It was “mission accomplished” for our men at the South of England Road Relay Championships on Sunday, as they achieved their main aim of qualifying comfortably for the Nationals in Birmingham in two weeks’ time. They were also relishing a resumption of the usual local rivalry with Thames Valley Harriers and Hillingdon AC, both of whom had beaten them last year.
To qualify for the Nationals, clubs must finish within the top 25. The event consists of 12 stages, alternating a long leg of 7664m with a shorter loop of 5053, so there was scope to incorporate both endurance athletes and track specialists in the team.
1500m specialist Jamie Taylor-Caldwell got us off to a safe start, finishing 21st on the opening long leg. Despite the strong winds and wet weather that characterised the afternoon, he ran slightly quicker than last year, and put in our fastest long leg. At this point ESM were one place behind Hillingdon but a good minute ahead of TVH.
Ben Waterman, who normally races over 800m, then picked up five places to finish 16th. He overtook Hillingdon and opened up the gap over TVH to nearly three minutes. Veteran Pete Flewitt took up the running on leg three but lost five places. Things had got tense, with Hillingdon now two places ahead and TVH just five seconds behind.
However, from this point on the team gradually clawed their way back up the field. By the end of leg four, Nick Landeau had moved us up a place overall, overtaking Hillingdon in the process, and leaving TVH two minutes adrift.
Position 20 was maintained by Steve Elson over the longer leg that followed, though Mo Hashi lost a place on leg six. TVH had fielded their two fastest runners on these two legs, and built up a lead of well over a minute at this halfway point. Running during a particularly heavy downpour, Samir Haddad held on to 21st over the longer leg seven. He also maintained the lead over Hillingdon, though TVH pulled yet further ahead.
Seb Zajaczkowski then put in a particularly fine run on leg eight, winning back two places with the team’s quickest short leg of the day. He was also the third fastest runner overall on his leg. By this stage, victory over Hillingdon seemed assured, and TVH were almost within sight. Archie Jones won back another place over the long leg, further reducing TVH’s lead, and Luke Nicholas took full advantage on leg 10 by overtaking them.
Team captain Chris Hepworth managed to better his time from last year, despite the weather, and was rewarded with two extra places, bringing the team back up to 15th. Setting off neck-and-neck with an especially swift runner from South London Harriers, Malik Ouzia lost a place on the final leg, but the team was more than satisfied with its 16th place. The total time, at 4:25:04, was a three-minute improvement on the club’s previous best at this event. Hillingdon placed 21st and TVH placed 23rd, so all three local athletics clubs qualified for the Nationals.
With a much stronger squad than at the last two events, ESM had also entertained hopes of winning the award for the most improved team, but had to settle for second to Cambridge & Coleridge in that respect.
ESM results summary
Long leg (7664m): 21 Jamie Taylor-Caldwell 25:45; 21 Pete Flewitt 27:41; 20 Steve Elson 27:12; 21 Samir Haddad 27:20; 18 Archie Jones 27:37; 15 Chris Hepworth 25:59
Short leg (5053m): 16 Ben Waterman 16:34; 20 Nick Landeau 16:59; 21 Mo Hashi 17:44; 19 Seb Zajaczkowski 16:06; 17 Luke Nicholas 17:27; 16 Malik Ouzia 18:40