English Schools Cross Country Championships, 17th March 2018, Temple Newsam Park, Leeds

‘The weather forecast is brrr….with strong cold winds bringing maybe about 20mm… of snow…perhaps….no more. This is normal cross country weather in England and the Championship will go ahead as planned.  This is your chance to decry the increasing perception that kids nowadays are ‘snowflakes’!  Turn up.  Run.  Get cold. Get muddy. Enjoy getting warm again!  This is proper cross country weather.’ 

To the credit of the thousands of young athletes who did exactly that, and to the officials who put on such a fantastic event in challenging conditions, there was blood, sweat and tears, and possibly a little frostbite, amid some fantastic racing. The ESAA gave this call to arms on the morning of the race, and athletes, parents, coaches and team managers came from afar to ensure this classic event in the cross country calendar continued as planned.

The landscaped grounds, Capability Brown, will rarely have seen such a pounding, as athletes started and finished in the shadows of Temple Newsam House, a Tudor-Jacobean mansion. Strong winds and snow flurries were indeed the order of the day as the athletes battled to the hilltop and down dale, covering the territory that had been deployed for a previous National Cross Country Championship.

From a Club perspective, the day belonged to the super-talented Saskia Millard. In her final year at School, Saskia, a former winner of the English Schools (2014), produced a stunning performance. Resilience and determination were evident throughout as Saskia committed from the outset with the lead group, such that many of us spectating were potentially guilty of forgetting that it had been so long since we’d seen Saskia on the big stage. She looked very at home in this company as she always did. Towards the end, having conceded 15 or so metres on the third place runner, the determination was palpable as Saskia clawed her way back into third place and a podium finish.

Saskia was ably backed by her London team mates, a close knit group that has grown together over the years, what a pleasure to see them all still partaking in our wonderful sport. The six closed in 71, the lowest position of any sixth counter, but they were 10 points adrift of a team bronze medal.  Zoe Tompkins, 59th, and Ella Newton, 71st, were part of the scoring six once again.  Eimear Griffin, running for Berkshire Schools, also made it into the coveted top 100.

Club members featured highly in the Junior Girls’ race, and made a significant contribution to the team’s silver medals. Poppy Craig McFeely, a first reserve, more than justified her eventual inclusion in the team by finishing in an excellent 19th place.  Bottom of age, Phoebe Bowen, also had a superb run to finish 35th, and these two were London’s 2nd and 3rd scorers.  The Intermediate Girls, although featuring no Herne Hill athletes, matched the Junior Girls’ silver team medals.  These two results combined with the Senior Girls’ 5th team placing meant that London’s Girls’ teams won the overall cumulative points score prize i.e. they are collectively the strongest female cross country squad in England.

Not to be left out, the London Junior Boys produced some superb packing. It was great to see another one of our outstanding talents, Jaden Kennedy, looking more like his old self.  Like Saskia, he committed to the early pace set by the leaders, and did all he could to stay close to them throughout the race. Jaden ended up finishing in 21st position, and was very well backed up by Jacob Harrison, having his best cross country race of the season, 38th, Joe Roberts 78th, Ben Harrison 108th, and bottom of age Jacob Taylor 132nd.  A staggering five of the six team scorers are Herne Hill Harriers.  Congratulations also to Noah Armitage-Hookes, Kent AC, who finished 44th, a regular at Geoff Jerwood’s Thursday night hill sessions.

There were snowflakes, there were hills, there was mud, and there was huge determination. I cannot praise highly enough all of our athletes who competed on this toughest of days. They are a credit to our Club, parents and coaches. No more so than Saskia Millard. It was great to see her back, keep up the good work with patience and dedication, you are an example to us all.

Keith Newton, 19/3/18