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Neil Featherby: How the East Anglian Cross Country League made a comeback

Neil Featherby and Martin Pigott on the way to winning a league race at RAF Coltishall, back in 1985 when the league was very much based around local RAF Camps. Picture: Neil Featherby.

Neil Featherby and Martin Pigott on the way to winning a league race at RAF Coltishall, back in 1985 when the league was very much based around local RAF Camps. Picture: Neil Featherby.

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Last week I wrote about the Horsford Cross Country race series which during the last 14 years or more has provided runners of all standards with an insight into what cross country running really was like back in the day.

Team Sportlink before a recent race at the Whittlingham Country Park. Picture: Jodie CauserTeam Sportlink before a recent race at the Whittlingham Country Park. Picture: Jodie Causer

Not all, but a lot of modern day races are now designed to meet the needs of the real racers (elite athletes) whereas the history of the sport which dates right back to 1837 with a first English National Cross Country Championships being held in 1876, would see runners having to race across what really was rugged countryside whilst encountering all sorts of obstacles along the way.

Here in Norfolk and whilst not going back quite as far as the mid 1800s, The East Anglian Mid-Week Cross Country League race series can indeed be dated back to 1963 when every Wednesday afternoon throughout the autumn and winter months the many RAF and Army bases which were scattered around Norfolk, Suffolk and on the borders of Cambridgeshire and South Lincs, would each take their turn to host at least one league race each season.

Runners were not only aplenty, but the standard was also very high too what with serviceman being stationed here in these parts from all over the UK, with many of them being of international standard.

As the league grew in popularity, several of the local running clubs, businesses, universities and colleges were also invited to enter teams which further added to the standard of the racing and I was lucky enough to run in a few of these races myself as an individual during the mid and late 1980s. I even had the privilege and honour one year to present the end of season prizes at what was back then RAF Swanton Morley.

Runners heading back to West Runton after the half way turn at Cromer during race one in this seasons East Anglian X/C League. Picture: Richard FarrowRunners heading back to West Runton after the half way turn at Cromer during race one in this seasons East Anglian X/C League. Picture: Richard Farrow

However and what with the closure of so many RAF stations during the last 20-odd years or so, the league started to dwindle in numbers and whilst not completely forgotten, it most certainly lost some of its shine of those previous years.

Thankfully though and due to the enthusiasm of several individuals who were determined to keep alive a little bit of what I suppose you can call sporting history here in the county, the East Anglian X/C League is now once again thriving.

Whilst there are far less servicemen taking part these days, thanks to all the hard working efforts of Jude Durrant and a number of friends and volunteers, the league in many ways has also now taken on a new look.

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Amongst the individuals who take part, there are also currently 19 teams entered made up from the existing local RAF bases, athletics clubs, the UEA and businesses, for which I am proud to say that Sportlink also have a large team entered which all goes towards making for plenty of healthy competition right throughout the race field which regularly sees up to an amazing 275 runners taking part.

The age range is also very diverse with some of Norfolk's best young talent battling it out at the front all the way back down the field to the likes of the very popular Rodney Freeburn who has been competing on the local running scene for years and is now into his 80s.

Whereas in the past, the races would invariably be within or around the grounds of the local service bases, the venues are now planned very carefully so as for each host to have their own unique feature whereby a race might be at a country park one week, followed by a beach run for the next and then at a rugby club.

One of the races in the calendar is even ran from a disused railways station. As Jude Durannt puts it herself: "It all adds to the fun and variation of the league. The courses are designed in a way where you will either love it or hate it, but at the end of the day it is all about getting wet, muddy and having a cuppa and a slice of cake afterwards. On a brisk winter's day, who could ask for more?"

The very popular Rodney Freeburn, who now into his 80s is still a regular for his club Wymondham AC at East Anglian X/C Races. Picture: Richard FarrowThe very popular Rodney Freeburn, who now into his 80s is still a regular for his club Wymondham AC at East Anglian X/C Races. Picture: Richard Farrow

This really is testament to all the hard work which Jude, Bobbie Sauerzapf and their team of helpers and volunteers put into each race.

There are usually about ten races per season with a start time of 2.30pm. The men will usually race over a distance of about 10k and the ladies over about 5k. Race entry fees are kept to a minimum with all fees going towards covering insurance and race permits. There are also several charities and projects which benefit from any monies raised from car parking and post race refreshments, so all in all this very relaxed, but friendly cross country league really is a winner and thanks to so many people, it is now once again going from strength to strength.

Jon Beverley of Total Race Timing has also very kindly sponsored the league this year for which all concerned are so very grateful.

For anyone who would like to find out more, then check out their website www.eaccl.webs.co or facebook page EACCL- East Anglian Cross Country League.

Race two at the Whitlingham Country Park with some of Norfolk�s leading young talent to the fore. Picture: Shane BoyleRace two at the Whitlingham Country Park with some of Norfolk�s leading young talent to the fore. Picture: Shane Boyle

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