All smiles after the women's A racePaul Bannister with permission for Varsity

On Friday 2nd February at 3:45 pm – with a few exceptions – fifty members of the Cambridge University Hare and Hounds bundled onto a coach destined for Leeds, for the annual BUCS Cross Country Championships. In store for the hardy runners were miles of foot-sinking, shoe-pinching, leg-splattering mud, brutal hills, a bracing wind, chattering teeth, jumpy nerves, porridge pots and limitless spring rolls.

A quiet evening on Friday saw our athletes preparing in a motley of superstitious ways for their imminent races – routines including, but not limited to, binge-watching BBC News, using time spent locked out of a hotel room for some corridor dynamic lunges, chugging herbal tea, and getting prematurely ‘into the zone’ by listening to ‘Lose Yourself’ on repeat.

Most of our runners and supporters left the hotel at 9am on race day, arriving at Temple Newsam Park half an hour later. As the coach-ride singalong’s lyrics to ‘Angels’ merged with Macklemore’s ‘i-n-d-e-p-e-n-d-e-n-c-e’, we were all certainly steeled for a big day, determined ‘to pass the torch and put on for [our] town’.

To slightly paraphrase Moliere, there is nothing quite like a cross country race. It is an eclectic, electric and eccentric event which somehow combines the lawless revelry of a festival with the most brutal of sporting endeavours. Face paints, costumes, temporary tattoos, glitter, hand-made signs, deafening cheering, burger vans, loud music and portaloos pivot against spikes, race numbers, bananas, pre-race pep talks, warm-up routines and mud, in a wacky exuberance of sporting celebration.

There is always at least one intentional face-plant, and many more accidental ones. There are always tears, always smiles, and always medals up for grabs. Hopes are dashed and dreams realised; races can be won and lost in split-second decisions or over protracted battles. You will always hit a wall, it’s just a question of hitting it later than your rivals. On that start line, as the apprehension and cold sends shivers down your spine and your vision tunnels, there is nothing much more you can do; the hard work is done, and you simply have to put all your trust into yourself – despite the incredible team spirit, running can be ruthlessly lonely: you can only blame yourself. But equally, you can thank yourself generously when things go well – which for Cambridge at BUCS, they overwhelmingly did!

The first race on Saturday was the women’s B race, where Maia Hardman was the first Harey home in 33rd, followed by Stella Wernicke running well to break into the top 50 placing 48th, and Beka Lloyd filling the scoring team in 60th.

This was followed by the Men’s B race, a spectacle of CUH&H strength and depth. Our sea of light blue packed four runners within the top twenty, unsurprisingly clinching the team a bronze medal, a result bettered only by Birmingham and Loughborough. Brothers Tom and Ewan Spencer had impressive runs, finishing in 6th and 8th respectively, and George Ogden and Matthew Dubery supported them well in 14th and 18th. We had a fantastic twenty-two runners race the men’s B, a very strong showing over the formidable course, especially challenging for a group of runners largely acclimated to training on Cambridge’s flat environs – and no, sadly, after this testing weekend, Grange Road can no longer count as a hill.

Next up was the women’s A race, where Phoebe Barker demonstrated her excellent cross country form with a brilliant individual silver. She was followed by myself in 10th, on the warpath post-injury and not to be undone by losing a shoe in the mud 5.5km in. It was a painful final 2.5km for all involved – and my first foray into barefoot running (not recommended). Poppy Craig-McFeely completed our scorers in a strong 28th place finish, and these performances proved enough to secure our women’s A a team bronze medal.

The final race of the day was the men’s A, a lengthy battle across the churned-up course which saw Jeremy Dempsey just missing a medal in a 4th place-rewarded gritty run, followed by Pete Molloy securing top-ten with an impressive 8th place. Max Walk was the next Harey home, the name clearly a red herring – his 19th place result was certainly no stroll in the park. Terry Fawden completed the scoring four in 27th. The excellent performances in the men’s A were just short of a team medal, but our club’s overall success saw us once again competing at the very highest level of UK university sport.

Our overall team result was bettered only by the sport-funded powerhouses of Birmingham and Loughborough, and the day saw a brilliant forty-two Cambridge runners take to – and complete – the tough course.

Pyjamas were worn on the podium, mud was trodden into the hotel lobby and pink rabbit onesies were shovelled into sports bags. The weekend was far from over, and CUH&H next visited a Chinese restaurant – the quintessentially ubiquitous post-race fuel of chicken and rice was not to be missed, fatigued legs and bracing evening breeze regardless.

The afterparty doors were to open at 11:30 earliest, devastatingly late for some of us, and the Hareys spent their time in the meanwhile occupied by a variety of differing entertainment. Some used the time to recover as best as possible from the day’s exertions – and some didn’t.

The most stalwart athletes in our club maintained their excellent form of the day prior with a group long run bright and early on Sunday morning; and the distances covered were far from feeble endeavours to secure historic BUCS memorialisation through keenness, despite a certain Harey’s dismal prognosis – that he ‘spent 95% of that run wishing it would end’.

For those of us who had the weekly essay’s pressing call bearing down upon us, the coach journey ticked by, time being measured not in coffee spoons but in lines of literary criticism. The post-BUCS blues were beginning to prevail over our mud-coated blue vests, as Cambridge loomed up against the silent and grey Sunday afternoon horizon.

It was always going to be a challenge to match our victory at last year’s BUCS XC Championship, where we won a brilliant four medals, but CUH&H managed to prove again that we are the deserving winners of the Cambridge Uni Sport 2023 Team of the Year award, with a serious claim to being one of the University’s most successful sporting clubs. Our athletes constitute a significant proportion of the UCAAP programme, boasting several GB and England vest runners, including numerous national medalists and title-holders. More immediately, two of our older runners – Jeremy Dempsey and Phoebe Barker – have been selected for the World Universities Championships in Oman, a very well-deserved accolade to add to their series of successes already this year.


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As B team runner James Ackland pithily put it, we ‘dug deep, found more mud’: and what nobler credo could guide us doughty cross country runners as we push on with training towards the final few races of the season? Up next for CUH&H will be various appearances over the shorter distances on the track and field circuit as the Spring and Summer seasons approach: BUCS Indoors, BUCS Outdoors, the Varsity Athletics match, and the British Athletics Championships will be major calendar dates.

Certain Hareys will renounce the track in favour of obscure orienteering events and fell racing; and although these decisions can be met with varying levels of snide opprobrium by other runners, one canonical Cambridge running truth will remain unwaveringly eternal: coach Phil O’Dell, is magic.

Although the self-pitying post-BUCS reminiscence began as soon as the coach pulled up at the Backs, the glories of CUH&H’s experience this year will remain in our memories for a long time, and the temporary tattoos will stick with – and to – us for even longer.