Snow joke when events are called off

Weather-related cancellations are becoming worryingly common, with the South of England Cross Country Champs nervously postponed five days in advance and even indoor meets have bit the dust this week


Hopefully the quality and quantity of athletes at the South of England Cross Country Championships on February 16 will be just as strong as it would have been if the event had been held on its original date on Saturday January 26.

Sadly, history suggests otherwise. In 1937, the event was postponed when winds blew runners off the ‘trail’ at Horton Kirby and the rescheduled race saw only 32 athletes from four clubs turn up.

Credit should go to the City of London and South of England Athletic Association for finding a new date for these 2013 area championships after heavy snow and freezing temperatures across the UK made the venue of Parliament Hill Fields on Hampstead Heath too dangerous, in their opinion, to hold a major cross-country meeting this weekend. They have redeemed themselves, barely.

Fact is, many athletes remain disgruntled after spending a small fortune on hotels, train and even air fares, only to see the event almost casually cancelled on Monday – five days before the races were due to take place – and now rescheduled for a date they might not be able to make due to fixture clashes or work and family commitments.

One of the biggest races on the domestic cross-country calendar should never have been called off in the first place. First held in 1884, it has become part of the fabric of British athletics and it has taken gale force winds in 1937 or world wars to stop it happening in the past.

Then there is Parliament Hill itself – the spiritual home of cross-country running in the UK. To say that cross-country runners cannot use it for a championship that has been going since Victorian times because it might get too churned up for children to sledge on, or walkers and their dogs to stroll around, is disappointing to say the least.

Then again, the capital’s attitude to cross-country running was illustrated last February when Mayor Boris Johnson put out a press release celebrating sport in the city. He proudly mentioned everything from rowing to rugby and tennis to track and field at the imminent Olympics. Everything, that is, apart from cross country, despite the fact the release went out on the same day the National Cross Country Championships was held on Parliament Hill.

This latest South of England debacle masks a wider problem, though, because last weekend saw approximately half of all athletics and running events in the UK called off due to the bad weather. Amazingly, these included indoor events too. Yes, indoor events.

A few determined stalwarts ensured their events happened, such as the organisers of the McCain UK Cross Challenge in one of the areas worst-hit by snow – Cardiff. Given this, it is difficult to understand why the South of England Indoor Championships at Lee Valley was so easily called off, especially when you consider that indoor events, including national championships, were often held during periods of extremely cold and snowy weather at RAF Cosford in the past.

In 2009, when the BUCS Cross Country Championships was called off in Aberdeen due to snow and students decided to run their own unofficial race, Loughborough’s legendary coach George Gandy said the word “cancel” was not in a cross-country runner’s dictionary. Certainly that has always been the case until recently.

Isn’t cross-country all about beating not only your rivals but also a tough course and the worst the elements can throw at you? Or is it sacrilege to suggest such a thing in this health and safety-obsessed era?

Incensed by the decision to cancel the South of England Cross Country Championships, AW contributor and Belgrave Harrier Will Cockerell has gathered some reaction and memories from the cross-country fraternity that will hopefully make organisers think twice about cancelling events due to bad weather in future. There are lots to digest, but if you read only one, then read the first by Tim Johnston…

» Tim Johnston, Southern cross-country champion in 1963, recalls: “It started to snow heavily on Boxing Day 1962, then froze hard, and snow stayed on the ground, in depths varying from a few inches to drifts of several feet, all through January and February until a slow thaw set in in early March, making the National on Coldham’s Common one of the wettest, muddiest ever. All outdoor sport was cancelled, with the exception of cross country, which thrived as never before, and we all became stars overnight, as there was nothing else to fill up the sports pages.

“As the ground temperature never dropped below freezing during that time, most races were run in several inches of churned-up snow and ice, on a base of rock-hard mud and grass. Hence correct footwear was key. I used Adidas ’9.9′ sprinter’s spikes – basically 2″ crampons. I understand Mike Turner won the Northern in javelin-thrower’s boots.

“For the Southern, they re-routed the course to avoid the deep drifts at the foot of Parliament Hill beside the running track. Instead, they brought us straight down the shoulder of the hill, which involved leaping an icy gully, where many fell – to the delight of the photographers. Some wimps may have complained, but most agreed that this was ‘true cross-country’.”

»  Hester Barsham-Rolfe, Belgrave Harriers, says: “I’ve been out running round all parts of Greenwich Park on and off pavements etc in normal trainers and been absolutely fine. A little care is required but not sufficient to prevent me running. Additionally this is XC… We are all pretty hardy.”

»  John Bryant, of Thames Hare & Hounds, author, newspaper columnist, ex-Telegraph editor, remembered: “In 1963, one of the worst winters on record, Tim Johnston made his reputation running in the snow in many championships.  We always ran in the snow in those days. He went on to run the Mexico Olympics (marathon).  Another time in 1963 Gerry North was in contention in the Inter-Counties, in below freezing temperature in the snow at Reading but had a very heavy cold and was coughing badly after the event. The winner was Tim Johnston, who ran brilliantly in the snow to win the British Universities and Southern that year. Johnston did 52:37 and Gerry North was 2nd in 52:40, with Basil Heatley, Mike Turner and John Farington were the next in behind that.”

