RICH Shephard and Josh Newman helped give Stratford Athletic Club a strong start in the first fixture of the Birmingham Cross Country League.
Competing in the Division Two race at Cob House Country Park just outside Worcester, the duo finished fourth and fifth respectively in a highly-competitive field. It was the first time Stratford AC had placed two athletes within the top five in a senior men’s cross country league race, providing a huge morale boost to the rest of the team.
After finishing in a best-ever eighth position last season, hopes were high for an even better cross country season this winter, especially as the joint management duo of Danny Tolhurst and Malcolm Bowyer were still in post.
The rain that had been forecast never materialised and instead the race was run in pleasant November sunshine on a flat, grassy course.
Shephard and Newman have competed with distinction for the club over the past couple of years but this was the first time they had both produced performances of this magnitude in the same race.
Never far apart throughout the race, Shephard made a telling move on the second lap and held the advantage to the line to finish fourth in 35:04. Newman followed soon afterwards to take fifth place in 35:16.
Just two weeks after completing the gruelling Snowdonia Marathon – and subsequently injuring his ankle – the experienced Tim Hutchinson made a great return to racing to place 50th in 38:02, just getting the better of Olly Senior, who finished 53rd in 38:09.
Another inter-club battle developed just behind as Alex Hill – 81st in 39:42 – overcame a lack of sleep to make a noticeable impression on his cross country debut. He finished just ahead of last year’s most-improved athlete Matt Burdus-Cook, who finished 82nd in 39:43. His strong finish almost reversed the positions on the line.
The A team score of 275 points meant Stratford finished seventh on the day, reinforcing the optimism of the club’s expectations for the rest of the season.
Next was another of the big improvers from last year – Dave Parkin, 96th in 40:24 – who felt strong and was pleased with his top-100 finish, improving from 192nd in his only race last year.
Stratford’s next six finishers were all close to one another, separated by just 49 seconds. Martyn Helliker (107th in 40:44) was another huge improver from last year, while Danny Tolhurst (110th in 40:54) doubled his usual weekly mileage with this one race.
He was followed by the returning from injury Kieran Tursner (116th in 41:06), gutsy James Cusack (117th in 41:06) and Malcolm Bowyer (124th in 41:23) who was pleased to be the final scorer for the B team.
The B team score of 670 points secured themselves seventh position in the B team competition.
Chris Cond (128th in 41:29) and David Smyth (150th in 43:17) were just outside the scorers. Neil Gardiner (186th in 46:29), Mike Sheppard (193rd in 47:17) and Ben Twyman (204th in 48:58) were next to finish.
Cross country debutant Ryan Bakewell finished 212th in 50:07, while Mike Barrie brought the team home in 215th in 50:36.
“I was delighted with the team performance,” said joint team manager Tolhurst. “To have two top teb finishers is brilliant and I was also pleased with how well our debutants ran.
“Hopefully the team will be largely the same for the next race, with maybe a few additions, and we can consolidate our league position.”
Report compiled by Tony Jackson.