I arrive in Lincoln at around 10am, the first face I see is Shane Robinson and he seems relaxed for once. In fact, he’s actually quite excited, as he explains that it’s the first day this week in which he hasn’t woken up with a sore throat. Quickly we get down to business to check to see if any of the other likely contenders have declared their teams. They haven’t. Instead, we spend a good 15 minutes talking ‘if’s’ and ‘but’s’ and once again conclude that we should be right up there in medal contention.
We head out of Laureate house, the home of LTC, and meet the rest of the boys inside Matt Bowser’s campervan – affectionately known as the ‘sex bus’. It’s not a bad journey down to Birmingham and for once, after a few questionable overtakes on route, we arrive at Sutton Park on time. We put a bit on a bit of Aqua, Dr.Jones followed by Barbie Girl and make our usual raucous entrance. I’m slightly dismayed to see that Bowser doesn’t pull any handbrake turns into his parking spot, however this must mean he’s serious.
No team talks are needed today, the boys know what they need to do. I have a quiet word in the ear of Shane before he departs up the hill to get ready for the scrum start on the first leg. I just want him to relax and run like he does in Armagh every year. Shane is an enigma. On his day (usually in February) he can be brilliant, but when it’s not his day he can be bloody awful. The sight of him crawling up the final hill in about 50th place last year lingers in my mind as the gun goes – surely we won’t see a repeat performance today.
My heart sinks as I see the leaders come through with about 400m to go. 1st, 2nd… 13th, 14th all fly past, these are guys Shane should be with, but there’s still no sight of him. After what seems like hours he finally appears. He doesn’t look pretty, but his legs are still turning over fairly well. I dash across to the finish line and see him cross in 19th place, in a time of 17:54. By no means is this as disastrous as last year, but we’ve got some making up to do.
Tom Straw is on our next leg and I watch the outline of a golden-tanned man flow into the distance. Tom has been in great shape all Summer and I know I can rely on him carving through the field to pull us back into contention. Wait, if I’m on 4th leg I should be warming up by now. I glance at my watch and realise my calculations of starting my leg at 3:10pm are way off. I pull off some layers and go for a quick mile jog. I read Ron Hill’s two books on holiday in Menorca the other week and he quite often arrived at races late. If a quick mile was good enough for Ron, then it would be good enough for me too, I thought.
Tom Straw is on next leg and I watch the outline of a golden-tanned man flow into the distance. Tom has been in great shape all Summer and I know I can rely on him carving through the field to pull us back into contention.
The sight of Tom coming around the final bend is the signal to me to start doing a few drills and strides. He’s made up a good few places and I count that we’re now in 9th position. Worryingly though his face looks stressed and as I approach him to ask how it felt, he tells me that he’s just been sick everywhere. Thankfully, he’s still run a solid leg and with a time just under 17:50 he’s done exactly what we wanted him to do. Right, it’s King Lucan time.
I have a last minute portaloo stop and then I’m on to doing my drills on the flat grass patch by the start/finish area. I feel terrible. I just about muster the energy to do a couple of half-hearted strides and then I’m ushered into the starting pen. I try to relax and talk to some of the other runners as I await the sight of the leanest man in the sport. Lucian has been a revelation this year and has proceeded to PB in every race he has run, he’s surely a dead certainty to run well. I spot his white backwards cap weaving past a few runners up the hill and I dash onto the start line.
The starting marshal holds me back as I get ready to launch myself down the first hill. I wait for her call and soon enough her arm lifts and I’m off. I quickly set about trying to chase down a couple of runners who are within catching distance. But I can also hear the footsteps of a runner behind me, and after just 400m or so the white vest with red band of Dan Studley of Bristol and West fly’s past. Dan’s a good runner and I know that he ran a 17:30 leg at the Midlands Road Relays a few weeks ago, so I have to try to stick on him. I make an effort to close the small gap that’s formed and by the time we’ve summitted the first hill I’m right on his tail.
