Under-17s rule roost on Parliament Hill for Chichester

It's a spectacular sight as the senior race gets under way against the backdrop of the London skyline
It's a spectacular sight as the senior race gets under way against the backdrop of the London skyline

One of the highlights of the winter saw more than 3,000 runners of all ages converge on Parliament Hill fields on Saturday for the South of England cross-country championships.

Held over a demanding series of courses over the undulating terrain of Hampstead Heath, the event is a true test of endurance at the best of times - this year made all the more arduous by the recent rain which turned parts of the park into a sea of ankle-deep mud.

Amid competition from the best runners from an area covering East Anglia to the west country and including London and the south-east, Chichester produced some fine results.

Their good showing was highlighted by their two best-ever team performances from their under-17 men and under-17 women, who both finished fifth, the highest placings of any Sussex teams on the day in any age groups.

As Sussex champions, both these Chichester teams were hoping to reproduce the form shown in Bexhill and had realistic chances of top-ten finishes.

The men were first to go over a 6,000m course and Harry Leleu made a sensible start just outside the top 20 with Brighton’s Stephen Ferroni, who had beaten Leleu to the Sussex title, in the top ten. Also starting at a good pace were Casey Keates and Josh James, around 50th place, with Harry Pink and Harry Lyne battling to be the important fourth scorer for the team.

With the leaders covering the ground at the equivalent of 32-minute pace for 10k, the Chichester athletes stayed in touch and Leleu maintained his pace and finished a fine 21st after a dash for the line in which ten seconds covered the seven athletes in front.

Keates was having the race of his life to finish 27th and James had the strength to overcome a stitch in 57th. Pink had the stronger second half of the race to cross the line in 107th with Lyne solid in 162nd.

A team total of 212 points brought delight for Chichester when a finishing position of fifth was announced, with only four powerhouses of cross-country running in the south - Aldershot & Farnham, Tonbridge, Shaftesbury Barnet and Bedford & County - beating them.

Over a 5,000m course, the under-17 women were led off at a frenetic pace by Kent athlete Bobby Clay, already a GB international aged 16.

Chichester’s Rose Ellis knew she had to make a mark early to establish her position and was perfectly placed inside the top 20 with Sussex rivals Martha Coyle from Brighton and Sophie Markwick from Hastings close behind.

Hannah Croad and Charlotte Reading were also well inside the top 100, and the withdrawal of Emma Maynard before the race meant it was between Nicola Mead and Holly Beaton to see who would be the vital fourth scorer.

Ellis moved into the top dozen and stayed there in a dash for the line to be the first Sussex runner home by a couple of seconds from Markwick.

Croad finished a fine 45th with Reading also having one of her best runs of the season in 75th. Mead secured the club’s fourth finish in 107th with Beaton a good reserve in 132nd for 239 points.

There was more Chichester delight when they scooped another fifth place to match the men’s effort and complete a golden day for the club’s under-17s and their coach Stewart McKenzie.

Racing started with the under-13 and under-15 races and even at this early stage, the mud on the majority of the course was making it a test of strength and stamina.

The under-13 boys saw a near-record field of almost 300 charge up the opening hill with the Chichester quartet of Harry Sage, Ned Potter, Jeremy Sharp and Harry Smith al having their first taste of a major championship.

With Leo Stallard and Ben Collins not wanting to risk aggravating slight injuries, it was left to the four newcomers to fly the flag for the club, which they did to great effect by all finishing within a minute of each other.

Sage was first home over the 3,000m circuit in 82nd, closely followed by Ned Potter in 100th - just ten seconds back. Sharp and Smith were 165th and 188th for a team position of 28th, a good reward for their efforts and a good pointer for the future as all four have another year in the same age group.

The boys’ under-15s also packed well with just nine seconds separating the three Chichester athletes. Sam Pink led then home in 163rd followed by Brodie Keates in 165th and Ben Morton 173rd.

In the girls’ races, Olivia Wiseman scooped a fine 41st place in the under-13 race. On this occasion she was running in the colours of Portsmouth AC, but she will be back to competing for Sussex and Chichester in the inter-counties and final league matches later in the season.

In the same race Chloe Croad was 230th, though it’s worth noting athletes are crossing the line at about 100 per minute.

In one of the most competitive under-15 races seen in recent years, Grace Wills and Katie Hains had good runs to finish 126th and 203rd respectively and gain high places among the Sussex contingent.

One of the great sights of the English athletics calendar is the start of the senior men’s race at Parliament Hill.

With the iconic and ever-changing London skyline as a backdrop, the sight of 1,000-plus runners of more or less equal standard charging up the first hill evokes memories of some of the famous occasions of the past - like the sight of a precocious David Bedford in the early 70s to one of the first glimpses of the raw talent of a still-teenage Mo Farah some three decades later.

Chichester’s talisman James Baker decided not to get dragged into too fast an early pace and sat well outside the top 100 after the first mile of the strength-sapping nine miles over three circuits of Hampstead Heath.

Using pace judgement he has refined over his long career, Baker was soon making inroads into those ahead of him and finished 48th place - he is still one of very few local athletes who have hit the top 50 in the history of the event.

Baker’s time of 55min 26sec is on a par with what he would expect to clock over an average ten-mile multi-terrain course.

To finish even in the top half of the 1,000-strong field is an achievement and newcomer John Kelly was the surprise package of the Chichester squad to finish 350th, albeit ten minutes adrift of his teammate.

Aaron Hancock was 483rd with Andy Maynard 617th, Keith Akerman 617th, Tom Blaylock 826th, Nick Palmer 840th, Dave Reading 901st, Terry Healy 923rd and John Betts brought the ten-man squad home in 937th. The team were delighted with 75th place.

In the under-20 men’s event, James McKenzie followed his bronze in the Sussex championships by once again finishing third Sussex finisher in 55th place in a race which regularly showcases future England internationals.

Top local runner in the senior women’s race was Rosie Hiles, on this occasion running for Guildford, who took 22nd place from Brighton athlete Caroline Hoyte, reversing the result from the county championships.

The good news for Chichester is Hiles will be back in action for the club in the final league match if the season in March before running for Sussex in the national inter-counties a week later.

There were three other brave Chichester athletes, all veterans, in the women’s race on Saturday. They were led by Sue Barty in 390th followed by Sue Baker (410th) and first-timer Sandra Nemorin-Noel (426th), all three deserving credit for finishing well in such tough conditions.