Forget the FA Cup third round or (another) darts world championship, the big sporting weekend of the first weekend of January is happening right on our doorstep, with the Surrey Cross-country Championships in Lloyd Park.
Don’t underestimate it, this is a large event and incredibly significant on the calendar for local clubs: from when the starter’s gun fires at 10.30 to begin the boys’ under-13s race, there are another nine age groups racing throughout the day, involving more than 1,500 serious runners, with the senior women’s event over five miles starting at 11.10am and the men’s, over 7.5 miles, the last race on the programme, at 1.45pm.
And beware: although Croydon Council is involved with the organisation in terms of providing facilities in the park, no allowance has been made for visiting runners to park their cars, so the side roads nearby could be clogged. With road closures around Coombe Road and South Croydon, as well as yesterday’s burst water main on the Purley Way, expect some traffic congestion locally.
The start and finish area is right by the Lloyd Park tram stop, so there’s no excuse for not using public transport if you’re going along to spectate.
And whatever the weather, the chances are the event will not be cancelled. Cross-country running, loathed by generations of school kids forced into doing it when other games have had to be postponed because of bad weather, is rarely called off, even in this age of “health and safety”.
This is sport at its most basic and primeval, as it is the runners against each other, the hills and the mud, and against themselves. Through various running “booms” since the first London Marathon in 1981, this event has grown in size, while its athletic significance and prestige might have diminished down the years. This will be the 12th time in 14 years that the switchback circuit around Lloyd Park has staged the Surreys, although the course is no where near as demanding as previous venues including Coulsdon, Brockwell Park, or Camberley with its “killer” hill.
Past title-winners have included Olympic athletes, world record-breakers and Games medallists, from the days of Gordon Pirie, the South London Harrier who used to train with his club on Farthing Down, through the likes of Bernie Ford, John Bicourt, and Hercules Wimbledon’s Dave Clarke, a multiple winner of the National Cross-country title.
On the women’s side, Shireen Bailey (ex-Croydon Harrier) won in 1988, before going on later that year to make the Olympic 800 metres final, while Zara Hyde – these days the chief executive of British Triathlon – won the Surrey women’s title eight times in 11 years at the end of the last century.
The last “big name” to win the Surrey men’s title was probably John Gladwin in 1986, the year that the Belgrave Harrier won 1,500m silver at the Commonwealth Games behind Steve Cram.
Every race includes a team event, and it is here where much local pride is at stake. Don’t hold your breath waiting for a Croydon Harriers, or even Striders of Croydon, success. Watch out, though, for the white vests with black diagonal crosses of Thames Hare and Hounds, the world’s oldest cross-country club, with its strong Oxbridge links.
In the age group races, for kids from 11 years of age upwards, there is most of the fiercest competition is to be seen and often talent of the future to be seen. One past Surrey age group winner was Don Faircloth, the now retired Croydon Council worker and Croydon Harrier, who was the bronze medal-winner in the marathon at the 1970 Commonwealth Games. Faircloth, though, never won the Surrey senior men’s cross-country.
There may even be some sort of omen in the programme for tomorrow’s event: last year’s senior men’s race winner was someone called Torry. But he’s not running again.
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