Within the first mile, we’ve passed Cheltenham, Brighton and Highgate and I hear a shout to say we’re in 2nd and 3rd position, respectively. I feel relatively comfortable and glance at my watch and see the first mile is outside five minutes – a little slow, but it’s now time to push on. During the long out and back stretch, I try to shelter behind Dan from the stiff wind. I offer to do my share of the work, but every time I come alongside he surges in front again.
A few more surges later and I realise he’s trying to drop me, but I stick right on his back through two miles and now we can now see the leader within catching distance. We reach the ice cream van at 4k, before the sharp descent back down the hill, and my legs don’t seem to want to stretch out. Dan puts in another effort and I just can’t find the leg speed to go with him. I concentrate and realise I’ve got to maintain the gap between us. Through the final rolling hills section I start to catch Dan again and the leader is now definitely catchable. Turning the final corner, I try to push up the hill to the finish, but Dan is pulling away again. I don’t have much of a sprint finish at the best of times and it’s once again deserted me today. I glance at my watch and can see I’m close to dipping under the 17:50 mark. Time to relax, job done.
Back down at the tent (yes, we actually had a tent this year), I put on some clothes and set about trying to find the rest of the boys. I feel drained as I attempt the mile jog up the hill and am soon relieved to see them all. The news is that Bowser has now been joined by Aldershot and Tonbridge in a three-way battle for second and third position. Soon enough I see the group rolling down the hill, with Bowser tucked right at the back of the group. He looks relaxed and strong and they’ve formed a sizable lead over Bristol who are now in 5th position. It quickly dawns on us that barring disaster, with Swansea not being eligible for an English medal, we should be a safe bet for a medal.
We cut across the course to the 2k point to await the sight of Joe Wilkinson who has the ominous task of racing Chris Olley of Tonbridge and Jonny Hay of Aldershot for the medals. Dewi Griffiths quickly cruises past for Swansea and it’s obvious that their lead isn’t going to be relinquished. Through a mix of lapped runners another runner appears. It’s Joe, and he’s got a small gap too. We try to give him as much encouragement as possible and race back across the course to get in position for the finish. It’s soon obvious that Bowser has employed a sit and kick job and used his pace to give Joe a small lead over Tonbridge and Aldershot going into the final leg.
It’s squeaky bum time. We’re on the final leg now and a medal is a real possibility. Bowser joins the group at the 400m to go point and he’s also run a 17:49 leg – meaning just 8 seconds separate the times of our first five runners. We wait nervously for the sight of the lead runners and soon enough the lead bike with Dewi in tow zooms past. Rumours begin to circulate that the next three are now locked together with less than half a mile to go. Soon enough we see the three of them and it’s still ridiculously close and too tight to call. Olley now has a few seconds lead on Joe, who has a similar gap on Hay and we ourselves sprint over to the finish straight to see who will win the battle of the final hill.
Leaning over the barriers we’re screaming for Joe to finish it off. Olley has pulled clear and crosses the line for Tonbridge earning them a deserved silver medal. Joe is holding on, but we all know about the Hay finish. He glances behind and gives it one big last effort, crossing the line to bring home a bronze medal. We’ve finally won a national senior men’s medal! We rush to congratulate Joe and he’s absolutely destroyed himself to run our quickest leg of the day, a 17:24 clocking. In fact, those three runners locked in the battle for the minor medals ran the 4th, 7th and 5th fastest legs of the day, respectively.
I couldn’t be prouder of the lads, this is a medal that we’ve worked for years to win. Ever since I first joined the club over 10 years ago, as a skin headed lad with a shuffle and a gimp arm, we’ve had the potential to be a bigger club. This was about the same time that Shane and Tom joined the club and along with Bowser, we’ve dreamt about this day for a long while. But, now we’ve had a taste of success we’re hungry for more, so don’t expect to see us too far off the medals this Winter.
1 Swansea Harriers ‘A’ 1:45:16
2 Tonbridge Ac ‘A’ 1:46:30
3 Lincoln Wellington AC ‘A’ 1:46:34
Shane Robinson (19) 17:54
Tom Straw (10) 17:49
Lucian Allison (5) 17:47
Aaron Scott (3) 17:51
Matthew Bowser (2) 17:49
Joe Wilkinson (3) 17:24