With a home IIs-IVs Varsity match only three weeks away, much was at stake at Port Meadow on Saturday: Blues selection, college rivalries, and personal pride, all on a flat course in clear, cold sunshine.
The intercollegiate club race did not disappoint in spite of a recent pandemic of injury and illness, with perfect conditions for running, a massive entry and moments of genuine drama in both races.
The day belonged to Wadham by some margin, as entire platoons from their boat club stormed the lower echelons of both races. They cruised to victory in the women’s race by eighteen points, and scored more than twice as many points as any other men’s college, led from the front by a fine performance from OUCCC captain Chris McGurk and backed up by twenty henchmen.
The rocket-powered Michelle Sikes (Lincoln), winner of last year’s Blues Varsity, took the honours in the ladies’ race in the end, but she was pushed all the way by LMH’s Flora MacInnes. The pair tussled for the lead for the duration of the 6km course, and were only separated by four seconds at the finish. Not far behind, triathlete Clare Kane (ChCh) was narrowly pipped by Becky Gardner (St Catz) to 3rd, while Rosara Joseph, Stephanie Crampion and Hannah McGregor all did their credentials some good with times under 25 minutes. Wadham, however, overcame their lack of front-line athletes to put six into the top twenty-five runners, and eased to victory in the college standings.
The men’s race drew a vast field of eighty-five runners, with a good number competing for the first time.
At the top end a few new names were thrown into the mix for the Blues squad, and McGurk will face a head-scratching selection process following some decent runs, not least his own. He wrestled with newcomer Jake Shelley (Somerville) for the whole of the race, and the two headed into the last lap with McGurk breathing down Shelley’s back. Half-way round, Shelley took a wrong turn on a slightly confusing course; yet Cross Country has always fancied itself as a gentleman’s sport, and McGurk not only called him back but even waited for him to return. It came down to a short duel between a 1500m runner and a 400m specialist, and Shelley pulled away at the close to finish ten seconds in front with 34.15, consolidating an excellent debut season.
Twenty seconds later, St Anne’s Johnny Pearson-Stuttard put two years of frustration through injury behind him to thunder in third, following up a return to form at Birmingham.
He was followed by an explosive sprint finish between Alan Chetwynd (Keble) and Michael Osborne (New), who had overcome a poor start and another wrong turning on the final lap with superb endurance. Chetwynd’s short-distance credentials showed in the end, as he put his nose narrowly in front over the last fifty metres. Tom Samuel (BNC) and Justin Richards (Univ) spoiled a good race for OUCCC treasurer Anupam Das (Exeter), taking sixth and seventh respectively as Das pulled up with cramp near the finish. Richards will be pleased with a strong finish in his first season of cross country after years of track running, while Samuel showed great tenacity in battling through his evident tiredness. The top ten was completed with a close finish between Jamie Darling (John’s) and fresher Will Mycroft (New).
Thus far the running had been pretty evenly distributed between the colleges, and Pettit, Sheldon and Austin all scored Worcester’s name in the top twenty, but from forty minutes upwards Wadham began to pour over the finish line in droves. Rob Bakewell and Karim Habibi did well, but the score really began to rack up as the race went on, until the final result was beyond all reasonable doubt.
Worcester were more than three hundred points behind, while Pearson’s excellent run for Anne’s was followed through by Walsh and Spacie, who took their college to third. Congratulations are also due to Maire Gorman, who organised the race and coped well with an unprecedented number of entries.
Overall, the club is showing tremendous strength in depth after the first two races of the season, and, with some of Oxford’s biggest names due to come back into contention at Shotover this weekend. This race will be open to any entrants and the OUCCC really encourages runners at all levels to take part in it: Cambridge should be afraid. Very afraid.