Why the English National is the stuff of champions

A look back at some of the great successes in the long history of the National Cross Country Championships

It was not the most propitious of departures. The first English National Men’s Cross Country Championships, at Buckhurst Hill in 1876, saw only 32 competitors run and the race was declared a draw due to every runner’s exit!

Instead, the Championships were first completed the following year, at Roehampton, where Percy Stenning crossed the line first.

It was a feat he would repeat for the next three years, when he also led his team, Thames Hare and Hounds, to victory in 1877 and 1879. As you can read on page 68, the club based in Roehampton are still going strong over 140 years later.

Since then, only one athlete has managed to win four consecutive titles – the famous South London Harrier and world record holder Alf Shrubb, who won from 1901 to 1904.

I went to my first “English National” just under 50 years ago, on Parliament Hill in 1973. Just months before setting a world record on the other side of London at Crystal Palace, Dave Bedford won the title but lost the race as was beaten by guest Rod Dixon, New Zealand’s 1972 Olympic bronze medalist in the 1500m.

At the time, British male distance runners were among the best in the world and the nine-mile race was one of the most hotly contested and highest quality distance events on the planet.

From the 1960s to the early 1980s it was rare for a national winner not to win a major championship medal or set a record and during that glorious period there were victories for Olympic medalists Basil Heatley, Brendan Foster and Mike McLeod. , European medalists Ron Hill, Mike Tagg, Trevor Wright, Tony Simmons and Tim Hutchings and Commonwealth medalists Dick Taylor, Dave Black, Nick Rose, Julian Goater and Eamonn Martin, as well as world record holder Mel Batty.

2017 English National (Mark Shearman)

Before the marathon boom, the National was also one of the biggest races. Massive crowds of riders were rare then, so the field of around 2,000 senior male entrants meant the start was one of the most colorful and exciting spectacles in the sport.

Back then, each club was limited to nine senior male athletes (it’s unlimited now) and there was huge competition to make the starting line. I remember being disappointed not to be selected a few times, despite my marathon form in less than 2h30, and my club was far from fighting for a leading position.

As well as the Bedford race, I still vividly remember some of the outstanding performances that took place on my previous national visits – whether it was Brendan Foster beating Tony Simmons and Bernie Ford in 1977 on Parliament Hill , Ford winning a titanic battle against Ian Stewart in Leeds the following year or Goater winning two minutes behind Dave Moorcroft – also in north London – in the mud in 1981.

Julian Goater in 1981 (Mark Shearman)

If there was one National I would have liked to see, however, it would be Sydney Wooderson, world record holder for the 880 yards and mile and defending European champion, who won his last major race in 1948 to put end to a glorious career.

When it comes to the performance of the men’s team, Birchfield are by far the most dominant senior team with 27 wins, despite having won the title only once since 1953 (in 1988).

Another Birmingham-based club – Tipton – are the most successful post-war side with 12 wins, while Tonbridge, with three wins in the last four events, are the current dominant force.

Women’s National

The first English Women’s National Championship was held in Luton in 1927 and was won by Anne Williams, but it was 1928 winner Lilian Styles who was the most successful athlete thanks to her six victories between 1928 and 1937.

Unusually, Styles won in the colors of three different clubs – Littlehampton Ladies, Haywards Heath Ladies and London Olympiad.

Other personalities who dominated were Pam Davies and Rita Ridley, who won four successive titles in a row to dominate the mid-1960s and early 1970s, although the most notable achievement was probably the first winner of the London Marathon Joyce Smith in 1959 and 1960 (as Joyce Byatt) then back to win in 1973.

In the meantime, she also finished second in 1966, 1967, 1970, 1971 and third in 1965, 1974 and 1978.

Several wins became harder to come by in the ensuing period and after Ridley’s victory in 1974 no one could get more than one win until Jane Shields followed up her 1984 success with the gold in 1987.

The only athlete to defend her title in the 30 years between 1972 and 2001 was Andrea Whitcombe, who won in 1990 and 1991.

