Judd School and St Aidan’s prevail in King Henry VIII Relays

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Exciting races at long-standing inter-schools cross-country race in Coventry

A one-second victory in the girls’ race and a new course record in the boys’ event led to a tumultuous day of racing at the biggest school relay of the year on Wednesday (Feb 1), James Taylor reports.

In the context of dwindling numbers on the school circuit, that this most famous race saw its highest standards in a generation is encouraging, perhaps an early impact of the new Senior Schools’ Cup. The trailblazers remain the Judd boys, unbeaten domestically since 2019, but with a pesky asterisk against last year’s triumph here in Coventry, second to a controversially disqualified Abingdon sextet.

This year they blitzed the opposition with a stunning 69:05, which, accounting for a 16sec per leg penalty for the 1991 course shortening, was well under the 71:17 previous mark held by local rivals Skinners’ from the golden era of distance running. On this evidence, guest of honour Neil Appleby will not have to wait much longer for his 43-year-old individual record (10:50) to also be improved.

Conditions and shoe technology played their part. Even a decade ago, the majority of runners would wear spikes around this multi-terrain loop, but recent improvements to the tarmac perimeter path raises the ceiling of the new ‘super-shoes’. On a dry day such as this one, any time lost tiptoeing through the early woods section is more than gained on the remaining course. Even the cold breeze, lamented by ill-equipped spectators, did not trouble the athletes, as much of the course is well-sheltered by trees lining the park.

The boys’ first leg here usually builds to a well-contested burn-up. This year was a little different as Ethan Brady Jones of St Anselm’s took it on at half-way to return in 11:11, clear of a small chase group containing the recognisable podium-chasing vests of Calday Grange, Abingdon and Shrewsbury. Judd had Huxley Crush, on paper their weakest of the six, finish safely over half a minute in arrears.

St Anselms’ last won this event in 2007 – remarkably the last time Judd had not finished in the top three – and Oberon Kearney maintained the lead on leg two with an 11:45 clocking. But this was as good as it got for the frontloading Merseysiders, who slipped back as the race went on. Loreto College, confusing spectators with a lack of clear team kit, also showed prominently through Ethan Nation (11:35), but then similarly dropped back. Just behind, Jamie Macdonald was scything through to an ominous third place for Judd with a stage-fastest 11:18, as rivals Abingdon dropped back.

Judd’s ascendency continued on stage three, as their breakthrough star of the season, Tom Claridge, lopped 91 seconds off his time from last year for 11:20, moving ahead inside the first mile and stretching out to a comfortable lead they were not to relinquish. Behind, Quinn Miell-Ingram continued his good form from the Southern Cross, moving Abingdon back into the medals with 11:15, while Bourne’s Cup Final winner Harry Hewitt ran the stage-fastest 11:12.  

Judd Captain Ed Coutts extended the lead with 11:14 on leg four, the fourth fastest of the day. The race for the minor medals remained close, as Abingdon, Sevenoaks and Shrewsbury all arrived in turn, the latter with the highly anticipated Jack Kinrade, the 2022 leading under-17 800m man running over-distance in a respectable 11:44.

Stage five was uneventful as George Hopkins (11:37) pushed the Judd lead out over two minutes, and eyes switched between the stopwatch and the ongoing battle for second: Shrewsbury caught Abingdon but lost a few seconds in the sprint, with Calday Grange returning to the mix having lost some ground mid-race.

It was left to World Schools’ silver medallist Josh Prendergast to bring it home for Judd with a relaxed 11:38. He would have been relieved for the cushion for his injury-comeback race, as behind, Will Singleton was storming into second in 10:55. The fastest of the day and sixth best all-time, this performance suggests the Shrewsbury man could heavily revise his 8:25 and 3:53 track PBs. Abingdon’s Will D’Arcy, not at his best after a frustrating time with illness, completed a brave run for bronze in 11:41, keeping a safe gap to William Sutcliffe for Calday Grange (11:35).

