Dorset Senior Women's team at UK Inter Counties XC

Harriet Slade (left) and Nikki Sandell (right) were part of the Dorset team in the Senior Women’s race at the UK Inter Counties Cross Country, along with Alex Door (920) and Sarah Swift (927)

Long stretches of thick, gloopy, shoe swallowing mud and an extraordinarily high standard of competition was the order of the day for the Team Dorset runners when they ventured up to Loughborough for the UK Inter Counties Cross Country Championships.

Several Bournemouth AC runners had been selected to represent the county in the event including Richard Brawn and Rob McTaggart for the Senior Men and Harriet Slade and Nikki Sandell for the Senior Women.

There were also some BAC juniors who had made the journey up to Leicestershire, with Oliver James and Jasper Todd going in the Under 17 Men’s race, Neve East and Martha Preece in the Under 15 Girls race, Oscar Ewen Matthews and Stanley Peters in the Under 13 Boys category and Erin Wells featuring in the Under 13 Girls race.

It was set to be an interesting afternoon for the BAC athletes, with many highs and lows to be experienced amongst them. Up against the cream of the crop from counties all over the UK, it was always going to be a true test for them going up against the very best.

The Senior and Under 20 teams were looked after by Jan Westhenry and in the build up to the event, she worked hard to find the best athletes she could who were available to make the trip.

Some of places for the Dorset squad were determined by performances in the Dorset County Championships, so she already had some names down on the list for each age group off the back of those results.

Bournemouth AC junior development coach Simon Hearn was on hand to take on the role of team manager for the juniors, so he had to find the best runners he could from each different age category who were able to make the journey.

It was a task that Simon had no hesitation in stepping up to. He manages the junior teams for BAC in both the Hampshire and Wessex League cross countries so he was the perfect man to fulfil that position for the county.

Simon is a very accomplished coach and has a great relationship with the kids he looks after at BAC. He also has a good knack of getting the best out of them, both in training and in races.

The first Bournemouth AC member to run for Dorset on the day was Erin Wells who competed in the Under 13 Girls race. After finishing 27th in the National Cross Country Championships and 9th in the South West Inter County Championships, Erin is fast becoming one of BAC’s top rising stars. This was a great opportunity for her to showcase her ability on the UK county stage.

Erin Wells in the Unsder 13 Girls race at the UK Inter Counties XC

Erin Wells was competing in the Under 13 Girls race

She certainly didn’t disappoint in the respect and crossed the line as Dorset’s highest finisher in a team of eight runners. Her time for the 3k distance of 15:40 put her in 77th position overall out of 306 runners.

Considering she was facing some of the best young girls in the UK, that was a fantastic result for Erin. She spearheaded to Dorset team to a 34th place finish out of the 40 counties who scored.

After that it was the turn of the Senior Women, who knew that for this particular event, they had to run the same distance as the Senior Men, which is rare in cross country fixtures.

That meant seven miles of one on the most brutal cross country routes out there, with some sections so muddy that wellies would have probably been a more appropriate choice of footwear.

Nikki and Harriet in Dorset Senior Women's team

The Dorset Senior Women’s team pose for a photo before the games begin

Unfortunately for the Senior Women, only four of them had turned up and six were required for a team, so they knew they wouldn’t be scoring in the team competition.

For those who were there, it was just a case of trying to do the best they could and finish as high up as they could in a fiercely competitive field that was absolutely brimming with talent.

As Dorset County Champion, Harriet Slade was first out of the traps as they lined up in single file alongside all the other counties. Behind her it was Alex Door, who was second in the County Championship and had also finished as Dorset Road Race League champion for the 2019 season.

Harriet Slade on start line for Senior Women's race

Harriet lines up on the start line alongside all the top Senior Women from each county

They were backed up by Nikki Sandell who had received a late call up to the squad and Sarah Swift who had qualified by virtue of her performance in the County Championships.

None of the Dorset ladies came out of it feeling like they’d had a great run and they all suffered a fair bit on such difficult ground. It wasn’t the kind of race many people come out of thinking “Yeah, I’ve smashed that” though. It was more one where you get your head down and grind it out as best you can.

Nikki Sandell in UK Inter Counties Cross Country

Nikki comes round the corner on her first lap

Harriet Slade in UK Inter Counties Cross Country

Harriet was going well in the early stages of the race but there was still a long way to go

For much of the initial part of the race, Alex and Harriet were quite close to each other but towards the end of the first lap Alex began to pull away.

Completing the course in a time of 55:17, Alex took the accolade of being first Dorset runner home. She came in in 190th position out of 257 which, given the high standard of competitors she was up against, was a pretty good result.

