Neil Featherby: Are county championships losing their appeal?

Sportlink SMile Callum Bowen Jones

Callum Bowen-Jones won his quarter-final at the Sportlink SMile event. - Credit: Baz Hipwell

I am sure this column may stir up one or two reactions - and it  comes on the back of a telephone call this week from a coach.

The coach was undoubtedly speaking from his heart when he wanted to sound off at me regarding the recent Norfolk County 5,000m championships.

Why did he want to express his feelings to me?

Well, because he knows I write this column and secondly because I coach the winner, Callum Bowen-Jones, and whilst the race produced some other excellent performances, this was also a race which lacked numbers of some of the county’s other top distance athletes.

I didn’t have the answer as to why only 12 athletes - made up of just four seniors, two juniors, four masters aged between 40 and 50 and two ladies - lined up for the race, but as I said to Cal afterwards, you can only beat those who you race on the day.

Yes, we were somewhat disappointed ourselves, and while winning a county title which has history (the cup awarded to Cal confirmed that with previous winners’ names going right back to 1928), we were more hoping for a PB somewhere in the region of 14:35 to 14:40. His current PB is 14:43 and, as already said, while it was nice to win, it was in truth the time he was really after.

We agreed that he would sit on 70/71-second laps until two miles in and then, if feeling good, look to gently pick it up. Failing that, then just sit on the agreed laps.

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Unfortunately, it was not to be with him taking the lead right from the start and increasing the gap for what turned out to be a bit of a lonely run, made even tougher by running into a stiff breeze down the back straight on each lap.

What you lose running into a head wind is not necessarily made up for when running with it on your back. 

“With it being the county championships, I really was hoping to find myself in a group of runners all aiming for similar times, as when running hard solo it is never as easy as when being pushed or pulled along by others,” said Cal.

At this point I want to make it clear that this is no disrespect to any of the other athletes who took part as there were some really super performances across the board, with the race also incorporating the other categories. But as the upset coach said to me: “Why is it that road races sell out, yet track and field in the endurance events struggle to gain entries?”

Asking around, it was quite clear that some of our more elite athletes were on holiday, injured or recovering from injuries and one was isolating due to Covid regulations.

However, bearing that in mind, Norfolk still has lots of excellent runners in the 15/16-minute category. I can only think that perhaps a track race, albeit a county championship, just didn’t appeal or they have other races which their focus and attentions are more on.

Speaking to the hard-working Clive Poyner (chairman Athletics Norfolk), he said: “It is disappointing when you try and put track endurance races on and then find that only a few enter, especially when we have so many athletes in the county who run these distances. I do have to say a huge thank you to all the other officials and volunteers of course, who, without their input, it would not happen anyway. Going forward, I am going to ask Andrew Lane to add these events to the endurance calendar for next year.”

Between lockdowns last year, we organised a number of track evenings (the Joe Skipper Track Challenges) which proved to be very popular, especially with those who were running on the track for the first time, or indeed since school days. These events were then followed up by a few more Athletics Norfolk meets and of course the Smile Mile Challenge which I personally loved being a part of, by way of organisation.

At the end of the day, it really has been a difficult time for anyone to plan since March of last year and of course when it comes down to personal choice as to where and when any athlete want to do their racing, it is their choice.

Norfolk has an abundance of super talent and I am sure by this time next year we will see all our athletes performing to the very best of their abilities whilst also bringing the best out of each other at the same time. At the county championships as well of course.