Impressively, the top four team times would have won any other race on this course from 1991 to 2018. Judd’s statement win was their third in a row and eighth in total. Only St Alban’s have won more (11), all courtesy of the late George Harrison MBE, whose death only last week prompted such widespread emotion. The Judd team manager, Simon Fraser, was one of many who George guided through this sport, and his team’s performance here was a fine tribute.

St Aidan’s win close girls’ race

There were no course records in the girls’ race, but equally impressive strength in depth – the top eight girls were all inside the previous 10th best time since the girls’ race started in 2000. The first of four stages was won by GB steeplechase international Gabby Phelan who ran a canny 12:47 for Upton Hall, coming from behind to finish very strongly from Iris Downes (Shrewsbury, 12:57) and Emily Gibbins of the defending champions Bradford GS (13:04). The eventual contestants for gold, St Aidan’s and Ratcliffe College, both started steadily about a minute back.

A full-strength Bradford team would have kicked on at this point, but they sorely missed their star international Rebecca Flaherty here and they fell way back on stage two. So Upton Hall remained in a clear lead at half-way, through Hannah Brearton’s modest 14:15, but behind it was closing right up, including Ratcliffe and St Aidan’s who had Luan Power (13:38) and Ella Colbourn (13:33) build on their team-mates’ steady first legs respectively. They were joined by Midland champion Zoe Gilbody, who surged through for Thomas Telford with a superb 12:21 for the second fastest split of all-time, behind only Harriet Knowles-Jones’ outrageous 12:07 course record from 2016. 

St Aidan’s win (Mark Hookway)

St Aidan’s finally took the lead midway through the third stage with Niamh Robinson’s 13:41 and she was able to eke out a crucial 17-second lead over Ratcliffe’s Matilda Don (14:04). Upton Hall slipped to a similar distance behind in third.

The final stage was beautifully poised as the three contenders who were all medallists at their regional championships only days earlier. Northern U20 bronze medallist Eve Whitaker took over the baton for St Aidan’s. Her challenger, much younger but with experience on this course, Midland U15 champion Shai King, went out hard for Ratcliffe, desperate to challenge the lead. Not far behind, the U15 Northern bronze medalist Holly Cross was ready to pounce for the early leaders Upton Hall.

With 1km to go, the gap was down to five seconds and it seemed as if the Leicestershire girl would do it. But Whitaker stayed strong up the final hill and, although King finished fast to close the gap to a rounded second on the line, St Aidan’s first win at this event did not seem in doubt at that point.

With a young team, Ratcliffe will be confident of reversing the result next year, while all other schools will be sure that they must bring a very good squad to be competitive at these relays from now on.

Boys (6x3km): 1 The Judd 69:05 (H Crush 11:56, J MacDonald 11:18, T Claridge 11:20, E Coutts 11:14, G Hopkins 11:37,J Prendergast 11:38); 2 Shrewsbury 70:50 (K Tung 11:25, B Keay 12:03, D Grinall 12:37, J Kinrade 11:44, H Parker-McLain 12:02, W Singleton 10:55); 3 Abingdon 71:31 J James 11:25, J Charity-Williams 12:40, Q Miell-Ingram 11:15, O Sherratt 12:21, H Channon 12:08, W D’Arcy 11:41); Calday Grange GS 71:43; 5 St Anselm’s; 73:32; 6 Bourne GS 73:57

Fastest: Singleton 10:55; E Brady-Jones (St Anselm’s) 11:11; Miell-Ingram 11:15;

Girls (4x3km): 1 St Aidan’s 54:16 (E Dickson 14:07, E Colbourn 13:33, N Robinson 13:41, E Whitaker 12:54); 2 Ratcliffe 54:17 (V Rudkin 13:56, L Power 13:38, M Don 14:04, S King 12:38); 3 Upton Hall 54:45 (G Phelan 12;47, H Brearton 14:15, E Theobald 14:57, H Cross 12:45; 4 Thomas Telford 56:11; 5 Bradford GS 56:21; 6 The Judd 57:05

Fastest: Gilbody (T Telford) 12:21; King 12:38; Cross 12:45

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