The Grand National: England’s greatest cross country race

The year is 1876. Queen Victoria is ruling an empire; Benjamin Disraeli is her Prime Minister; Thomas Edison is seeking a patent for the telephone. At Buckhurst Hill in Epping Forest, 32 men gather at a pub, The Bald-Faced Stag, for the All England Cross Country Championship. It is mid-November and it is raining. South London Harriers’ James Gibbs is the race leader when the paper-trail denoting the course vanishes. The athletes blunder blindly through the forest, groping for the route. The race is voided. Amid the shambles, an English national cross country is born.

The year is 2015. Parliament Hill is abuzz and oozing. The multi-coloured flags of innumerable running clubs flutter in the breeze. Lines of tape have long replaced paper-trails. Some 8,797 runnershave registered for the Saucony-sponsored National Cross Country Championships as it makes its once-every-three-years sojourn to the south of England. Runners will compete across 10 races, with the youngest athletes aged 11 and the oldest in their eighth decade.

The runners pour forth from every corner of England, an A-Y (not quite Z) of clubs from Abingdon AC to York Knavesmire Harriers. They come from the corners of England: Guernsey Island in the south, Sunderland Harriers in the north, Lytham St Annes in the west and Medway and Maidstone in the east. No outfit would outnumber the athletics juggernaut of Serpentine AC, however, with the London club registering 85 starters.

The National is the pinnacle of English cross country running, the London Marathon of the mud. The race, therefore, is ferociously competitive. The top-100 – a who’s who of English runners – is hallowed territory. Danny Kendall, who became the highest-placed Briton to complete the Marathon des Sables ultramarathon – dubbed the ‘toughest footrace on Earth’ – in fifth in 2014, will only be 91st. Ben Livesey, a 2.17 marathoner, will finish in 85th. Phil Wicks, who ran a 64-minute half-marathon a fortnight earlier at Wokingham, will be 38th.

At 3pm, a pack of 2000 men are released up a gradual hill of liquid mud. It is the final race of the day. They move as one; a breaking, silent wave, a charging army, that funnels and narrows from what was a vast, sprawling line. The ground grumbles, reverberating to the rhythmic slop of numerous spikes. There are few more beautiful, romantic sights in British sport, let alone running. And it is the ugliness that makes it so beautiful. Much Parliament Hill mud will swill down plugholes tonight.

The 32 men of Buckhurst Hill would have approved. Everything has changed, but here – in this filthy field – nothing has changed. We could all be Victorians. Running here is in its simplest form, the form it should be in.

To win is to be admitted to running immortality. Frank Tickner is among the immortals. Having won the National in 2007, he repeated the feat in 2009 at Parliament Hill. How do you win the National? You repeatedly clock up 100-mile weeks punctuated by three or four quality sessions. That was the Tickner way. You then have the race of your life. Despite being ‘thrilled’ to win at Sunderland, it was the latter triumph in London when Tickner had to overcome the challenge of Steve Vernon (the 2011 winner) that he ranks as his greater triumph.

‘I had had to work a lot harder than Sunderland, right to the finish line, on a really special course, and it did make me feel like I had really won the race, rather than before when I had faced a somewhat weakened field,’ Tickner said.

‘The National is a unique race, special for its history and heritage, of course, but also, I think, its simplicity. The field of runners is enormous, and of all ages and levels. As long as you are a club runner, it’s an open race and I like the democratic feel. There are no agents, no appearance money, but real atmosphere. There are no financial prizes for winning – it’s purely for the pride of joining what is an intimidating who’s who of names on the trophy, and, in what I thought was a really nice touch, for the red rose that is given to the winner.’

