For a Birmingham University middle distance athlete, there is no bigger day than the first Saturday in February. A weekend where heroes are made, stories are told and legends remembered. Being one of the big three in university distance running, the metaphorical weight of the famous vest can be seen as a burden or an opportunity. Athletes carry the weight of expectation stemming from a generation of success.
Departing on the Friday, 105 BUAC athletes and cheerleaders travelled across the country to the south west, tailed by a frenzied paparazzi from 19 different countries. Mary McCarthy ensured that the coach trip would be fuelled by absolutely abysmal music to bore BUAC athletes to tears before the big day. The Friday evening saw the traditional guys’ meal out filled with an intense debate Alfie Ratcliffe as he argued the Rolling Stones have surpassed the legacy of Oasis. No one else offered much opinion on the topic, but it didn’t stop Alfie making his point throughout starters and the majority of the main course. A pleasant evening concluded and it felt like Christmas Eve in the Jury’s Inn.
A mixture of nervousness and excitement filled the air on Saturday morning. Freshers Elisha Tait, Abbie Saker and Saskia Milliard revolutionised the BUAC BUCS facepaint landscape, as the traditional yet somewhat basic three stripes were replaced with an intricate Vincent Van Gogh style lion, planted proudly on the cheek of each athlete. After arrival at the venue, Emma Houchell left us wondering why she wasn’t on a music scholarship at the university, as she lent support to common belief that mechanical engineering students are in fact the best rappers out there. The gun sounded and a young yet highly talented BUAC team set off in search of BUCS glory.
The quality of the field was there for all to see as Loughborough and St Mary’s both fielded multiple well established internationals. However this did not scare off the BUAC ladies, with fresher Amelia Quirk sitting in 4th after the first lap amongst elite athletes such as the European cross country champion. She was closely followed by Laura Gent, Sabrina Sinha and Julia Tomzack who all committed to the relentless early pace. Meanwhile BUAC was packing strongly, with an enormous 18 athletes in amongst the top 100. Fresher Emily Thompson, Aine Cunningham, Lizzie Squibbs, Maddie Mastro and Lily Higgins were showing that just because it was their first BUCS, they would not be intimidated by the competition.
The second long lap was always going to be the one which mattered most, and where BUAC’s strength would really begin to tell. All of a sudden sessions around Metchley and Cofton Park seemed like a blessing as red vests continued to swarm past hapless opponents. As always, BUAC is about so much more than just win at all costs, and it’s testament to the club that it is by far the best supported at the event. There were outstanding runs on the day from Lauren Eckley (56 place improvement) Oheema Powell (118 place improvement!) and Izzy Cotham (141 place improvement!!). These stories are exactly what the club is all about – everyone working as hard as they can to better themselves.
Crunchtime in the race and BUAC were in with a real chance of a medal, as Amelia Quirk joined the European Champion in breaking away from the pack. Amelia (2nd) grabbed silver in one of the most impressive runs by a fresher that the club has ever seen, testament to the hard work she puts in. She was followed by Sabrina Sinha (12th) – another athlete who has not stopped pouring her heart into the sport even when things looked glum. It is hard to think of a more deserving athlete than Sabrina who has had a rough couple of years, but is beginning to see the fantastic results that her training deserves. The scoring team was completed by Julia Tomczack (15th) – yet another fresher who made her mark on this prestigious event. There were also fine runs from Laura Gent (16th), Emma Houchell (19th), Emily Thompson (22nd) and the unbelievable Kate Palfreeman-Watt (who did the race in trainers to come 33rd). The girls deservedly won team silver – an outstanding achievement given the competition. Perhaps even more excitingly 9 of BUAC’s top 12 are still here next year, and you can be sure team gold will be the target in twelve months’ time.
The men’s A race is entwined with history and nostalgic tales of success, with selection for the team being the pinnacle of many athletes university career’s. Interestingly the BUAC team this year were all debutants for the club in the A race, with no obvious star quality on show. Make no mistake, this was a team made up of grit and determination, with six athletes willing to fight tooth and nail for the lion on the vest. Buoyed by Jethro’s unique ‘spoken word’ form of the BUCS rap, the team headed to the startline to tussle with some giants of domestic running. Grant Anderson, Dan Carpenter, Charlie Davis, Tom Drabble, Alex Lanz and Alex Rieley had the honour of taking them on.
Three long laps to make up a 10.3k course, the fields of Exeter pushed athletes to their limits both mentally and physically. The traditional rapid start to the race delivered again, with the leaders running 4:36 for the first mile. The BUAC guys made a steady but strong start, packing between places 40 and 75 after the first lap. Carps and Charlie worked hard together to pick up some places as many were feeling the effects of a brutally quick start to the race. Closely behind was Drabble, Grant and Rieley, with fan favourite Alex Lanz following, looking to use his marathon strength to drive forward.
As usual the noise was absolutely deafening around the course with BUAC supporters in every corner. BUCS cross always demonstrates just why BUAC is so special, with alumni regularly returning to support the team. Every ounce of that support was needed on the final lap as we battled closely with Leeds Beckett and Edinburgh in the team standings. Visible pain was etched on the faces of every runner and it was clear just what it meant to them.
The guys rallied to finish in 6th place, and for the first time in 3 years it felt like a step in the right direction. Carps (35th) led the team home, closely followed by Charlie (41st), Drabble (46th), Alex Lanz (59th), Grant (66th) and Rieley (76th). Every year the field seems to get stronger at BUCS, with 22 of the top 30 having previously represented England or GB. In addition, similarly to the girls, 4 of that team is still at the club next year, and if you add in a couple of absentees missing from the race then who knows what we can achieve next year. We can expect the guys to comeback even stronger next year.
Onto the madness of the B race, with the carnival atmosphere giving a jovial feel to the final event of the day. Every BUAC cross country runner who is physically able participates, as they give themselves an opportunity to write themselves into BUAC folklore. The honour of leading the early stages this year went to our very own Tom Mackman, who looked to be clear and away on the first lap, only to fade slightly and come 170th. There were also optimistic starts from Mikey Lennon and Mike Proffitt, and neither can be criticised for a lack of ambition.
However some athletes paced themselves a tad more evenly, and leading the team home was super Ronnie Pickering (19th), whose persistent hard work got its rewards. Captain Fantastic Jethro McGraw (25th) stormed home soon after, with both athletes getting emotional after the race, reflecting just how similar they both are. Will Bryan (31st) and Louie Boot (33rd) completed the scoring team and rounded off fine cross country seasons for both. Max Walk (36th) was keen to tell everyone later that night he’d had the race of his life (and fair play it was a cracking run) while there were other strong individual performances from Merhawi Tesfaldet (44th), Finn Hutton (129th) and the exceptional DMTC athlete Joe Connors (49th). These are just a small sample size of what we saw on Saturday.
As ever with BUCS, there are countless individual performances that deserve mentioning, but ultimately the event is so great because we’re there representing the club we all love. For that young girls’ team to get team silver is quite simply astonishing and the future looks incredibly bright. From a boys’ perspective, we achieved our highest finish since 2016 despite missing some key players. There is no doubting that’s a big step in the right direction, and who knows what we can achieve next year. Full credit to Captains Jethro McGraw and Emma Houchell, who put in a tremendous amount of work behind the scenes. From organising rooms, to learning to drive a minibus in order to make the event affordable, we should be thanking them for making the entire experience a smooth and enjoyable one. Once again, BUCS Cross did not disappoint and the BUAC train goes rolling onto next year!