Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Forward to Farthing Downs: start of the Surrey Cross-Country League

As discussed here before, cross-country is where it all began as far as modern organised athletics is concerned, with many of today's running clubs starting out in the 19th century to chase across fields in 'hare and hounds' races.

With the conditions now beginning to get suitably cold and wet, the English cross-country season got underway again last week - and I ran my first organised cross country race since leaving school.  Over the summer I joined my local Kent Athletic Club (based in Lewisham), and I was one of 27 wearing the blue vest of Kent - and  one of 176 runners in total -  in the opening men's match of the 2014-15 2XU Surrey Cross-Country League at Farthing Downs in Coulsdon.

Entrance to the South London Harriers HQ in Brighton Road, Coulsdon
 The race was hosted by South London Harriers, who have been based in the area and running over Farthing Downs since at least 1913 (their origins go back further to a pub in Peckham Rye in 1871, but that's another story). The Surrey Cross-Country League is slightly less venerable, but is still older than me, having started in 1962. The top flight of the event, Division One,  was dominated by two teams in the ten years between 2001 and 2011, with Herne Hill Harriers winning six times and Thames Hare and Hounds winning four times. But in the last two years, it has been won by Kent AC following a rapid progression from the 4th to 1st division after the club joined the league in 2007-8.

The animals of Farthing Downs
Coulsdon is within the London Borough of Croydon, but the area is as proper countryside as you can find within the M25. Yes cows had to be moved out of the way before the race could start. When you see the word 'Downs' you know it really means 'Ups' and the 5.4 mile course (over two laps) started with a long uphill grassland stretch before descending through woodland on a path with enough stones and tree roots to stop the mind from wandering.

The route
The race was won by Jon Pepper, running for Ranelagh Harriers, followed by Kent AC's John Gilbert and Paskar Owor (Belgrave Harriers).  The team competition was won by Kent though, who took five of the top 13 positions. Team points are calculated on the basis of the top ten finishers for each club - the winner gets 1 point, 2nd place two points etc. with the team with the lowest number of points across its first ten finishers being the winner overall. Kent are definitely now the team everyone wants to beat, so plenty to run for in the remaining three matches at Lloyd Park, Streatham Common and Richmond Park (full results here)

John Gilbert (Kent AC) and Paskar Owor (Belgrave Harriers, and a former Olympic athlete for Uganda)
- photo from Surrey Cross-Country League facebook page
Going straight into a highly competitive Division One match was daunting for me, and I can't say I contributed to the outcome. But I did achieve my modest race goals of 1. not falling over; 2. not getting lapped; 3. not walking; and 4. not coming last. I strongly recommend you try and run in a cross-country race over autumn/winter if you get the chance, I certainly intend to do some more.

The match was preceded by the Young Athletes race (under-17s), won by Kent's Alex Yee. In fact it's been a good couple of weeks for Kent AC runners, the next day the club's Amy Clements won the women's race in the Royal Parks Half Marathon, while the weekend before Cath Stibbs won the women's race at the Chester Marathon. Kent's women's team also made their debut in the Surrey Cross-Country League  'Senior Ladies' Division 2.

After the race runners retired to the South London Harriers clubhouse bar, a place steeped in running history and lore with  vintage photos, medals and indeed its very own blue plaque outside.

Plaque outside the SLH HQ commemorating Gordon Pirie (1931-1991).
5000m silver medallist at 1956 Melbourne Olympics

'this is no normal race. This is among the best racing amateur athletics can offer. I once ran a race called Hellrunner on an army camp in Hampshire. It is part of a breed of modern races that are pitched as masochistic and ‘tough’. The ground was frozen. The hills were modest. We waded through the Bog of Doom, a contrived trench of neck-deep water. It was cold, but provides the runner with a rest – a convenient break from what you came here to do. I finish fifth. They give you what is called a ‘survivor’s medal’ if you get round. Hellrunner? I have run in hell. It’s a place near Bourton-on-the-Water. It is Richmond Park when you are in 76th place a week after winning a marathon. It is the second lap of Farthing Downs'.

See also on South London club running:


  1. Glad you enjoyed it, it is a good course at Farthing Downs. It always seems strange that Kent run in the Surrey League, it dates back to 2009 when the Kent League almost folded and Kent made alternative arrangements. At least Division 1 is a bit more competitive, when you started in Division 4 there were races where Kent would taken 9 out of the first 10 places.

  2. I guess the name Kent AC is itself a bit of a historical anomaly as it hasn't really had a connection with the County of Kent for many years (it's been based in Lewisham since the 1930s). As a South London club it's probably geographically closer to most of the Surrey fixtures than the Kent League ones, but there's not much in it.