From the point of view of a real cross-country course the one at Leamington where the national championship was decided on Saturday, comes as near the ideal as could to selected. By that it may be inferred it did not suit the physical abilities or the heart's desire of fully 75 per cent. of the competitors.
The country around was a series of mounds of earth, varying in height, and the runners, while not having to surmount any of them that mattered, had to negotiate at the bases a track of rough, soft, wet land that tried the sturdiest athlete. For a few minutes the sun shone brilliantly, then came a snowstorm that was blinding to the runners, and so it went on all afternoon.
There were three absentee teams and five of individual runners. The first and second circuits were each three and a half miles, with a shorter one to make up the ten miles. There was the usual anxiety to break away at the start, but the rough land in the early portion caused the runners quickly to scatter into one long line, for 379 men started and actually 289 finished.
At four miles W. B. Howard, Kettering Town led from Fisher (Hallamshire), Webster (Birchfield), Beavers (York), Bevan and Blewitt (Birchfield), and J. W. Pearson (Sheffield). They were in one column, not far apart, and then came a break and another long line, quickly becoming stragglers. It was no day for anyone except those endowed with the stoutest of hearts and a big reserve of strength. The purely speed man had no share in such a toil.
The in-and-out form shown by so many runners this season in the various championships has been remarkable. Illness has been the chief cause, as well as accidents, but the fact remains, and on Saturday it was manifest, that with few exceptions a similar exhibition was taking place. W. B. Howard whose name was not in the programme, only a number caused surprise. He was intent on leading and forcing the pace, and having done so for the first three miles created curiosity amongst supporters of other teams, for he might have been another Alfred Shrubb. Who knew?
Continuing to maintain a lively pace, he came into view again, and passed the seven miles mark with Webster, C. Fisher, Worrall, Beavers, and Eckersley. He showed no sign of weakening, and Webster looked fit and bright. The others in their immediate wake were wearing well and evidently content to fight for the team honours and ignore that for individuals.
The individual contestants at this juncture had fully proved their inclusion in the competition, and were so prominent and in close proximity to each other that it was not possible to view, as one generally can, the team possibilities.
Just prior to the finish a severe snowfall came along, and the runners were not visible until they were 30 yards away, they appeared as men wearing silver wreaths, for the snow held on their hair and thawed slowly down faces and necks.
Consequently there was no wild cry when the first man - Webster - neared the finish. He was not recognised until within a stone's throw, and as he gamely passed the judges he smiled the smile of a victor who had weathered the storm, and was regardless of anyone and anything around him. There was no looking round see where his opponents were. He must have won by 100 yards, but where he got the lead cannot be stated, for it was clear at any time in the race he was content to hold his place and make his effort whenever the next best man enticed him.
My opinion is that it was a race of the character where one man shows eminence for individual honour, and those close behind, recognising it, remain content. In such circumstances of vile, heavy ground I can appreciate the feelings and minds of some especially after going about eight miles
In all competitors none, apart from the winner, astounded me so much as Eckersley. Never at any period of his career has he impressed one who would revel in a tough proposition like that of Saturday; yet he did, and manfully.
Marshall, I can understand after his display as the West Lancashire championship, but Beavers was disappointing. Payne ran better than I could have given him credit for doing, not having seen him for almost a year. Muggridge and Harman, with Payne, made a better southern contingent then I expected.
The Midland men, Birchfield in particular showed up splendidly, and the North with Lancashire and Yorkshire did not come up to my anticipations. Harper showed the same grit as ever. He is not a spent force! His recent illness has told a tale, and his training has been to develop stamina rather than speed in view of Marathon racing.
The team aspect before the day, taking all recent racing into account, clearly made Hallamshire my favourites, yet not despising Birchfield. They failed to retain the title, and again, for the eighth time in ten years, Birchfield are champions. Deservedly so, for packing, cleverly done, gave them, apart from the intervening individuals, their first six men in the first fifteen place.
Clubs join in this contest annually as a sporting fixture purely and not with any expectation of gaining team honours. It is a fine spirit and deserves the highest commendation. It is with regret that we cannot see them get nearer the goal of success, for to see only two clubs with any real pretensions to fight the issue out year after year a cause and reason must be looked for.
Since 1908 only one club, Surrey A. C., have broken the spell, and it is time the honours went a little beyond. Perhaps town life is extracting its toll, manufacturing ones in particular, and country-bred men are coming into their own.
There were many newcomers on Saturday, yet quite a useful sprinkling of the old ones in the fighting line. The headquarters staff and below that rank still holds many the old school of generations ago.
Long experience, if Saturday is a guide, has taught the managers of this race very little. It Is held in turn in the areas the North, South, and the Midlands. Different managers, different ideas, but each should learn from the other. It was not so this time. Competitors had little to complain of; they were well housed, even though not close to the starting point or the finish.
What I and others, judges included, could grieve about - yes, I will include several hundreds of the many thousands present was the inadequate provision of officials who act as stewards.
The spectator had an excellent view of the country over which the race was being run from the summit of the hillocks, but near the close of the contest they were allowed to encroach so near to the finishing point that they marred the view of all, including themselves, and gave no one the opportunity of performing their duty.