Relays 2023 – A Super Season Opener

In what proved a true cross country test thanks to the mud and persistent rain, it was Cambridge and Coleridge along with Belgrave Harriers who emerged victorious in the men’s and women’s races at the National Cross Country Relays in Berry Hill Park, Mansfield.
With more than 200 teams toeing the line in the men’s event, a cracking race was expected, and so it proved, the result in doubt all the way to the final five metres. At the half-way stage of the 4x5km race it was tough to call as City of York led the way followed by defending champions Leeds and Tonbridge in third. With Bristol and West, Shaftesbury Barnet and Cambridge and Coleridge all in close contention it was all to run for as the teams headed out for the final 5km.
The last leg promised a sensational finish as City of York had a marginal lead over Cambridge and Coleridge, who had steadily been moving through the field all race long, while Aldershot Farnham and District had also emerged from the chasing pack to round out the top three.
And with one lap of the two-lap 5km course to go it was C&C’s Callum Elson, ninth in the senior National who held a marginal lead from AFD’s Will Barnicoat, the National U20 champ. Who would prevail? Only the brave would attempt a prediction in such tough conditions.
And emerging first out of the increasingly dark, gloomy (and very wet) woods it still needed that bravery as C&C enjoyed just a one stride lead from AFD who looked to have the momentum. But it wasn’t to be as it was C&C who prevailed, Callum saving just that little bit for a superb final sprint.
In the women’s race, a loaded, talented Belgrave Harriers team that included the Sarah Astin, the national champion was never headed. Leaders from the gun it was all about how much the trio would win by and that was 40 seconds. Kate Axford led the team out with 9:57 before Gemma Astin clocked 10:04 and finally Sarah flew to an untroubled 10:09. Consistency was the name of the game for these three who helped the team to its first win in this event.
“I love these conditions. I knew there was a chance of us winning and all three are quite gritty runners,” Sarah said afterwards.
Behind them five-times winner in the past seven years Aldershot Farnham and District picked up silver and bronze with their A and B teams to once again highlight the superb strength in depth this club demonstrates year after year.

How the day unfolded
Kicking off the packed programme that featured 10 races was the junior women’s race which saw Loughborough University B team seize the early initiative. Emily Parker produced a superb final 50 metres to give her team an early lead, but it was tight as six crossed the line within a second. As ever, it’s the second leg that really starts to sort out the field. And so it proved. Windsor Slough Eton and Hounslow’s Rachel Clutterbuck hit the front early on but was closely tracked by the University of Birmingham’s Zoe Hunter who eased away in the final stages. With four away going into the final 2.5km lap, it was Birmingham Uni who opened up a big gap on the chasing pack thanks to a great run from Alice Bates. She crossed the line first, although the gold medals went to Cambridge and Coleridge who were fifth overall as university teams don’t qualify for those.
In the U17 women’s race Bedford and County led from Salford and early leaders City of Portsmouth into the final 2.5km leg. But it was St Albans Striders’ Phoebe Gill, fourth in the National back in February who appeared from nowhere to emerge triumphant. She ran a spectacular final half a mile to turn a 30m deficit into a 50m lead by the finish line.
There was no such late drama in the U15 girls’ 3x2km race. From the gun, it was all about Aldershot Farnham and District and how much the three would win by. Tilly Robinson was never troubled on the final lap, but that was as much down to Maya Jobbins and Kitty Scott’s fabulous first and second legs, the perfect demonstration of teamwork.
The field quickly strung out in the U13 girls’ race, making for a very exciting race with the result in doubt all the way to the final half mile. Zoe Allen, seventh in the National last season opened up a big lead for Windsor Slough Eton and Hounslow after leg one. But of course, it’s a three-athlete race and even though the road relay champions Chelmsford looked to have got on hand on the gold medal at one point, just as so many other races proved, never count out perennial powerhouse Aldershot Farnham and District when it comes down to the chase for medals. AFD’s Poppy Guest blasted around the final 2km circuit to give the Hampshire team yet another gold medal at this event.

In the junior men’s race this event always appears to feature Aldershot Farnham and District as the team to beat even with – on paper – stronger university squads in the field. And once again that proved to be the case as AFD’s James Dargan anchored his teammates, Tom Chandler and Joseph O’Connell to a great win.
“Biblical rain,” said a happy Dargan celebrating not just the win, but also the conditions.
Next up on the timetable was the U17 men’s race which involved one major factor: the weather! With the rain falling heavily, Windsor Slough Eton and Hounslow eased into the lead on the second leg. But with the conditions definitely getting worse as the race progressed, this would be all about who could cope with the tricky underfoot conditions the best. And that proved to be Chelmsford, easily the most improved team of the championships over all of the age groups. Anchored by a solid looking run from Sam Plummer given the treacherous mud, the Essex team of Jacob Hurrell (4th) and Joseph Grange (1st) once added this title to the gold medal the U13 girls won at the road relays earlier this autumn. Clearly, the coaching set-up is working perfectly.
The rain eased marginally for the U15 boys’ race which saw Trafford’s Pio Arron produce a magnificent second leg after Archie Greenwood had finished 14th. From there it was all about maintaining the big lead the English Schools bronze medallist had created and Finlay Dobson Emmas duly obliged.
And finally, a sensational second leg from Elliot Langley-Aybar secured the win for Bracknell in the U13 boys’ race after a sold opener from Jasper Legg. Elliott quickly overhauled the early leaders, Chiltern and City of Norwich before giving his anchor-man, Oliver Pullen a 100m lead going into the final 2km.
*For all the results go to