As dawn broke on Alexandra Palace, the birds began to sing and the mud glistened brightly in the morning sun.
The day was set to be a cold one, with a gentle dew hovering over the freshly watered grass, and patches of bog forming after the recent rain.
Meanwhile, away from the tranquility, Imperial’s Cross Country Club were beginning to assemble in Beit Quad with rumours flying of the treacherous hill and deep mud that awaited them 16 stops away on the Piccadilly line in the outer-reaches of Zone 3.
The trek from Wood Green tube station up to Alexandra Palace will be familiar to those who are fans of reasonably-sized gigs, the World Darts Championships, or the recent Masters snooker. However, the squad were not making this journey to be entertained.
They were making this journey to compete in the fourth race in the London Universites and Colleges Cross Country League.
After a successful outing at the third race in Wimbledon Common back in mid-November (see Felix, 23rd November), the club were seeded 3rd in the men’s league, were leading the women’s league by a sizeable 97 points, and were also top in the Mike Baggs Trophy Standings with the notorious St. Mary’s just 2 points behind.
The Mike Baggs Trophy is in its inaugural year and combines scores from both the men’s and women’s teams in all the races, with teams scoring 8 points for a win, 7 points for a second place, and so on.
In doing so, the Mike Baggs Trophy has become the top prize in the London Universities Cross Country scene, and Imperial travelled to Ally Pally looking to inch closer to lifting this prestigious award.
After a hasty warm-up and a rousing team talk from the club captain, the runners once more gathered on the start line for another cross country race, questioning why they continued to subject themselves to such unappealing exploits.
As usual, the starting whistle caught all the runners by surprise and the stampede began, thundering along the bottom of the park, hugging the treeline, and transversing the most waterlogged part of the course.
A number of participants were clearly seen to be regretting their choice of shoes, with flat, gripless road shoes very much unsuited to the terrain.
Slipping and sliding their way to the first corner, the mass of runners were directed around a hairpin bend and the slow, steady ascent of the hill began.
By this stage the race had begun to stretch out, with Imperial’s famous navy and red vests packing well up the order, notable for their depth and faces of determination.
The compulsory face paint masked their grimaces as the incline began to take its toll and soon mud turned to harder ground with those wearing spikes struggling to maintain good running form on this new surface.
After what seemed like an age for the runners but in reality was probably less than 1km of uphill, the route took a sharp turn and led the runners down the steepest part of the hill, reminding some of the athletes about various differentials from lectures.
This part of the course saw the athletes taking a number of different tactics, with some opting to take the tarmac, others cautiously descending on the muddy grass verge, and a few simply closing their eyes and hoping for the best.
The outragously steep and hazardous descent led back to the start/finish, leaving the women to complete one further lap and the men two additional circuits.
In the women’s race Imperial scored the first 1-2-3 of the year, with the podium filled by Georgia Curry (1st), Kate Olding (2nd) and Alex Mundell (3rd).
This was a dominant performance from the girls, with Mundell finishing 43 seconds ahead of the 4th placed athlete.
Remarkably, Imperial’s final scorer for the A-team, Chloe Baker, came home just 4 seconds behind 4th to finish in 5th, giving the Women’s A team an almost perfect 593⁄594 points for the fixture. In the overall standings, Curry and Olding sit joint first on 595 points with a 30 point lead over 3rd.
The champion will surely be decided by which of them can win at the final fixture.
Hopefully this competition will rub off on the team who - barring disaster - will retain the Women’s title ahead of UCL who currently lie 122 points behind.
Back in the men’s race, Imperial’s Niki Faulkner cruised to a bronze behind strong performances from St. Mary’s and UCL athletes.
Second home from the boys was rising star Charlie McFadzean who finished in the top 10 for the first time with a 9th placed finish. Just outside the top 10 was orienteering scholar Mihaly Ormay in 11th, and the A team was rounded off by good runs from Mark Pollock and Fergus Johnson who finished within 1 second of one another.
This was Imperial’s best Men’s performance of the season, all-but-guaranteeing them a podium with Reading languishing far behind in 4th place in the league.
It is also worth noting the depth of Imperial’s squad, with Imperial leading the B, C, D, and E(!) teams in both the men’s and women’s leagues.
In fact, Imperial’s Women’s B team are currently in bronze medal position overall which could result in an unprecedented double-podium at the final race next month.
Additionally, with St. Mary’s failing to field an entire women’s team, the result now leaves Imperial 3 points clear in first place in the mixed Mike Baggs Trophy Standings with just one race to go.
With UCL close behind, Imperial will need that both their men’s and women’s teams average second place in the final race to ensure they bring home the title.
The final race of the season takes place at Wormwood Scrubs on Wednesday 27th February.