On the final Saturday of Michaelmas, the Oxford and Cambridge cross country clubs descended on Wimbledon Common for the Cross Country Varsity Match.
The action for the day kicked off with the traditional ‘old gits’ races. Former OUCCC Club Captain Miles Chandler warrants a special mention for storming to the top spot in the Men’s race, although Cambridge took the overall victory 91-158 with their strength in numbers.
In the first of the Varsity matches for the day, the Blues women took to the course to tackle a grueling 4-mile loop. This race was the first where the women competed with teams of 8, up from 7 in previous years to match the numbers in the men’s race. Both blues races are just a single lap, which makes it incredibly difficult for spectators to see all the action so we got reports from runners in both races to see how they played out.
Charlotte Dannatt (the eventual silver medalist!) recalls the women’s race:
‘The race started fairly briskly with people starting to slow before the bottleneck into the woods en route to the water jump (which this year was a river at least 12 feet wide and some 3 feet deep). Post river crossing a small pack of 2 Cambridge Runners, Alex Shipley and I broke away. This group dropped down to just two tabs and myself after about a mile which was pretty handy for the ascents and descents on narrow paths. Nearing the half way point, Nancy (Cambridge) and I had a decent gap on third place and a reasonable one on the majority of the field. I was just focusing on trying to stick on her shoulder and not let the space between us stretch, aided by the tremendous support from current and past Oxford athletes.’
‘Our gap continued to grow as we hit the fastest flat point of the course, but the terrain was far wetter, muddier and slippier than the previous year, making this part of the course more challenging. At one point, when I was slightly ahead, I thought I was going to take the win but coming down the last hill with about a half mile to go Nancy passed me and produced a small but significant gap. I continued to push to the line, closing the gap slightly but didn’t quite have enough to take her and clinch victory. Turning around I watched a stream of tabs come through before our next runner and knew that it was likely we wouldn’t be the victorious side this year.’
Cambridge were announced the winners in the women’s race (46 -33) but that should take nothing away from one of the strongest women’s teams Oxford have fielded in recent years. A special mention must also go to our contributor Charlotte for her outstanding run which landed her a silver medal, as well as Eleanor Bolton who overcame the heartbreak of being blues reserve last year to finish 6th and be the second Oxford runner over the line. The Oxford depth was also outstanding with Alex Shipley, Flo Scrafton, Anna Sharp, Laura John and Hannah Plaschkes all packing well and completing Oxford’s scoring team before Cambridge’s 6th runner – unfortunately, Cambridge had done the damage with 4 of the first 5 runners in.
So, with one match left to race, the overall Varsity Cross Country series was tied at 3-all. It all came down to the 128th Gentleman’s Match. 7.5 miles of brutal and lonely racing on the common. Tim Harrison recounts the ordeal:
‘Cambridge controlled the pace from the start with Phil Crout (Cambridge) leading through the water jump, although this may have been impacted by an early fall from Tim Lefroy (Oxford). George Gathercole (Cambridge) took the lead through the early wooded areas, ignoring shouts from his teammates to slow the pace down. However, as the race developed Oxford’s front men (Lefroy, Parkinson and Millar) emerged and were fully in control of the pace by the second mile. It was around this time that Noah Hurton (Oxford) and 3 of the other Cambridge athletes started to slide off the back of the pack.’
‘Positions were traded along the valley floor as there was no favoured racing lines across logs and ditches, but as the runners ascended the hill to the memorial there was a clear separation developing between the main pack and the back group that had fallen off. The pack gradually split up along the relatively flat section though the front 4 stayed tightly together. Oxford’s middle section seemed to struggle on the hard-packed gravel from miles 3 to 4 with Metselaar, Christofi and myself all sitting outside the top 8 positions.’
‘True to form, as the course hit the tussocky grass behind the windmill, Christofi woke up from his steady start and drove forward through the Cambridge runners. The change in terrain combined with the dark blue cheers drove me and Metselaar onwards. By the start of mile 6 Christofi had passed and dropped Cambridge’s Shreeve, Cox and Crout and was rapidly closing on Ryle Hodges (Cambridge); while Cotter (Oxford) and I sat with Crout (Cambridge). The front quartet of Gathercole, Parkinson, Millar and Lefroy sat tightly packed with the large dark blue presence ensuring that Oxford kept control of the pace and whilst denying Gathercole the best lines. Noah Hurton by this point had dug deep and dropped the 3 Cambridge backmarkers and was reconnecting with Luuk Metselaar. The final steep downhill section with just under a mile and a half to go allowed meant allowed me to pass Ryle-Hodges and extend a small lead on the undulating terrain that followed.’
‘Across the last mile, the front 4 remained tightly packed. However, anyone who bet against the class of Jamie Parkinson was left sorely disappointed as he unleashed his sprint finish, taking victory for the second year in a row. Gathercole narrowly edged out Tim Lefroy on the line leaving Millar comfortably in 4th place. Christofi followed through soon after and I managed to hold off a challenge from Cambridge’s Ryle-Hodges in the last 100m. Next in were another three Cambridge runners with Metselaar closing the Oxford scoring 6 closely followed by Cotter and Hurton not far behind.’
This incredible performance meant Oxford had managed to get all 8 of their team across the line before Cambridge’s scorers (first 6). The 50 – 30 scoreline is a testament to the high-level performance of the men’s team this year and, of course, sealed the Overall 4-3 Varsity Victory for the club. This capped off a fantastic series of races and, although we seem to say it every year (because the standard just keeps on improving), the standard of this series of Varsity matches was among the highest anyone at the club can recall.
We’d also like to thank our sponsors Neptune for helping us over several years to make events like The Varsity Match possible.
–Charlotte Dannatt, St John’s College, and Tim Harrison, Keble College
-Adapted from the Blue Bird: https://bit.ly/2QM0MnH
-Photos by Helene Greenwood and Claire Hammett