STRATFORD Athletics Club produced strong all-round team performances at the Midland Counties Autumn Road Relays at Sutton Park on Saturday.
It was a particularly competitive edition of the championships, too. The winning time in the men’s six-stage race was the fastest in ten years, while the number of teams in action – 107 in the men’s race and 104 in the women’s four-stage contest – was a record turn-out.
Given the quality of the race, and the fact that a few minor logistical difficulties led to some last-minute team changes, Stratford AC’s 61st-place finish in the men’s race was highly respectable.
The club’s A team covered the six stages in a combined time of 2:15:13. Over the past 10 years, Stratford has produced faster times on just three occasions (2010, 2015 and 2017).
With 16 Stratford AC athletes in total in Sutton Park, the men’s B team placed 95th in 2:33:26, while the women’s team finished 64th overall.
Ollie Senior got the A team off to a flying start and covered the 5.88km lap in 20:31, one of the fastest legs ever recorded by a Stratford AC athlete.
“I enjoyed the chaos of the first leg,” said Senior. “I felt strong and managed to move up four or five positions in the final 400 metres.”
Club stalwart Tim Hutchinson kept Stratford in the top half of the field throughout the second stage, clocking 21:49.
“The conditions seemed about the best I have experienced there,” said Hutchinson, a relays veteran. “I managed negative splits and a PB on the finishing straight – I love the finish on that course.”
With many athletes getting stuck in traffic on their way to the event, team manager Danny Tolhurst had to make some quick-fire changes to the team line-ups and Peter Sugden suddenly found himself on the A team. Unfazed, his 24:54 split was almost a minute quicker than his time from last year.
Jon Mulkeen was next in the running order and he bettered his 2017 clocking by 77 seconds with 23:24, handing over to Matt Burdus-Cook. A relays debutant, Burdus-Cook was pleased with his 22:21 leg.
“The course ran harder than I was expecting given the combination of undulations and a lack of other runners to reference your pace against within the relay format,” said Burdus-Cook, who made up three places during his stage.
David Parkin, also competing at this event for the first time, ran the anchor leg and improved the team’s standing by another three positions with his 22:14 split.
“The scale of the event and the process of getting the runners on to the course was a little daunting,” said Parkin. “But once you were up and running, it was a good distance to go hard at.”
Martyn Helliker produced a 23:34 lead-off for the B team. The squad then benefitted from the late line-up swap when Andy Cox was given the second leg for the team, clocking a swift 23:27 to move up eight places.
David Jones, who has spent much of 2018 rehabbing his way back from a knee injury, recorded a 28:00 split on the third leg for the B team.
“Despite having no time for a warm up and having a heat pad on my back, I was delighted to be not only sporting the yellow and black vest again but also to have been just 17 seconds slower than last year, after not having run for the first eight months of the year,” he said.
Relays debutant Damian Wheeler moved the team up a few places with his 24:42 clocking on stage four before handing over to Alan Dwyer and Ben Twyman, who recorded splits of 26:22 and 27:21 respectively.
Stratford’s women’s quartet was led off by Sarah Vernon with a 21:17 clocking for the 4.33km lap.
“After the stress of getting to the start line just on time and not having time for a warm up, I was really happy with my result,” said Vernon. “I really enjoyed it, and improved a lot in pace from my run at the Midland 12-stage Relays in March.”
Rebecca Pridham was also pleased with her improved form as her second-leg run of 21:04 was two minutes faster than her mark from 2017.
“I felt strong and fast and was delighted to make up 16 places,” she said. “It’s a huge confidence boost for me coming into the cross-country season. It’s great to be back.”
Suzi Graham kept Stratford among the top 80 teams with her 21:58 effort on the third leg before Emily Adams brought the team home with a 19:31 stage, the club’s fastest of the day.
“It felt a more comfortable run than last year – even that big hill at the start,” said Adams. “It was well worth the nightmare journey to take part in this.”
Team manager Danny Tolhurst was happy with the club’s performance.
“Each of our athletes performed with great credit,” he said. “Their enthusiasm and positivity meant it was a pleasure to be team manager. I was especially delighted to see our debutants run extremely well and express the desire to return for future events.”
Birchfield Harriers won both races. Their men’s team clocked 1:48:01 while the women’s team recorded 1:02:57. Nearly 700 men and more than 450 women took part in the senior races on Saturday.