Have you ever dreamt of running free and naked through the snow... of chasing your shadow across the rolling white hills, with only a whistling of wind to remind you of your mortality? I thought so.

Well last weekend a swathe of energetic students came close to realising such a dream, as they donned their scanty running kit and geared up for a most thrilling athletic showdown, the main event in Michaelmas inter-college sport, the apocalyptic power struggle that is... Cuppers Cross-country 2004.

It is an undeniable fact that cross-country is booming in Cambridge this year. The turnout for Cuppers was inspiring, with twice as many ladies competing as in 2003 and a total field of runners exceeding 140 (a full 45 more than Oxford could summon for their corresponding fixture). Not only that, but the races were subjected to a scorching pace, with quality finishing times on show across the board. In the women's race, for instance, the first 16 runners were all fast enough to have finished in the top 8 last year, while 2003's 8th-placed gentleman would have come 23rd with the same time last Saturday.

Our individual victors led the way in recording personal bests, with solid improvements on their previous performances over the course. Rowan Hooper (St. Edmund's) was first home in the Men's competition, beating his own winning time from last year by almost thirty seconds and looking very comfortable over the frosty terrain. His surge in the third and final lap of the race proved too much for the leading pack to handle, and by the time he crossed the line, the acclaimed 'Hooperman' had established a comfortable lead. The next man in was fresher Will George, who did not have the same luxury of a home-straight cruise. He was forced to battle right to the bitter end, tailed menacingly by Club Captain Ben Hope. After a nail-biting sprint finish, however, George had secured second place and a much-coveted spot in the Blues team.

For a fresher to make it into the Uni first team is impressive... but for FOUR freshers to do so is absolutely phenomenal!! And that is exactly what happened during the course of Cuppers (which, as you may have guessed, serves not only as a college deathmatch but also as the guiding selection tool for the Varsity Match teams). Richard Ward (Pembroke) and Owain Bristow (Churchill) were lifted to Blues status after coming home 4th and 6th respectively, whilst Paolo Natali (Christ's) had been preselected on the grounds that he could run faster than a speeding bullet (well, almost...). The fresher foursome will join seasoned veterans Hope, Hooper, Ed Brady and Matt "Robbo" Robinson for the Blues Varsity Match at the end of term (Saturday 4th December). Robbo deserves special mention here for jumping up two teams in one year - in 2003 he raced for Cambridge 3rds against Oxford, but after 12 months of single-minded hardcore training (apparently with wild wolves) he has established himself as one of the Hare & Hounds' fiercest warriors. It just goes to show what a difference dedicated training and perseverance can make (be inspired!!).

In the Ladies' race, ex-Captain Claire Willer completed her clean sweep of college league victories with an outstanding win over the 4-mile course. Clocking a nifty 23:48 (over a minute swifter than her time a year ago), she was followed by Emma Pooley (Trinity Hall) and team-mate Alice Tozer (Robinson), who pleasured the crowds when they locked horns for another tantalising dash to the line. In the end Pooley was able to clinch it, but Tozer should not (and I'm sure will not) go away disappointed. Since the beginning of term she has experienced an incredible rise in form, and her Blues team selection subsequent to Cuppers can be considered the icing on a large and rather sumptuous cake.

The remaining 3 places in the Ladies' first team were awarded to triathlete Henrietta Freeman (4th) and Ladies' Captain Lucy Cundliffe (6th), with marathon legend Sophie Wood preselected.

Team-wise, Pembroke were - as predicted - victorious in the Men's event, with Blues Richard Ward and Ed Brady spearheading the assault. Backed up by James Traer (27th) and Dan Chambers (29th), this fearsome foursome had too much strength in depth to succumb to their adversaries, narrowly beating Jesus into second place by 5 points. Reigning champions Queens' paid for their complacency when they drifted home in 3rd position, stung by the loss of several athletes due to injury. They had been hoping to overwhelm the opposition through sheer numbers of runners (each contributing 2 points to the college total), but as it turned out this was just another factor in Pembroke's favour, the latter team fielding a colossal 10 competitors.

Other densely populated college teams included Catz (who reinforced their case for promotion by finishing 4th, ahead of 5 Division One teams) and Caius Ladies, who stormed their way into second place in the Women's event with a squad of 11 runners. With front-runners like Willer and Tozer, Robinson were never really going to be beaten, however, and seem likely to assert a stranglehold on the Ladies' divsion during the next term. Third in the female field were Queens', with strong runs by Lara Wood (8th) and Claire Day (9th).

Next week sees the highlight of the cross-country season for Oxbridge athletes, with the 2nds-5ths Varsity Match taking place in Cambridge on 27th November, and the Blues Varsity Match held in London the following Saturday. A year's hard training is behind us, the teams have been selected and the anticipation is mounting. After losing several elite athletes last year (amongst them GB 1500m and cross-country star Andy Baddeley, and Southern Counties 1500m champion Julia Bleasdale), things were looking rather tough at the start of term, and the thought of taking on a strong Oxford squad may have been a bit unnerving...

But now things are different. Those runners who remain at the University have developed tremendously, in both their physical capability and their confidence, and the standard of freshers in Cambridge this year has exceeded even the most outlandish expectations. In every college league race this term, times have been significantly faster than last year across the board, and turnout is up by an average of 50%. Having witnessed the ability and drive of Cambrdge's athletes on Saturday, one thing is for sure: every single position in every race will be contested with gritty determination this week.

Last year we won 6-2. This year we want them all.

The Hare & Hounds are out to win.

--Andy Bell

See here for results.