps of last year's winner Ed Mallett (and becoming only the third ever Hunt runner to have won the county champs in this age-group since the competition was begun in 1978). With Otto Clarke coming home in 3rd, Toby Lansdell just outside the medals in 4th, and final 'counter' Angus Hayward in 13th, the team total of 21 points was more than enough to win the trophy for the third year running, the 16th time in 34 years the Hunt have brought the title home. Fraser, Clarke and Lansdell have all earned county selection for the Nationals on the back of their performance.
In the Senior Girls' race, we brought a quartet whom we believed could really challenge this year in a championship race that we have never won since entering it in 2010. However, following a strong performance at the national relays mid-week, the squad spirit amongst the girls was running high, and there was real confidence in them all. The race proved an exciting affair, with our girls starting the race modestly, but over the course of the distance, their training kicked in and their superior stamina told. Imola Atkins pushed through the field, and despite being off the pace in the first lap, she eventually ran through the positions to take home the individual bronze medal, adding to the silver she won last year. However, this year, Imola was backed up by a talented group of L6th formers, and with Anna Thompson coming home in 4th, Becky Home in 5th, and Libby Naylor in 6th, our team total was convincing and meant that for the very first time, the girls lifted the Senior Girls' County Championship trophy, a proud day for all concerned, and a significant and historic one, for this was the very first trophy won by the Girls' Hunt - the first of many we hope! All four girls will travel to the Nationals in March at Taunton as part of the Shropshire team.
With two trophies already won, our talented Seniors took to the field knowing that the squad was a strong one, despite being without Huntsman George Mallett (the 2011 individual County Champion), who was left at home struggling with an injury. Tactically, we were hoping for a similar race to the Intermediate boys, but Ed Mallett found himself breaking free in the opening stages and pushed clear of the lead pack, isolating himself as a front-runner. It was a move that would later cause problems, for in the second lap, Ed was chased down by last year's silver medalist Ryan Heath from Telford AC, who strode past him and took a lead of around 15m. Yet Ed did not give up, and in a spirited fight back, by the time the runners moved into the final lap, Ed was within 5m of Heath, eventually pulling past him and restoring his early lead. By the close of the race, the distance between the two was significant, possibly as much as 200m, and Ed was able to come home as Senior County Champion, a title he will be able to defend next year. He follows in the footsteps of not only his elder brother George, but five other Hunt individual champions at this level, including Tim Bedell in the very first championships in 1978. In the team event, Ed's performance was matched by a very impressive bronze-medal from the rapidly-improving Seb Blake, 5th place for Tom Cousins, and 6th place for Ed Lloyd. A score of 15 (10 points is the 'perfect score') meant that the Hunt easily retained the team trophy for the third year running, and all four 'counters' have earned county-selection for the Nationals.
In the final race of the day, the Junior Boys took as strong a squad as we have had in a number of years, and it was our hope that they would return the trophy that we last won in 2009, and come home with the fourth trophy of the day. We weren't to be disappointed, with New Boys' Race winner Oscar Dickins in fine form, coming over the finish line in 4th place in what was a very talented field (including winner of Shrewsbury Schools' recent Prep Schools' XC Champs, Packwood's Freddie Fielding- very much a star of the future!). Our four counters came home with an impressive score of 29, with Oscar's performance added to by Tom Sykes in 6th, 9th place for Gene Ratanadaros, and Barnaby Seager in 10th place. The fourth trophy of the day was won by our Junior Boys, making this an historic clean-sweep of trophies! Both Oscar and Tom will join the twelve other Hunt runners who have been selected for the Nationals, and we look forward to seeing some strong performances from them all.
PJM, February, 2012