BUSA Cross-country Championships 2005

(by Andy Bell)

The biggest, baddest cross-country bloodbath of the university calendar took place last Saturday. With nearly 800 athletes competing for the glory of some 40 universities over a complement of 5 fiery races, the BUSA Cross-country Championship marked a spectacular finale to this year's mud-loving action, a last romp in the wild arena of off-road racing before the customary spring-time migration to Track & Field.

In keeping with tradition, our hosts this year (the University of Leeds) had identified a most exciting, panoramic backdrop for the day's exertions... that is to say, a number of drab, lifeless playing fields. Though perhaps uninspiring, these would form the canvas for an afternoon of sweaty, lung-bursting and downright filthy running, without doubt the greatest art form known to man <ahem>.

Cambridge University was well-represented in the competition by a squad of 23 men, a harem of 10 Harettes (aka C.U. Hare & Hounds ladies), and a gaggle of eager supporters. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, fresh off the back of a 5 hour coach journey, an outrageous motivational video and two 'all you can eat' buffets, the Harey clan was bussed to Bodington fields on Saturday morning, from the homely domain of a nearby high-rise hotel. After only a couple of hours of warming up/faffing, the first event of the day was upon us: the Men's Short Race. Fast and furious over a two-lap 4km course, this beastie was tamed by messieurs Lee Harper (Clare) and Jacob Eisler (Emma), who each finished with a mixture of pain and surprise on their faces (especially Jacob, who was competing - somewhat ambitiously - with a suspected stress fracture). In spite of its placid appearance, they claimed, the course harboured some vicious boggy undulation and was not to be underestimated. These accusations were substantiated uncomfortably in the races that followed.

After the Ladies Short Race (void of Oxbridge athletes, who were all saving themselves for longer pursuits later in the day) we were treated to BUSA's main event, the Men's Long Race. Encompassing 4 laps of grimy mud-churning, this was an all-out battle for supremacy between the competing university 'A' teams, each comprising 6 elite alpha males (4 to score). Afflicted by cataclysmic injury problems, the Hare & Hounds could muster only 3 Blues runners from their eight-strong Varsity team in December and looked to be facing an uphill struggle as the starter's gun fired at 1:15pm. Oxfordshire County Champion and Club Captain Ben Hope was forced to watch from the sidelines throughout the race, and he was joined by Vice-Captain Ed Brady in the spectators' ranks. Skiving a family wedding to cheer on the team ("You have to understand, Jenny!"), he was surely not disappointed by the gutsy performances exhibited that day.

Italian stallion Paolo Natali had made a special effort to represent Cambridge at the weekend, flying in from the USA to don his light blue vest with pride. A mixture of over-excitement and jet-lag craziness actually saw him seizing the lead shortly after the race had started, though he quickly realised this was a bad idea and re-adjusted his pace accordingly. The trademark expression of hellish agony playing across his face, Paolo finished 28th overall (from a total of 223 top class athletes), and 2nd for Cambridge. Running alongside him for most of the race was fresher Will George (Jesus), whose racing prowess seems to be growing with each new competition. The Welsh International produced an outstanding well-paced effort to come home first Cambridge man in 25th. He was narrowly beaten to the line by Oxford Men's Captain Ben Moreau, who later confessed that he'd been "very scared" by Mr. George's powerful thrust on the home straight. Moreau will go on to represent Achilles (the joint Oxford-Cambridge athletics team) on tour in America this spring, partnering Ben Hope in the track distance events.

Will's half Blue from the Varsity Match has now been upgraded to a full Blue for the top-60 BUSA achievement, and he is joined in this regard by fellow fresher Owain "Party Animal" Bristow. Owain was 3rd scorer on the day with a strong 54th-placed finish, and he was pursued across the line by post-grad John Solly (67th), completing the Cambridge quartet to seal a commendable 6th position for the team. This was only one place behind Loughborough and ahead of 29 other universities from across the country. First-team debuts were seized by Diarmuid "I like flowers" O'Seaghdha and Matt Armstrong, a fiendishly fast 800m runner who has jumped up 4 whole teams since the Varsity match. They both got very drunk that night to celebrate.

A final mention must go to last year's Club Captain, Andy Baddeley, for a terrific 4th-place performance on Saturday. Running with fluid grace over the developing quagmire, he put convincing distance between himself and Oxford's No. 1 Fraser Thompson (5th), helping to clinch a deserved team victory for St. Mary's by the narrowest of margins, only 1 point separating them from runners up Birmingham. The great man continues to amaze.

Once the course had been thoroughly churned up by the avalanche of 'A' race testosterone, it was time for the ladies to follow suit. At 2:15pm the second 'Long Race' of the day blazed into action, and a horde of Harettes hounded their way up the first hill of the race. Unfortunately, at 2:16pm Louise Craigie twisted her ankle and had to pull out, leaving her team-mates to surge on ahead. She watched the rest of the proceedings with injury-stricken Claire Willer, who'd deliberately left her spikes at home in the certain knowledge that she'd otherwise succumb to an overwhelming and imprudent urge to compete.

A most impressive display of light blue resilience was shown by recent 'Tough Guy' champion Emma Pooley, leading Cambridge home in 29th position (from a field of 249). She was followed by Ladies' Captain Lucy Cundliffe, battling through a fearsome bout of conjunctivitis to grab 121st place, and final scorer Claire Day, who has gone from strength to strength since joining the university in October.

After the dust had settled and the bodies had been removed from the course, Cambridge's male posse found themselves preparing for the final race of the day, imaginatively titled the "Men's B Race". By "preparing", I do of course mean juggling, singing Star Wars theme tunes (repeatedly!) and choreographing a Cockney song 'n' dance routine for the start of the race. Seriously though, everyone was 'in the zone' come 3pm and ready for a real BUSA bruising. Winner of the recent Coe Fen Relays, Wolfson's Ulrich Paquet led the light blue army from start to finish, surging to an animalistic 21st place and doing full justice to the ferocious war paint daubed across his face. Richard Hewitt, freshly escaped from the realms of Injuryland, employed his famous pace judgement tactics to tear through the pack during laps 2 and 3, making up a huge early deficit and finishing only 10 seconds behind Ulrich in 24th position. Blues 800m man Steve Benson adjusted well to the longer distances involved, completing the 7.5km race just ahead of 4th scorer Tom Offord (33rd and 37th respectively).

In the 'B' Race, each set of 4 runners forms a successive team for the university, and on Saturday Cambridge's 3 quartets each beat their Oxford counterparts, securing 6th, 12th and 17th places respectively. In effect, the first of these teams actually made it onto the podium, since Loughborough and Birmingham's domination of the race was such that they occupied the first 5 positions between them. Indeed, 18 of the first 20 runners home were from one or other of this titanic pair of universities. Frightening.

The day's events were capped off with an evening of wild entertainment at the infamous BUSA Party, just minutes away from the Harey Hotel.

Many thanks to the powers which made BUSA a possibility for so many mud-loving animals, and in particular to Simon Rutherford for masterminding the Cambridge trip superbly. His stealth, cunning and eye for awesome restaurants were much appreciated over the course of the weekend!!

NB: check out a write-up of the BUSA party here!