Emily Hosker Thornhill wins in 2019 (Mark Shearman)

Until then, the men’s and women’s events were separate but, finally in 1995 in Luton, there was the first mixed National.

In terms of senior women’s team titles, Aldershot are the most successful team at the moment, having won six of the last eight but Birchfield top the list with 13 wins since 1927.

Parkside won it eight years in a row from 1989 to 1996, but oddly they hadn’t won it before and haven’t won it since.

In 2003 the first National Boys Under 15 and Under 13 races were held, reaching the current 10 races that are contested.

The National – multiple winners

Men

Percy Stenning and Alf Shrubb are the most successful with four titles each, while a number of athletes have won three. Britain’s greatest long-distance runner, Mo Farah, has never even contested a senior title at the National, despite winning Under-17 and Under-20 titles and winning European and British titles .

Four
Percy Stenning (1887-1890)
Alf Shrub (1901-04)

Three
Edward Parry (1888-90)
Jack Holden (1938-39 and 1946)
Frank Aaron (1949-51)
Gordon Pirie (1953-55)
Basil Heatley (1960-61 and 1963)
Dave Clarke (1982 and 1987-88)
Glynn Tromans (2000 & 2004-05)

Of them
George Dunning (1881 and 1883)
Walter George (1882 and 1984)
I ‘Flyer’Hickman (1886-87)
Herbert Heath (1892-1893)
Georges Crossland (1894 and 1896)
Sydney Robinson (1897-1898)
Charles Bennett (1899-1900)
Fred Hibbins (1911-12)
Billy Cotterell (1924-25)
Eddie Webster (1926 and 1928)
Ernie Harper (1927 and 1929)
Jack Potts (1931 & 1936)
Mel Batty (1964-65)
Ron Hill (1966 and 1968)
Dave Bedford (1971 and 1973)
Bernie Ford (1976 and 1978)
Tim Hutchings (1983 and 1986)
Richard Nerurkar (1991 & 1993)
David Lewis (1989 and 1994)
Francis Tickner (2007 and 2009)
Keith Gerard (2012-13)
Steve Vernon (2011 and 2014)

Women

Between the world wars, Lilian Styles won a record six victories, with Rita Ridley, the 1500m Commonwealth champion in 1970, winning five about half a century ago.

Britain’s two world champions are not on this list, with Zola Budd having never won a title and Paula Radcliffe winning once in 1994, although she also won Under-17 and Under-20 titles years. AW Wendy Sly’s own won the 1981 title as Wendy Smith.

Wendy Sly wins the National in 1981 (Mark Shearman)

Six
Lilian Styles (1928-30, 1933-34 and 1937)

Five
Rita Ridley (1969-72 and 1974)

Four
Pam Davies (1965-68)
Liz Screaming (2001-02 and 2007-08)

Three
Roma Ashby (1958 & 1961-62)
Joyce Smith (1959-60 and 1973)
Diane Leather (1953-55)
Andrea Whitcombe (1990-1 and 1997)

Of them
Gladys Lunn (1931-32)
Nellie Halstead (1935-1936)
Evelyne Forster (1938-39)
Phyllis Green (1951-52)
Madeleine Ibbotson (1963-64)
Jane Shields (1984 and 1987)
Hayley Screaming (2003 and 2005)
Louise Damen (2011 & 2013)
Lily Partridge (2015-16)

Calum Johnson wins in 2020 (Gary Mitchell)

Age Group Champions

Aldershot Farnham & District and Tonbridge easily lead the way in younger age groups.
Junior Men: Aldershot Farnham & District 19 (14 teams, five individuals)
Men under 17: Tonbridge Nine (seven teams, two individuals)
Boys Under 15: Tonbridge Six (five teams, one individual)
Boys under 13: AFD Eight (seven teams, one individual)
Junior women: AFD 17 (11 teams, 6 individuals)
Under-17 women: AFD 19 (13 teams, six individuals)
Girls under 15: AFD 19 (12 teams, seven individuals)
Girls under 13 AFD 11 (eight teams, three individuals)

» This article first appeared in the February issue of AW magazine, which you can buy here

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