A LATE change of venue brought Stratford Athletic Club’s senior men to Coombe Abbey Country Park for the third and penultimate fixture of the Birmingham Cross Country League Division Two season.
A relatively flat but muddy and wet parkland course awaited and pre-race favourite Shaun Evans (Sutton Coldfield, 31mins, 30secs) was a comfortable winner with 13 intrepid SAC runners behind him giving chase.
It was perhaps no surprise the first three back were Rich Shephard (17th, 34:20), Josh Newman (18th, 34:26) and Matt Burdus-Cook (31st, 35:09) but their finishing positions do not tell the full story of the race.
Not quite back to his best following illness, Newman still went out in typically determined style and, whilst he tired slightly towards the end, he was always towards the front of the field.
In contrast Shephard, suffering from a mild chest infection, went out conservatively and it was only when Burdus-Cook caught and passed him just after halfway that he decided to go all out and the results were striking as he made up a dozen places on the last lap, overtaking Newman close to the finish.
Burdus-Cook is in terrific form at the moment and, motivated by Shephard being in his sights for so long, he hung on for another excellent finishing position.
After three races in the individual competition, Shephard is in fourth position.
Behind them was an intriguing battle of experience against youth and, whilst Tim Hutchinson (54th 36:54) was behind Owain Jones (59th 37:05) for most of the race, his relentless pacing finally saw him assert his authority in the latter stages.
However, Jones, who finished sixth junior, can take great credit out of this race which saw a huge improvement in his placing from his previous run and greater experience will undoubtedly see even further improvement.
Completing the A team was John Raby (95th, 38:28) with a very sold run and the overall team score of 275 points resulted in an eighth position of the day and after the three races Stratford maintain their very satisfactory eighth position.
New member Richard Liggatt (118th, 39:20) had a good run and he led home the B team with a very promising performance which augurs well for the future.
There was a close race for the next three positions with team captain Malcolm Bowyer (155th, 41:24) reversing the form of recent races to finish ahead of Max Ross (163rd, 41:38) and David Smyth (165th, 41:51) always close behind and ensuring those ahead could not ease off.
Ben Twyman (219th, 48:37) is always a consistent performer and it was great to see Mike Barrie (225th, 50:20) tackling the elements as he managed to hold off Phil Marshal (229th, 51:21) to complete the B team scorers.
The B team score of 1,045 points meant they finished tenth on the day which means they slip back a couple of places to a still excellent sixth position.
The final race of the league season is on February 8 at Telford (venue TBC).
MEANWHILE, the Stratford women’s team had a longer journey to Park Hall Country Park on the outskirts of Stoke where the course was the complete opposite to the men’s as it was very hilly but, with excellent drainage, conditions were mostly firm grassland underfoot.
There was a disappointing number of Stratford runners hit by various absences but the seven athletes who made up the team all had strong runs and did the club proud, finishing as 14th team and confirming their place in the top division with a match to spare.
Cadie Hibberd (19th, 29:12) had travelled up from university in Bristol and was delighted with her top 20 position. She had a very fast start to ensure she was in a good position before the technical parts of the course and held her position throughout.
The next Stratford athlete to finish was Sophie Dobedoe (47th, 31:15) who is in her first season with the team and has been the leading light of the league team since joining.
Daisy Musk (80th, 33:51) who has just moved up from the junior team was pleased with her run as she has settled well to become a regular scorer for the club.
Yet another newcomer to the team this season is Vicky Sharp (89th, 34:46) who showed her importance by being the final counter for the club. Sarah Vernon (103rd, 37:05) completed the team with her best performance of season so far.
In the Masters competition, Amy Hinton (94th, 35:21) found the hills tough but led the team home in 40th in the separate scoring Masters race, followed by Liuba Pasa (105th, 37:14, 46th Master) who seems to be thoroughly enjoying her first cross country season in England despite the different weather conditions.
Yvonne Gajny (106th, 37:23, 47th master) showed fantastic commitment to the club having been ill but despite being far from her best made sure Stratford completed a team which finished in 11th place.
The final race of the season for the women’s team is at Leamington on February 8 when Stratford should have a better turnout for this relatively local match.