For the forty-fifth National Cross Country Championship the Southern committee selected a charming course of real country near Wolverton. There was plenty of undulating land, plenty of jumps, and a fair amount of obstacles which made the course a somewhat strenuous one. A more exhilarating springtime day could not have been hoped for.
The policy of taking the event into a new district was more than amply rewarded and justified. There can be no doubt the attendance was much in excess of any previous national race, and on the financial side it might also prove to be a record. I should imagine fully 8,000 spectators witnessed the splendid racing, for I am informed that upwards of 4,000 tickets were sold before the race began. Another notable feature of the gathering was that there was almost a preponderance of ladies present.
So far as individual honours were concerned, it was generally expected that the fight would resolve itself into one between Ernest Harper, the Northern champion, and last year's runner-up for the National event, J. E. Webster, although the latter only finished second to Price in this year's Midland Championship. Corporal Cotterell, the holder, had his supporters, but his recent form suggested he had gone off considerably. The Southern, hopes were centred in Allnutt and Knight.
A prompt start was made, and 331 runners were dispatched on their ten miles journey. The teams numbered 28, and there were also 39 individuals. The spectacle of such a large bunch of men, clad in gaily-coloured costumes, was pleasing and impressive.
There were two short circuits to make the first 1½ miles, and the ground was composed of pasture land. Afterwards the course was out in the country, with ploughed land and slight hillocks to negotiate three times.
It was made manifest quite early on that where Harper was Webster intended to be also, and that was in the front, forcing the pace. Before the first mile was covered the pair had a slight lead from Price, with Hardwick, of Hallamshire, next, and C. E. Blewitt, Birchfield, third, A little later on, and as they departed into the country, the same pair led but Price had dropped behind. Muggridge, of Brighton, had come forward, and there was a long line of runners behind, many of them so early showing signs of distress and failure to go the pace.
Just about the half distance, Harper and Webster were still together, and 20 yards away came the Midland junior champion Metcalfe, with Cotterell a few yards behind him. And then in quick succession were Rodway, Birchfield, Atherton, of Earlstown, and Muggridge and Perry. Webster seemed content to let Harper be in front, just one stride. Rather hard lines on frail-looking Yorkshireman, for he seemed as though he could have gone a faster pace if Webster had set it.
However, they were both travelling fast and neither seemed perturbed. Not so Cotterell and Allnutt. They both showed signs of distress, and particularly the South London Harrier, who could hardly have been doing his ordinary running. At three-quarter way the same pair were leading, with Metcalf third. Price having gone far behind with the ruck. Rodway lying next, Cotterell, and then Muggridge and Atherton.
In that order the challengers went Into the country for the last time. Some runners had been lapped by the leaders and minutes elapsed before some of the medium-paced men hove in sight. Up to now the running the Birchfielders had been superb and It was perfectly clear, early on in the race, that they had the team honours easily won.
They had at this point five men in the first 16. Hallamshire were showing up badly. True they were unfortunately weakened owing to the enforced absence of J E Williams, and Biddulph being unable give of his best owing to sickness. It was difficult to say what other team was the running for second or third team honours. No one would have calculated on Surrey A.C. beating all the other southern clubs, but they did so, as will be seen from the table.
Following the leaders round the course could always see the two figures - Harper and Webster - apparently locked together, and as they entered on the last mile there was tense excitement among the huge crowd, which had now formed itself into two lines, leaving the runners just enough space to pass in single file. The last half-mile was slightly uphill, and was a hard test for men more or less exhausted.
Into this human lane Webster and Harper came Into view, and that was the order of position. At last Webster had taken the lead, and with his greater power he was tearing the last ounce out of himself, pounding the earth with each foot and swaying a trifle.
Only a few strides behind, with his style unaltered, pretty to watch in its rhythm and perfect ease, came Harper. He had run his race and given of the best that was in him. He had displayed all the judgment anyone could be asked to do, and was beaten by a better man.
There are not many races to be recalled at this distance where two men have striven so hard and for so long a period of time where the margin of difference at the finish has been so small. E. W. Parry and W. H. Morton did it once. I know no other. The distance separating Webster and Harper looked like six yards; the time shows it as two seconds.
In many respects the race will go down to history a memorable one - Birchfield's domination as a team, their long sequence of successes, Hallamshire's dour effort year by year despite their occasional lapses into weakness, and their quick recovery - who will forget these things, or the upsetting of all Southern team form, Highgate and South London failure, and Surrey's success?