Nikki Sandell in action in UK Inter Counties Cross Country

Nikki offers up a half grin, half grimace, as she goes past

Harriet Slade in action in UK Inter Counties Cross Country

Although she was suffering, Harriet kept pushing all the way round

Crossing the line just 23 seconds after Alex, Harriet took 196th place with her time of 55:40. Even though she found it really tough out there, she’d come out of it in a creditable position considering the level of opposition.

Although she was by no means at her fittest and at her strongest following a very lengthy lay-off through injury, Nikki dug in and gave it all she’s got, finishing in 238th place with a time of 59:16.

Sarah was probably one of the few women who actually looked like she was enjoying herself out there, or almost enjoying it at least! She always seems to go round with a smile on her face, regardless of how tough the conditions are. Arriving at the finish in a time of 1:00:56, Sarah came in in 244th position.

Backs of Dorset Senior Women's team

Despite the extremity of the mud and lengthy course, the Dorset senior women did their county proud

In the Under 17 Men‘s race, Oliver James turned in a magnificent performance to get over the line in 82nd place overall in a time of 23:13 for the 6k course. He was the top Dorset team member out of the seven in the race.

Oliver James in the Uner 17 Men's race at the UK Inter Counties XC

Oliver James delivered a superb performance in the Under 17 Men’s race to take 82nd place

Jasper Todd didn’t look out of place either despite the high quality of opposition. Finishing as the sixth placed Dorset runner out of seven, Jasper registered a time of 27:16 for the 6k course. That put him in 251st place out of the 265 finishers in the category.

Jasper Todd in the Uner 17 Men's race at the UK Inter Counties XC

Jasper Todd on his way to a scoring position for the Dorset Under 17 Men

Oliver and Jasper’s contributions to the Dorset cause helped them finish in 35th place out of 39 scoring counties in the Under 17 Men’s team competition.

Next to go it was the Under 13 Boys and in that race, Bournemouth AC star Oscar Ewen Matthews was the standout performer for Dorset. He did incredibly well to finish in 42nd place, clocking a time of 14:16 for the 3k distance. And that was out of 293 of the UK’s finest at that age.

Stanley Peters ran well as well to finish as fourth scorer for Dorset, crossing the line in a time of 15:28, which put him in 196th place. The Bournemouth AC pair helped Dorset to a 29th place finish out of the 40 counties that scored.

Stanley Peters in the Under 13 Boys race at the UK Inter Counties XC

Stanley Peters featured in the Under 13 Boys race

For the Under 15 Girls, it was Neve East who stole the show from a Dorset perspective. She was a highest finisher for the county, getting over the line in a time of 18:40, which is pretty impressive for a 4k route over such tough terrain.

That put Neve in 69th position in the overall standings in a field of 295 finishers. It was a truly magnificent performance from a BAC girl who is beginning to show some great potential.

Neve East in the Under 15 Girls race at the UK Inter Counties XC

Neve East ran well to record a 69th place finish in the Under 15 Girls race

Her BAC teammate and now county compatriot as well, Martha Preece, also put in a decent display to cross the line in a time of 21:24. That put her in 252nd position overall and made her fourth scorer out of the seven Dorset runners.

In the Under 15 Girls team competition, with the help of Neve and Martha, Dorset finished 33rd out of the 40 counties that fielded a scoring team.

Martha Preece in the Under 15 Girls race at the UK Inter Counties XC

Martha Preece was fourth quickest Dorset runner in the Under 15 Girls race

Last to go, but by no means least, it was the Senior Men. After his impressive performance in the Vitality Big Half the previous weekend, Tag decided to opt out of UK Inter Counties in the end so Rich Brawn was only Bournemouth AC man in the squad.

Fortunately, the men still had six Dorset representatives so provided they all finished, they would at least get a place on the team scoreboard.

The Dorset squad was bolstered by the inclusion of Tom Austin who runs for Poole AC. Tom had finished second in the recent Hampshire League Cross Country fixture at Prospect Park and had gone on to register 18th place in the Southern Cross Country Championships at Parliament Hill. He, therefore, came with great pedigree.

Having won the County Championships, Jamie Grose, also of Poole AC, had rightfully earned his place in the line up. He was joined by Fergus Johnson who had run the Vitality Big Half in 1:14:40 the previous weekend and was looking in great form.

Just as Rich had, Graham Sherwin and Bruce Campbell, who both run for Egdon Heath Harriers, had also qualified for the team off the back of their performances in the County Championships.

Whilst he’d been cheering on the Dorset ladies in the Senior Women’s race, Rich had also spotted Sian Thomas, who runs for City of Salisbury and was representing Wiltshire. She had mentioned to him during the race that she’d had to stop as her shoe had come off.

After the race Sian came over the Dorset tent and they were chatting and having a bit of a laugh about it. Rich had no idea then what was about to befall him in his race.

Because they’d heard a lot of people had been having trouble with their shoes coming off, most the Dorset guys set about putting tape around their spikes to ensure that didn’t happen to them.