» Jeff Cunningham, Herne Hill Harriers: “Last weekend I travelled 250 miles by public transport in snow and sub zero temperatures to a cross country race in Holland – transport worked fine, and the races went ahead without any problem! It can be done! Of course, I’d booked my flights for Saturday, and I know a few other lads from HHH were coming over from Ireland as well. It’s a big race, historic race in the home of cross country. Who wouldn’t travel a few miles for that?  I’m now pretty concerned about the future of XC at Parly Hill. This cancellation sets a dangerous precedent.”

» Emelia Gorecka, six-time Southern Cross champion, tweeted: “So the Southerns have been cancelled.. When will I meet my beloved Parliament Hill again?  Gutted.”

»  Tim Elsey, Herne Hill Harriers, says: “Southerns cancelled, due to snow! Bonkers decision. It’s cross country – and that means accepting all risks involved!”

» Vicki Frew, Highgate Harriers, says: “Southern xc cancelled this weekend – honestly the heath is perfectly fine to run on!”

» Vicki Goodwin, Belgrave Harriers, who was flying in from Geneva to race, says: “It does feel like organisers (and behind them, host councils) are very quick to press the cancel button these days.  All completely crazy. I googled a history of the Heath. The objectives over the years are for it to retain its natural state and NOT be prim and park like. And it is common land – owned by the people, just managed by City of London Corporation. We pay our frigging taxes. We are the people. The land was bought out of private hands in the 19th century for the common good. We run at our own risk, we get that. We are the people, so let us run!”

» Simon Hazel, London Heathside: “Rubbish.”

» Geoff Jerwood, team manager for Herne Hill Harriers: “Absolute joke.”

» Alice Lethbridge, Aldershot, Farnham & District: “Frank Horwill took us training there in the snow and no-one got injured and it’s not like people will be piggy-backing up the hill on Saturday!”

»  William Mackay, Bedford & County, offered: “So you train your balls off for some Health and Safety type to cancel one of the world’s greatest cross-country races because of snow five days in advance. Don’t know why I bother…. I’m with a lot of people on being bitterly disappointed with the decision. I’ve always been more of a cross-country runner and have seen the Southerns as the second biggest race of the year (close behind the National). Trying to push the argument of cross-country being the manliest of sports hardly holds if you don’t run it in all weathers. Particularly a small amount of snow that could easily melt away when none is forecast.”

»  Vlad Nebolsin, Wycombe, says: “The world is getting softer – cancelling XC races is a confirmation.”

» Jon Pepper, Brighton Phoenix and third in 2012, says: “Mad to cancel based on “weather and state of the ground” as still 5 days away!”

»  Chris Smith, Thames Valley Harriers and 2013 Middlesex champion, says: “A monumental fall from grace. A city that showed the world how to put on a world class event in 2012, was praised around the world for its organisation and volunteer spirit has come crashing down in sober January blues. The vast majority of runners accept the risk with adverse conditions being part of the format for x-country.”

»  Anthony Whiteman, international miler, tweeted: “Sad times! Remember running Southerns at Brighton as an U15 in a foot of snow!”

»  Mary Grace Spalton, Belgrave Harriers: “Are we at war? Seems to be the only thing in history to stop this race according to my history buff friend.”

»  Peter White, British Athletics Supporters Club: “How ridiculous. I thought it had been suggested that XC should be in the Winter Olympics and they are held in locations where there is a lot of snow!”

Yet perhaps the final word should go to Martin Howard, the South of England cross country committee chairman. When asked why cross-country events easily went ahead in bad weather 20-30 years ago, he said: “Many things have changed in that time and what may have been acceptable then is often no longer acceptable and this goes not just for athletics.”

4 Responses to “Snow joke when events are called off”

  1. Coach John says:

    Total sympathy for all these runners down south. Just to rub salt in, we had a busy weekend, with XC in Cumbria on Saturday and indoor event at Sport City, Manchester on Sunday – in spite of the weather.

  2. Ron Howe says:

    The decision to cancel the Southern Cross Championships at Parliament Hill Fields is a disgrace.
    Cross country is a battle against the elements almost as much as against adversaries The City of London are obviously afraid of litigation in the event of someone getting injured. Surely the athletes are aware of, and accept the dangers ,otherwise why run at all.
    Incidently Tim Johnston did not win the Southern in 1963, Mel Batty did

  3. John Shearman says:

    I was competing in cross country races in 1963 with the likes of Tim Johnston, Gerry North, Mel Batty and Bruce Tulloh – although once the race started I could only watch them disappear into the distance!! My twin brother – Mark Shearman – was already taking great photographs and was soon to attend his first Olympic Games (he hasn't missed one since).!!
    I remember running for Wimbledon AC in a league race (?) on the Surrey Downs during that winter and looking at a line of wooden studs, about 4 inches high and at 3 metre intervals or so, and wondering what they were. When I got to the end of this particular field the (old) penny dropped – they were the tops of wooden posts supporting the fencing along the edge of the field. Nothing soft about cross country officials in those days.
    Amazes me though – my best time then for 10 miles was just under 54 minutes – considered modest in those days – yet in 2012 good enough to win a prize in many road races in East Anglia where I now live!!

  4. David Greenwood says:

    iN 1963 I never missed a day off school.One day the radiators broke down so we were allowed to wear our coats.I am fit and healthy now at 61,still run.We played Football in or should i say on it.The snow was there for weeks.Nobody I knew hurt themsleves.The human spirit has shown courage and fortitude against far worse.
    the school where i work was closed the other Monday ;I was surprised .Many people welcomed a day in bed ! Sums it up really,we've become far to soft as a nation.

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