THE first race of West Midlands Cross Country League season was a day that only real cross-country aficionados could appreciate.
In stark contrast to this fixture last year, which was unseasonably warm, athletes faced low temperatures and incessant heavy rain at Hatton Country World.
The only saving grace was that a relatively dry autumn meant that conditions underfoot remained reasonably firm.
First out of the blocks were the U17 women for their 4km race.
Stratford AC’s Georgie Campbell, individual winner of the league in the U15 age group last year, was running her first race over this distance and by halfway round the first lap was firmly in contention, running well in second place.
Battling hard with her rival, Ella Semple from Birchfield Harriers, she moved past her as they started the second lap and from there Campbell stretched out her lead to win in considerable style in 14:32.
Imogen Sheppard (16th, 16:28) and Daisy Musk (19th, 16:38) both ran strongly to also finish in the top 20, giving the U17 women second place overall.
Charlotte Gravelsons (39th, 18:33) and Freya Ramsey (42nd, 19:03) completed a solid turnout from Stratford.
The course for the U11 races last year had been noticeably short, and this was rectified this year by an additional half loop round a field. Flynn Dathan led the U11 boys home with an excellent 10th place (6:06), improving significantly on his 51st place last year.
Second for the team was Seb Hillard (22nd, 6:24), looking particularly bedraggled in what were probably the wettest conditions of the day. Hillard has had an excellent track and field season, and this has clearly translated into cross-country performance as he improved by more than 40 places from last year.
James Day (26th, 6:27) placed third for the team, again improving substantially on last year.
Alex McMillan, (47th), Edward Thomas (48th, 6:49), Ollie Hemming (57th, 6:59) and Josh Davies (62nd, 7:04) all worked hard in the middle of the pack to help take the team to fifth place on the day.
The U17 men had a number of athletes competing over this distance for the first time, but worked hard to deliver a credible sixth place overall.
In a fast race, Ben Jones was first home for the team in 26th (17:28). The other two scoring positions were taken by Will and Tom Crowfoot (38th, 18:11, and 48th, 18:24), who ran much of the challenging 4.8km race together.
Josh Angus (46th, 19:07), Oliver Adams (48th, 19:31) and James Bexson (54th, 21:38) all persisted through the rain and the mud.
A number of club athletes were making their debuts in the U11 girls race and, with a large number of last year’s successful team moving up to the U13s, the stage was set for Stratford’s newest and youngest runners.
A summer of hard training for Tessa Parkin on the Welcombe Hills has clearly paid off as she finished in a superb second place (6:25).
Annie Silvers, making her cross-country club debut after demonstrating astonishing track and parkrun speed over the summer, finished strongly (13th, 6:44) and Martha Peters (27th, 7:04), Olivia Hawkyard (36th, 7:12) and Harriet Black (37th, 7:12) made up the rest of the team positions, giving Stratford fourth place.
Martha Bullock (44th, 7:20), Ella Peeke (45th, 7:20) Ruby Edwards (47th, 7:24) and Emilie Ross (103rd, 8:26) also finished well for Stratford, showing what great strength in depth the U11 squad continue to have.
The U15 boys fielded a quality team of seven athletes, with some old hands joined by some new faces. First home was Louis Kendrick (20th, 11:20), followed by Caleb Spriggs (36th, 11:52) and Christopher Hunt (47th, 12:11).
Ned Campbell and Cameron Black continued their rivalry from last year, with Ned (53rd, 12:24), just getting the better of Cameron on this occasion (57th, 12:28). Ed Holcroft (70th, 13:11) and Harry Gravelsons (83rd, 14:38) completed the turnout for the team.
The biggest Stratford team on the day was the U13 girls, with many of last year’s U11s stepping up to the longer distance for the first time. Maddie Linfoot moved herself into a top-20 position on the first lap, and held her ground despite considerable challenge (19th, 10:41).
Molly Bullock gave Maddie a good fight, but slipped back a few places in the second lap (29th, 10:59). There was a great tussle in the middle of the race, with Olivia Robinson (48th, 11:31), Niamh Hillard (49th, 11:33) and Lucy Thomas (51st, 11:35) all finishing well.
Also competing were Abbi Cooper (61st, 11:43), Scarlett Richardson (63rd, 11:46), Caitlin Boyle (70th, 11:54), Maisie-Joy Spriggs (73rd, 11:56), Tilly Campbell (97th, 12:34) and Katie and Georgia Pridham (113th, 13:29 and 114th, 13:30).
The penultimate race of the day was the U13 boys, and, true to form, Alex Adams ran another fast, mature race to continue last season’s dominance and win by a substantial margin.
Holding a confident second place around the first lap, he didn’t let an injured wrist prevent his acceleration as he smoothly moved up into first and edged away from the field over the second half of the race to win in 8:46.
Adam Taylor (20th, 9:59) and Oscar Fines-Allin (24th, 10:11) both performed well to secure strong placings, and were followed up by Theo Skirvin (43rd, 10:32) and Henry Wheeler (65th, 11:03). Hugh Markham (66th, 11:04) and Ed Twyman (80th, 11:32) were just outside the scoring places.
The last race was the U15 girls, and, unfortunately due to competing swimming and triathlon events, the team were two short of the required scoring positions.
Nevertheless, the team ran with great determination, with Ellen Taylor pushing hard at the finish (23rd, 12:53) and Gigi Thomas (48th, 13:42) and Freya Fines-Allin (70th, 14:47) both giving their all throughout the distance.
With two first and one second-place finish, Stratford once again demonstrated the strength of their junior squad.
The team finished in fifth place overall, but with good opportunities to move up the field at the next fixture in November.