Exciting times lie ahead for cross country in Norfolk under duo's management
Run Anglia editor Mark Armstrong speaks to Dominic Blake about how he and Chris Merrylees are putting the pride back in the Norfolk vest
Cross country sometimes felt like a punishment at school.
‘What are we doing at games this afternoon?’ I would ask my teacher.
I would dearly hope that in the cold winter months that football or rugby would be the answer…
“Cross country…,” would come the reply from my teacher.
Many of us would let out an audible groan, which only served to put on a couple more kilometres for us to run.
There wasn’t a great deal of love for cross country at my school. And it seems Norfolk, as a county, had gone the same way.
When Dom Blake wore the Norfolk vest to represent his home county at the Inter County Cross Country Championships in 2016 it wasn’t the proud experience he had hoped for.
Unable to field a full team the men’s senior team didn’t even register in the final results.
Chris Merrylees had a similar experience the year after, prompting him to post on Facebook how disappointed he was that with all the running talent Norfolk has that it was unable to field a full team.
The whys and wherefores were temporarily debated until someone threw down the gauntlet… ‘If you think you can do better, then why don’t you give it a go?’
So that’s what they did, and within a year there is something of a buzz around the cross country scene. As co-managers Chris and Dom set about reframing entrenched attitudes towards representing Norfolk.
It was clear that individuals and some clubs had felt disenchanted with the whole selection process in gaining a Norfolk vest and this was something Chris and Dom were keen to address straight away.
They made it clear that if you were one of the first seven runners past the finishing post in the men’s and women’s race at the Norfolk Cross Country Championships then you would have the chance to represent your county at the Inter Counties champs.
“The selection policy hadn’t been very clear so we just said that if you finish in the top six, regardless of your age category then you qualify,” said Dom, one of Norfolk’s leading runners himself. “It was more about restoring people’s faith in the county championships and knowing that success there would mean that you got to wear the county vest.
“The perception was that these people would be selected regardless of whether or not they turned up at the county champs.
“I was speaking to a guy who finished second one year and he didn’t know if he was in the team. That shouldn’t happen, obviously.
“Perhaps it was a communication thing and if they had spoken to the right people at the time then it could have been resolved.”
Pleasingly people bought into what Dom and Chris wanted to do and they managed to field full teams in both the men’s and women’s senior races at the Inter Counties in March with the ladies excelling, finishing 10th out of the 29 counties involved.
Club allegiances were temporarily put to one side and slowly the pride at getting a Norfolk vest was being restored.
“It’s a real pride thing – we’ve got to make sure that people understand it doesn’t matter what club you are from – you are representing your county now,” added Dom.
“It’s a bit like the difference, using a football analogy, between pulling on the club shirt and pulling on your England shirt and the athletes really got that.
“We didn’t want it to come down to club politics but there was a bit to get past.”
The pair are keen to build on a promising first year and are looking forward to seeing who emerges from the pack of runners competing in the Norfolk Cross Country Championships on Sunday, January 6.
Seven places will be up for grabs for both the men’s and women’s teams whilst it has been decided this year that a place on either will be discretionary for athletes that may be injured or out of form.
Dom, who is likely to be among the frontrunners himself in the men’s seniors, is looking forward to seeing who emerges this year.
“We really have got some top runners coming through,” he said. “I look at people like Ben Spratling – I think he finished about 155th last year but he will smash that this year – he’s in such good form.
“I beat him at the county champs but there is no way I’d get near him at the moment. There’s a lot of good youngsters coming through. Athletes like Piers Arnold, George Gay and Logan Smith.
“We’ve got other athletes that ran for us last year as well – Sam Coyne has come on in leaps and bounds – he will do well.
“The women’s team will be exciting as well – they were the surprise package last year finishing 10th and if you throw someone like Dani Nimmock, who could be in the mix then who knows?
“The aim is obviously to improve year on year. We don’t want to trip ourselves up and get complacent but you need that pack mentality when it comes to cross country. If you can pick off that runner in front of you not only is it plus one for us, it’s minus one for the other county.”
This year they have enlisted the help of the Mr and Mrs of Norfolk Athletics, Tim and Pauline Ash, as the pair have pledged to lend their assistance.
Dom was delighted to get the pair involved and has been impressed at how Norfolk’s clubs have also been prepared to lend their expertise.
“Tim and Pauline have been really supportive for us,” said Dom. “They have helped to organise a squad day at short notice and they see the bigger picture. They know it’s not about the clubs, it’s about the county and that helps.
“When you’ve got people like that on board then you’re on to a winner. We’ve got Brenda (Hutcheon) at BVH, Karl Chapman at Wymondham – a lot of our coaches and club secretaries get it and they are on board – that can only be a good thing. James Senior is keen for his squad to be involved.
“Look at some of the athletes Tim and Pauline have produced. We will lean on people like that. It’s about using those people that we know.”