It is the era of the 1980s and early 90s that make the hairs on the back of cross country fanatics’ necks stand to attention. The roll of honour from 1982 to 1994 reads Clarke, Hutchings, Martin, Lewis, Hutchings, Clarke, Clarke, Lewis, Nerurkar, Nerurkar, Martin, Nerurkar, Lewis

In 13 extraordinary years of jousting in the mud, Nerurkar, a 2.08 marathoner, with a personal best 15 seconds slower than Mo Farah’s, Dave Clarke, a 2.13 marathoner, and Dave Lewis, whose 10,000 metre best is 28.08, each won three Nationals. Tim Hutchings, whose 1986 also featured bronze medals in the 5000m at the European Championships and the Commonwealth Games, and Eamonn Martin, the last British man to win the London Marathon, won two apiece. It was an era of superlatives.

One name not immortalised in the list of senior men’s winners is Britain’s greatest long-distance runner Mo Farah. (Farah did win the U17 race in 1999 and 2000, and the junior men’s event in 2003). Where was Mo today? In Birmingham, racing two miles on an indoor track – albeit in a world record time.

Irishman John Downes was competing at the top end in the 1990s. Keith Newton, a veteran runner for Herne Hill Harriers who put me in touch with Downes, revered his legendary status among the running fraternity. ‘It is said in the annals of Irish cross country running that there are soft men, hard men, and there is John Downes,’ said Newton, before relaying an infamous story of Downes whacking another Herne Hill man, Andy Lea-Gerrard, across the backside, while lapping him as Downes led the South of England cross country championships. He signed off his emails to me, ‘The Bull Downes’.

Downes’ first National was in 1990 at Leeds where he finished tenth. In the mid-90s he was a regular in the top-10: fifth in 1993, third in 1994, fourth in 1996, fourth again in 1997. A win – a precious win – was elusive. ‘I was gutted I actually never won,’ Downes admits. His third place – in the year he won the South of England cross country – would be the closest he would come.

Eleven years after his final and ‘very emotional’ National, and two decades after his racing heyday, Downes remains a passionate advocate of cross country racing and the season’s crowning glory, the National. ‘It was one race where tactics to a point went out the window. The National made you think on your feet and react to what was happening, and also besides the competition, you had to deal with the course and venue, which were always pretty hard. I didn’t like Newark, but others did. I loved Parliament Hill; others didn’t.

‘I don’t think athletes realise how good they have it. Pretty much anywhere else you go, there is nothing like it. It’s why Britain was, and I think now, is coming back into its own again as the new generation actually appreciate what the ones before them did.’

As for Mo, Downes is characteristically pragmatic. ‘Why should he run the National? He has a chance to earn an income, unlike so many athletes, so my hat’s off to him.’

Downes’ running career overlapped with the prodigious talents of Dave Taylor, who ran 14 National events, finishing as high as fourth off winter training consisting of 70 miles per week, with specific track, cross country, hill and gym sessions.

‘I think the National is unique. It brings together a mix of track, marathon and fell runners of all levels, from club to international athletes,’ said Taylor, who was fourth in the marathon at the Commonwealth Games in 1998.

‘Every year the course is different: sometimes dry and flat (I recall an athlete finishing third at Newark running barefoot), but more often muddy and hilly. The boggy ditches of Parliament Hill have claimed many badly tied spikes. The courses are always challenging.

‘The National is also the ultimate team race. The first six runners from each club score in the team event and every position counts. I have been privileged to be in the winning team twice, and the bronze medal team three times.’

The gloom of a February afternoon descends on Parliament Hill as the final and 2005th runner, 78-year-old Chris Bryans, in the senior men’s race crosses the finish line, more than one hour and 10 minutes after the winner, 21-year-old Charlie Hulson. The fields of Parliament Hill are desolate, calmness emerging from the chaos.

Hulson enters immortality. Bryans will return to his home parkrun in Stockport and keep running. Hulson and Bryans have nothing and everything in common. In their own way, they have left a mark on the history of a – to borrow Tickner’s and Taylor’s unprompted word – ‘unique’ race. It is a connection that links us all, from the pioneers of 1876 to today to Nationals spiralling into the future.

Running at Parliament Hill

This article originally appeared in Men’s Running.

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