Breeding Ground Of Champions (By Tom McCook, Birchfield Harriers)

This is a copy of the article contained in Athletics Weekly (15th November 2012) written by Tom McCook on the BDXCL.

bdxcl tom mccook portrait

It forms part of a series of articles on the many cross country leagues around the country.

THE Birmingham and District Invitation Cross Country League came into existence after a meeting in the White Horse Hotel in Birmingham on July 16, 1925, with half a dozen clubs agreeing to contest a series of home and away fixtures over the following winter season.

A decade later, Tipton Harriers were invited to join the league and, despite their first race in 1935 being declared a 'no race' due to 'a crossing of trails', the Whippets won 12 out of 13 league titles between 1937 and 1949.

This was partly thanks to the inspirational Jack Holden, who during this period won three National Cross Country titles to add to his four International Cross titles. Local service camps were invited to participate in league races between 1939 and 1945 and Halesowen C and AC broke Tipton's winning sequence in the final year of the Second World War. The league structure was reorganised in 1949 into three divisions comprising 20 clubs after Birchfield Harriers and Coventry Godiva Harriers were invited to join the league. Birchfield and Tipton were crowned division one champions in the next couple of years before the Stags, led by Bob Reid, annexed the next four consecutive league titles. Olympic marathon silver medallist Basil Heatley recorded the fi rst of his 17 league victories in November 1956. A year later, the Coventry Godiva Harrier began an impressive sequence of 12 consecutive victories between November 1957 and February 1960. Outside the league, Heatley won the National title three times and was the International champion in 1961. North Staff s AC's Roy Fowler, who succeeded his friend and rival as International champion in 1963, recorded no less than 22 league victories in the 1960s. Sparkhill Harriers' Olympic silver medallist steeplechaser Maurice Herriott frequently featured in the top three in this galactic league at this time along with such luminaries as Bill Adcocks, Brian Kilby, Juan and Dick Taylor. As the 1960s drew to a close, 19-year-old Ian Stewart of Birchfield Harriers finished runner-up to Fowler by 12 seconds at Redditch.

The precocious teenager who was to go on to be crowned the world cross country champion in 1975, often raced in and won Birmingham League races, particularly in late November. His brother Peter, Alan Rushmer, Andy Holden, Dave Black, David Moorcroft and Ray Smedley also went on to achieve success on the international stage having begun their athletics careers in what was undisputedly the highest quality cross country league in the UK. Stewart, the UKA head of endurance recalls: "When I first ran as a youth, 80% of the England team ran in the Birmingham League which always made the races highly competitive."

The league expanded to five divisions in 1998, but after reducing to four divisions at the start of this millennium it has consolidated into three large divisions for the past five years. When Birmingham hosted the inaugural Reebok UK Cross Challenge in 1998 at Senneleys Park, all the divisions in the league joined forces.

This tradition has been maintained for the opening fixture of the four-race series since then and around 700 runners from about 50 clubs faced the starter last weekend at Newbold Comyn in Leamington Spa.

Tipton Harriers' Josh Lilley will attempt to retain his individual winner status while his club will begin their defence of their team title after securing their record-breaking 35th league title at Cheltenham last February.

Carolyn Franks, who was elected league secretary in 2004 following the death of her husband Cliff, who had previously held that crucially important role, pays tribute to her colleagues, saying: "We have a very good and experienced team around us, who share a desire to maintain our league's positive reputation which has been progressively built up by those who have gone before us.

"There is always competitive but friendly rivalry between both individuals and clubs. Our league continues to be enhanced by the influx of students who compete for Birmingham, Loughborough and Warwick Universities."