Neil Featherby: It’s time to put the pride back in the Norfolk vest

With the track season over and done with and most of the road races now finished until the New Year, it’s that time of year again where middle and long distance athletes turn their attention to putting on their cross country spikes for the winter season.

There are several cross country leagues and established races, but it is indeed the Inter Counties and National X/C Champs which are without a doubt the two most prestigious of all the competitions.

For many years the County Championships here in Norfolk also always had a good turnout with athletes striving to finish in the top eight to earn the right to wear the Norfolk vest at Inter County level.

During the last few years though, I think it is fair to say that the standard and desire to run in the senior champs in both the men’s and women’s races has somewhat diminished.

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For whatever reason some of our better athletes have focused on other events or passed up the chance of taking part with the consequences of this leading to us as a county failing to put out full teams at Inter County level.

Ironically there are more people running than ever and also taking part in off road events which see hundreds of runners of all abilities toeing the line for each race and even though these very popular runs can be described as cross country they are also of a very extreme nature.

As opposed to the traditional cross country course which may consist of a water filled ditch or barrier to jump across, these newer forms of cross country running are more of an all-round test of physical and mental toughness with rope climbs, running through burning hay bales and even zones whereby they get a mild electric shock!

Whilst it is quite obvious that people have fun taking part in these races, these events bear no resemblance to what is the traditional English form of cross country running where the history and origins of the sport date back nearly 200 years with the first National Championships being held on Wimbledon Common in 1867.

Cross country running has always been regarded as an essential part of winter training for all distance athletes in the UK and the talent is most definitely out there in Norfolk, but other than that at junior and schools level, the desire amongst some of our seniors just doesn’t appear to be there anymore.

However, and hopefully this is all now going to change after it was announced earlier this week that two of Norfolk’s top athletes, Chris Merrylees and Dominic Blake, are to take the reins of the senior men’s and women’s county X/C teams after both speaking out earlier this year on social media about their disappointment over the lack of support for a full Norfolk team at the Inter County Championships.

This latest announcement has been greeted most favourably by our clubs, athletes and coaches alike and with their support this will most certainly help Chris and Dom to develop the many plans they have.

Having had a fair bit of dialogue with both of them during the last couple of days, it is so very clear that they have a great passion for the sport and are really excited about their new roles.

Between them, they have lots of ideas and plans with part of this planning to have men’s and women’s squads with training days and get togethers with selected athletes and to create a real desire for those athletes involved to not only be part of the squad, but to have a real want to wear the Norfolk vest with pride whilst competing at national level.

One final foot note, Norfolk, whilst not being the biggest county in England by way of population, have had winners and medallists at county and club level in the past, be it at The English Schools X/C through to the Senior National Championships where the great Mike Tagg won the English National Senior Cross Country Championships in 1969 and the international title a year later.

More recently, The City of Norwich Girls U15 team also took the winners medals in this year’s national team event.