Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Cross Country Leagues

Ah cross country, don’t you just love it. Well even if you don’t, I do. It’s a great way to build your fitness for the road season ahead and the track season beyond that. But what makes it all the more exciting and purposeful for me are the cross country leagues. I’ve said it before, I’m a team player, I love being part of the team, particularly when you make a difference to the score for your team, and it’s these cross country leagues, as well as the county, area and national championships which really underpin the season for me.

I’ve been involved in cross country leagues since I first set foot on a cross country course, back in 1989, and, surprisingly over such a period of time, I’ve scored in about 99% of them. If I remember correctly I think I’ve only failed to make the scoring team on 3 occasions, and 2 of them were in my first season.

Back in the 80’s, 90’s and the first half of the 00’s I was London based and the league I was associated with was the Surrey League. It was a good strong league, every year you would have International standard athletes turning out (Justin Chaston, Gary Staines, John Solly, Richard Nerurkar, Paul Evans, Kassa Tadessa, Dave Taylor, Simon Fairbrother, Ben Whitby, Matt Yates – to name just a few), it was a strong league when I started and, although, like any league, there have been days when the field was weaker than usual, it still remains strong today. It’s had it’s changes, back then Boxhill Racers were dominant, a dominance which lasted well into the 90’s, but then they seemed to fade away. Woking and Hercules Wimbledon were both big teams of the past, they also drifted down into a lower division, though Hercules have now regained their position in Division 1 and are running well again. Hounslow, though Middlesex based, came, joined up with Windsor, Slough and Eton, and drifted back out after a brief spell at the top. Even Aldershot Farnham & District, always up there when I first started, dropped out to concentrate on their Hampshire league. Now Kent AC, from Kent (would you believe) are a part of it. It shows it’s class if clubs from other counties want to be part of it. And all the time stalwarts such as Thames Hare and Hounds, Herne Hill Harriers and Belgrave Harriers have been fighting it out for victory.

When I ran my first Surrey League, 28 October 1989, Richmond Park, I finished in position 126. Clearly not good enough to make the scoring 10 of Belgrave, on this occasion, but Belgrave were going through one of those phases where the top guys weren’t committing themselves to this league. They were languishing mid table so before the end of the season of four matches, despite only making it to 78th position, I had made the scoring 10 in half of the races, and I would never again not make the scoring 10 whilst a member of Belgrave. Presumably this must have been tough for some of Belgrave’s older members to stomach, particularly those who had been part of the team that won this league every year from 1966-1972. For a few more years we struggled to get our best runners out and by the end of the 92/93 season we were demoted to division 2. This could have been a killer blow for some teams but, with a new manager and a new structured management team, we bounced straight back as champions of division 2. With victory came enthusiasm and a new breed of Belgrave Harriers were emerging. Good management, perseverance and enthusiasm from within started to breed success in other areas of cross country running and eventually, in 99/00, we were crowned champions of division 1, once again. This victory was particularly memorable, for me. I was working in Germany at the time and was flying home for matches, I only got back at about 11pm the night before the last league match. But I was Captain so there was no way I was going to miss this deciding match in the league. It had been a hard fought out league between us and Thames Hare and Hounds. We went into the match 74 points behind and emerged as victors. It was one of those days when almost everybody turned out for us and nobody had a bad run. We dominated the day, beating TH&H by 108 points to snatch the championship. I even led the race, briefly, it was an inspirational moment for me having such great runners, including two Ethiopian internationals, follow me up that first hill. On that day I was 9th scorer for Belgrave, in 21st position, a bit different from the times I was 3rd scorer in about 50th. We won it again in 2002, this time we went into the last race ahead and just held on to win the league by 6 points as TH&H tried to bridge the deficit. I was 6th score that day, in 20th position. Then Belgrave’s fortunes in this league began to slide. As the team I would move to began to challenge TH&H.

My last Surrey League for Belgrave was on 15 January 2005, on Wimbledon Common, I was 31st. The next day I turned 40 and within a month I had left Belgrave and joined local rivals Herne Hill. I ran two league races for Herne Hill, the following winter, before I moved to Edinburgh. I scored in one but was 11th HH man home in the other making it the first time I hadn’t scored in a league race, I took part in, in 15 years. I made my final Surrey League appearance in 2007, at Wimbledon Common, where I finished 34th.

In Scotland my Scottish club, Edinburgh AC, were involved with the East District League. I made my debut on 21 October, at Livingstone, where I was 25th, but 1st over 40. That season I followed that up with 16th (1st O40) at Kirkaldy, 18th (1st O40) at Broxburn. I’d been lucky, managing to get all those days off work (I worked alternate weekends at that time). The following year I wasn’t so lucky with work and missed all matches. The year after that I was still making a mark on the league but no longer king of the O40s as Stevie Cairns matured and took my crown. Then it was down to Cheshire in 2010 and no more cross country leagues for me until this season.

Salford are involved in the South East Lancs League and the Manchester Area League, plus I believe we have some guys who turn out in the Red Rose league. That means it’s a pretty busy cross country season for us with 9 league matches, compared to 4 in the Surrey League, plus County, Area and National champs. This year, having been deprived of cross country league racing for so long, I’ve embraced it fully and turned out whenever I can, and to my surprise I’ve made the scoring 6 every time. As a senior team we’ve just won the South East Lancs League with a match in hand and are leading the Manchester League.

Personally I’m doing ok, not as well as I’d like, but I’m holding my own against some very good runners. In the first SEL race I was 9th and 2nd O45 to team mate Dave Lockett. The first MA race I was 39th and 5th M45, I missed the 2nd of both, due to warm weather training and the BMAF cross country relays. In the 3rd MA race I was 29th and 3rd M45. In the 4th MA race I was 27th and 2nd M45 and this weekend, in the 3rd SEL race I was 11th and 2nd M45, this time to another team mate, Paul Simons. As the current league standings lie I’m: In the Manchester League; 19th overall and 2nd in the M45 section (these positions could be seriously revised after the last match as it appears to be a best 3 of 5) and in the South East Lancs League; I lie 7th and joint 1st in the M45 section (again these are a best 2 of 4 so likely to be revised after the final match). But it gives me something to fight for.

I’ve been asked many times how long I think I’ll carry on running competitively. As you can see I’m still holding my own against younger runners. Yes it gets tougher each year but as long as I’m enthusiastic and have an enthusiastic team around me I’ll keep going, injury and illness permitting. One big benefit of these leagues, for us older gentlemen, is that you can score as a senior but also in your own age group, which is probably why there are so many Masters still competing in it.   

Written by Roger Alsop


  1. The sight of the team captain cresting the first hill at Coulsdon with an army of claret & gold at his shoulder will live long in the memory Rog - still probably the most phenomenal demolition job in a teams race since the Kenyans took 6 of the first 8 at World Cross.

    1. So many happy memories in my sporting life, but hopefully more to come. Hope you've inspired your New Zealand club mates with your tales of life in the fast lane at Belgrave.