Cheltenham Harriers enjoyed one of the most successful days in the club’s history as both their ladies and men’s teams claimed silver medals at the Midland Road Relay Championships in Sutton Coldfield. Whilst the men’s team has regularly gained regional medals in recent years and has established a reputation as one of the Midlands top clubs, not many people outside Cheltenham would have predicted that the Harriers would be competing for the medals in the ladies race. Last year the club were delighted to finish in fifteenth place having not had a team in the championship for many years, but under the guidance of coach Dave Newport and team manager Jo Wilkie the club has developed a competitive squad and they approached the race full of confidence. Alice Taylor took the highly competitive opening stage and produced a fine run to complete the hilly 4.33km course in an impressive 15:41 to finish in eighth place in the 117 strong field. Leg two then saw Gillian Palmer make her debut for the club. The former Scottish Commonwealth Games international quickly moved through the field as she produced the fastest time of her leg and fourth quickest time of the day, with her 15:00 moving the team up into second place. With the race at the halfway point Birchfield retained their leg one lead and were 49 seconds clear of the Harriers, who in turn were 44 seconds ahead of third placed Birmingham Running and Triathlon Club. Hilary Mott then produced the fastest time on leg three with an impressive 15:26,that was also the ninth fastest leg of the day, to close the gap on Birchfield by six seconds. More significantly, the gap to third had grown with Bristol now occupying the final medal position 1:44 behind. This left Naomi Eaton with the task of ensuring the Harriers could claim their first ever ladies Midland team medal. The Gloucestershire Cross Country champion did not disappoint as she produced a very pleasing 16:02 leg that claimed the silver medals as Birchfield finished 1:30 ahead for gold and Bristol trailed 2:10 behind in third. The Harriers ladies also fielded a B team for the first time in many years, with team manager Jo Wilkie taking the opening leg of 17:26 for 26th place before Amber Watson impressed with 16:48 to gain twelve places. After Agata Giles’ 21:08 the team were intriguingly lying in 32nd position, just one place and one second behind the A team of local rivals CLC striders. This saw Gemma Collier go head to head with CLC’s Patricia Sturgess with both athletes moving through the field before Collier ensured the team finished the race in 23rd place, one position and sixteen seconds clear of the Striders.
Whilst the ladies were a surprise package, the Harriers men were hoping to follow up their recent success of bronze in 2015 and silver in 2016 with at least another medal and maybe even a shot at a first ever Midlands team gold. Dan Owen got the team off to a good start as he completed the testing 5.88km loop in 18:17 to finish in third place from the 119 teams. This left the Harriers seventeen seconds adrift of Tipton and seven seconds behind Heanor, but crucially Owen opened up 21 and 23 seconds respectively over rivals Birchfield (10th) and Bristol (11th), whilst Notts (14th) were even further adrift. Dave Roper then caught the two athletes in front and had a close battle with Heanor’s Matthew Bickerstaff before pulling clear to hand over in the lead. This gave the Cheltenham team a four second lead over both Heanor and Bristol who had moved through the field with Tom Merson’s 17:59. With Graham Rush on leg three it was hopefully just going to be a question of how much the lead extended, but on the first half of the leg the gains were relatively small. However, Rush’s class showed in the second half as he produced the fastest leg of the day with a 17:35 clocking that gave the team a 55 second lead over Bristol whilst Birchfield were a further nine seconds adrift as the race reached the half way point. Leg four was always going to be crucial with Bristol’s Dan Studley chasing down Phil Beastall. Studley reduced the Harriers lead by sixteen seconds despite Beastall clocking his fastest ever time on the course with a very pleasing 17:53. Ben Price headed off knowing that he had to realistically hold the 39 second margin to give Oli Mott any chance of glory. Despite Price running well for a course PB of 18:23 Bristol closed the gap to sixteen seconds with Jarlath McKenna’s 18:00. So just like at the 2016 event, Andy Prophett’s team held a narrow lead over Bristol with one stage remaining with Steve Mitchell poised to close down the gap. Mott held on until around half way but Mitchell’s 17:51 gave Bristol the gold by 32 seconds with Mott’s 18:39 claiming silver as the Harriers finished 64 seconds clear of Birchfield. The Harriers time of 1:49:05 was their fastest on the course that has been used at the Midland and National Championships since 2001 and was also quicker than the time Bristol posted when winning the Midland title last year.
The Harriers B team was looking to break the club’s highest ever B team finish of ninth place and they did not disappoint as Richard de-Camps (19:22) and Charlie Jones (19:34) gave them a good start before James Denne (18:54) took them into eighth at halfway. Alex Lee (19:33) and Dave Aubrey (19:51) ran well before Alex Bampton (18:57) ran a course PB to take the team up into seventh place overall and second B team behind Tipton. The C team also posted a club record for a C team as they finished fourteenth and leading C team thanks to Mark James (19:57), Dan Thomas(19:40), Doug Wight (20:00), Jon Barnes (20:25), Marc Fallows (20:20) and Dan King (19:56). The Harriers D, E and F teams were also first in their categories with the D team 36th through Andy Gore (21:08), Mike Gray (20:23), Jacob Pickering (20:39), Alex Lindfield (20:56), Iain Devlin (22:04) and Roger Mullins (20:43). Dave Rantell (21:47), Andrew Kaighin (22:26), James Wilkinson (21:24), Elliot Prince (22:04), Dan Minors (22:31) and Russell Forsbrook (21:22) then gave the E team 48th position. The Harriers also had an F team for the first time with Steve Bradley (21:47), Dave Francis (22:25), Matt Evans (22:11), Adam Lloyd (22:58), Ben Haywood (24:23) and Ian Giles (24:18) taking sixty-first place to complete a magnificent day for the club.