Just before they got in the traps ready to start the race, Rich noticed that the tape on one of his shoes was already coming loose. That was a bit of a worry since he hadn’t even set off yet!

As the race started, the competitors surged down the opening straight and as they got to the first corner, it was quite a sharp bend creating a bottleneck. Rich got caught up in that and had to slow right down.

By that point a large proportion of the field had already got away and that was the beginning of a sequence of disastrous occurences for Rich.

Once they got to the deep, thick mud section, Rich could feel himself sinking in with every step he took. As he tried to lift his foot out, he could feel it getting stuck into the slop.

Rich soldiers on in the UK Inter Counties Cross Country

The mud was thick and like superglue but Rich Brawn had no choice but to go straight through it

It wasn’t long before his shoe completely came off and he had to stop and try to put it back on again. It was gutting for Rich as he lost a fair bit of time trying to get the shoe back on. He was already fairly near the back of the field by that point though, such was the high standard of competitors he was up against.

He got back going again though and set about chasing Bruce who had gone past him whilst he was putting his shoe back on. He managed to get back in front of Bruce but then again, his shoe came off and he had to once again stop to put it back on.

Rich and Bruce in the UK Inter Counties XC

Rich ran with his Dorset teammate Bruce Campbell for a substantial part of the race

It was a devastating blow for Rich and he began to realise that this was probably going to continually happen throughout the race. The thought of that filled him with dread, but there was nothing else he could really do but pick himself up and go again.

Once again, he set about trying to catch Bruce and low and behold, as soon as they hit another section of the sticky mud, his shoe came loose for a third time.

He took it to the side of the course and thought about whether to try tying the laces up again but his hands were so muddy and there was so much mud on his shoe, he couldn’t really do it. He just about managed to get the shoe back on and was off on his way for a third time.

Rich and Bruce Campbell in the UK Inter Counties XC

Rich and Bruce race through the field in a bid not become the backmarkers of the race

Fortunately they were now passed the muddiest sections on the lap, but Rich was aware it was a two-lap course so he knew he’d have to face those same difficulties all over again. This time he said to himself, if it happens again, he’s just going to take the shoe off and run in his sock.

Of course, once he got round to the really muddy section, it wasn’t long before his shoe was off again. This time he did just take it off, put it on his hand and carry on running, with just one shoe on. After that it became a lot easier as he didn’t have to worry about his shoe coming off all the time and he was able to pick up the pace a bit.

For the remaining three miles of the race, Rich continued with only one shoe. He actually ran a lot better after and found it fairly smooth sailing. The only bit that contravened that was a short section  through a woodland path that had some stones and flints on the ground.

Rich Brawn heads through the mud in Senior Men's race

This iconic image of Rich ploughing through the mud with his shoe in his hand pretty much summed up his race

That bit was a tad painful with no shoe on. But he persevered and made it to the finish, even managing to claw back a few places over those last few miles.

Meanwhile, much closer to the front of the field, it was Tom Austin who proved to be the star man for Dorset. He finished in 31st place with a time of 40:37, which was a magnificent result in such a high class field. To run 7 miles that quickly on that sort of terrain was an incredibly impressive effort.

The next man in for the green army was Jamie Grose who came in in 186th place, clocking a time of 45:17. An athlete of his standard finishing so far down the field says a lot about the level of competition out there.

Weighing in with an excellent performance, Graham Sherwin was the third Dorset man home, crossing the line in 46:36 which put him in 224th place. Then it was Fergus Johnson arriving at the finish next. He took 271st place with a time of 48:40.

For Rich and Bruce, it was a very sobering experience as they found themselves near the back of the field. That was something they were not really used to.

Completing the course in a time of 49:19, Rich was languishing down in 281st place, with Bruce reaching the line shortly after to register 284th place in a time of 49:42. There were 294 men who finished the race in total.

Dorset Senior Men's team at UK Inter Counties Cross Country

Rich Brawn (right) with Fergus Johnson (left), Graham Sherwin (4141) and Bruce Campbell (4136)

Bruce didn’t let the race effect his confidence though and hammered out a huge PB of 1:17:28 the following weekend at the Bath Half Marathon. Again, the fact that a runner of his calibre could finish up where did in UK Inter Counties underlines the quality of the field.

Since all six of the Dorset representatives finished, they did feature on the team scoreboard, taking 30th place out the 31 counties who scored.

Backs of Senior Men's team at UK Inter Counties XC

It was a tough race and hadn’t gone entirely to plan but the Dorset men had given it their best shot

It was an event that certainly brought about mixed fortunes for the Dorset possie. Some will look back on it with fond memories and others will probably still be having nightmares about for years to come. But one thing they’ll all have in common is that they’ll all be able say, it was a character building experience!

Dorset Senior Women's team before UK Inter Counties XC race

There was a great team spirit and comradery around the Dorset camp and that was certainly a highlight of the weekend