A RECORD 413 runners lined up for the third Chawton House race, which formed part of the Southern Cross-Country League and is hosted by Alton Runners.
The weather was kinder than previously frosty years and the sheep were on hand to welcome 23 teams from all over the south.
Club member Richard Taylor was tasked with course planning and was responsible for the new wooded section of the five-mile race.
He said: “During our first planning meeting in September, Julia, Chawton House’s head gardener and parkland manager, kindly offered to provide access to around 1km of woodland trail through Holm Wood, which runs along the southern edge of Top Park.
“We jumped at the opportunity and made a major change to the second half of the course to incorporate this beautiful and serene feature.
“In doing so, it allowed us to eliminate a pinch point in ‘sheep field’, where in 2019 we had two-way runner traffic, and a herd of charging sheep, trying to use the same gate!
“Another significant improvement to the course was the new finish location next to the ha-ha fence, with fine views of the main house and landscaped gardens.
“It has to be one of the most stunning places in the world to catch your breath after an exhausting race.”
The new wooded section of the course was well received by the runners. Results coordinator Jane Scrase said: “It was lovely to hear so many compliments about the race – in particular, runners commented on the route, the marshals and the organisation. It certainly made all the hard work worthwhile.”
Race director Philip Scrase said: “I was so pleased with how the race went and this couldn’t have happened without all the hours of volunteer support before, during and after the race.
“Likewise, we are so grateful to Chawton House again for allowing us to use their beautiful grounds to host such a unique event and cannot wait to present them with the car-parking proceeds, which will contribute to the upkeep of such a special venue.”
A total of 39 club members volunteered to make the race happen.
Jenny French was marshalling and discovered the sheep-based challenges of previous years hadn’t fully been resolved.
“I was marshalling and all these runners were coming towards me and suddenly it was ‘SHEEEEEEP!’ as a huge flock of sheep joined the race!”she said.
“They were coming at me with the runners so I couldn’t shut the gate. It required a few of us to herd runners and sheep in the appropriate directions. Thankfully no runners or sheep were harmed!”
Also marshalling alongside the more furry runners was Helen Chapman, who made it into position with less time to spare than anticipated.
“There were three of us marshalling in a similar gate area so we set off together,” she said.
“Because of a bit of miscommunication we ended up at the wrong gate and it was only after 15 minutes of head scratching, map consultation and being rescued by a fellow marshal that we found our designated spaces.
“George and Mark had been close to re-routing the whole course because of some barrier tape that just seemed to be in the wrong place!”
Thankfully a nightmare was averted without any runners knowing – and the three rogue marshals spent their time whooping, ringing bells and negotiating runners around sheep and woodland corners.
Pat Bacon said: “I really enjoyed handing out the finishing tokens to the runners and congratulating them all at the end.
“This may not sound like a highlight to many, but I’ve not seen anyone for such a long time because of an operation, so it was a real treat for me.”
One club member who ran on the day may have suffered a little more than others thanks to one too many pre-race treats.
Well known for his pre-run diet of Turkish Delight and coke, Chris Birch had been out celebrating his girlfriend’s birthday the night before and rather wished he’d heeded her suggestions for moderation.
“My regular pre-race fuel kept me going but I wasn’t on my best form,” he said.
“I had a little nap beforehand in the Alton Runners gazebo, although I may need to revisit my training plan if I am going to get ahead of Alex again!”
Alex Hall led the way for Alton Runners on the day although had his own mathematical challenge to contend with.
“That was probably the best I have done at a cross-country event. I generally despise trail running, but I guess home turf helped,” he said.
“I counted ten people in front of me when I was about halfway round the course.
“I was so happy all the way round telling myself I was in the top ten – but what I forgot to do was count myself. Imagine my disappointment when I was handed the 11th token!”
His 11th place helped the 38-strong team of Alton Runners gain ninth position overall, with the men’s team taking third spot.
Among the runners nudging the women’s team to 14th place was Kathryn Powell, whose eclectic race memories could arguably sum up much of what trail running is about: “The sheep, oh the sheep! Being told I smelt like a lovely biscuit. Watching Jo and Abbie’s swishy ponytails and wondering if my hair also swished. Swearing at my ankle. Deciding yet again that I hate running. Thinking what a fantastic course it is and how lucky I am to belong to a wonderful club like Alton...”
Richard Scrase said afterwards: “I feel quite proud that, according to ‘puddle marshal’ Tracey, I was the only one to go right through the big muddy puddle!”
The next race in the series is at Alice Holt on March 13 – and most runners are hoping Richard will have to make do with a sunny, dry and mud-free event.
By George Longland