On Saturday we took two boys' teams and one girls’ team down to Sevenoaks for the Knole Run, one of the biggest races in the cross-country calendar. The Friday night coach down was full of nerves, but the luxury of having a relaxing morning to prepare quietly in the glamorous surroundings of Clacket Lane Services worked wonders for team spirits!
This is a race that we had failed to win for over 40 years – until 2016, when we finally managed it by a margin of a single point. The following year we successfully defended the trophy, but last year we struggled, with a number of injuries and other problems, eventually placing fourth. The girls, meanwhile, managed their highest-ever placing last year with fifth. The signs were good that this year we might have more success among the boys. The training in the Michaelmas Term allowed them to build up their fitness gradually, and we had no injuries to report as the team reconvened after the holidays for our pre-season training camp in the southern Shropshire Hills.
Conditions were perfect as we inspected the course two hours before the off. Temperatures were remarkably mild for mid-January, there was only the faintest of breezes, and the going was firm. It would undoubtedly be a quick race.
The girls were without their fastest runner, Francesca Harris, due to injury, but there was still a sense of quiet confidence and determination among this team. The got away well, and quickly Lillian Wilcox (EDH) established herself in a strong position. Alessandra Ardissino (M) was not much further back, just ahead of Sophia Dixon and Anna Cowan (both MSH) who were working together. Huntswoman Felicity Hayward (EDH) ploughed on in the middle of the pack, a little way ahead of our sixth runner, Izzy Anwyl (M).
The girls seem to have got their pacing right, as they picked up one or two places in the second half of the race as others began to tire. As the 5km course reached its climax past Knole House and down to the finish, Shrewsbury were in strong positions: Lillian ran very strongly indeed to place 22nd, ahead of Alessandra in 28th. Sophia placed 37th, having just stretched ahead of Anna in 40th. Felicity managed to improve on last year's run by knocking over two minutes off her time, placing 57th (last year 85th) and Izzy Anwyl completed the team in 71st. The girls fought hard to earn their 6th place overall out of 14 teams, and managed in doing so to beat their points score from last year for the first four finishers.
For the boys, discussion of tactics had been a key part of the preparation for this race, having got it wrong last year by going out too strongly and paying the price late on over this gruelling 9.3km course. The plan was simply conceived, but difficult to execute: hold back in the first half of the race, allowing people to go off ahead, and rely on our fitness to make positions back in the second half.
The A team were set a target of all six scorers to place in the top 40 positions, which would certainly be challenging – only the very best teams can boast runners this high up the order across their whole team. However, there is a real depth to this squad this year, and while we didn’t have anyone who we thought had a realistic chance of winning the race, we did feel that our strength was in the quality of our lower counters.
Tom Jackson (R) led the chase early on, getting dragged away from his game plan into a more aggressive move high up the field. Sam Western (S) held back, as did Huntsman Charlie Ockleston (O), who was looking to make the most of his superb stamina in the later stages. As the team mounted the first hill of the second lap, 5km into the race, our plan started to bear fruit – places were being made up as other runners started to flag.
The confidence this gave us over the next few kilometres was clear, especially as they swept down the long valley floor with only a couple of kilometres to go. They were still pressing, still making up ground, still overtaking. It was clear to the many spectators that the Judd School had sewn up the team victory – impressively, they managed to place four runners inside the top ten – but we were in amongst the other top teams, and as our best runners rounded the final bend and into the home straight, we knew it would be close.
Further down the field, our B team managed to show off the depth that the Hunt currently enjoys – almost all of our second eight managed to place in the top half of the field, and more than half of them placed in the top hundred.
Sam Western (pictured right) was still making up ground ahead of him when he crossed the line in a fantastic 7th place, a superb achievement from a runner determined to put last year’s disappointments behind him. Charlie Ockleston came home in 16th, and Tom Jackson in 26th, having recovered from overdoing it in the first part of the race. Oscar Hamilton-Russell (R) came in 30th, which is particularly noteworthy given that he’s still only in the Fifth Form. Rider Hartley (Ch) – probably the RSSH runner who has shown the most improvement of all in the last twelve months – ran in 33rd, ahead of fellow Churchillian Sam Watts in 37th, who completed the team score of 149. This was a massive 135 points lower than last year, and was enough to earn them the bronze medal, behind Cooper Company and Coburn School in second with 130 points, and Judd dominating the race with an astonishingly low score of 72. Orlando Williams (Rt) and Paddy Barlow (R) came through in 42nd and 49th respectively, meaning our entire first eight finished in the top fifty – quite an achievement!
The boys' B team also did brilliantly, placing second-highest B team and 11th overall, defeating lots of other schools' A teams. Particular congratulations are due to 3rd formers Ben Weston (R) in 62nd and Will Singleton (R) in 64th for an incredibly strong debut performance. Harrison Cutler came through in 75th in a strong run, while Matthew Thevathasan (PH) impressed in 79th, another who has made huge progress over the past year. Milo Herbert (R) finished 85th, ahead of Ted Williams (R – 112th), Arthur Bramwell (R – 134th) and Jonny Snell (Ch – 155th).
Congratulations to everyone who raced on what was a great day for the Hunt. With so many younger runners placing so highly, the future is clearly very bright for us. We’ve got another opportunity to show our strength in early February at the prestigious King Henry VIII Relays in Coventry. On the strength of Saturday’s performance, we’re well placed to be in amongst the very top teams.
Teacher in Charge of the Hunt