Exclusive by Owen Morgan
When it comes to big races, Liverpool is probably best known for horses galloping around the Aintree course on Grand National day.
The world renowned race is often decided by which runner is best suited to the day’s “going” on the course.
But last month at Sefton Park, in the south of the city, saw a thoroughbred performance from a young Welsh athlete who showed she can win even when the conditions underfoot are against her.
Swansea Harrier Cari Hughes prefers the “going” to be muddy and hilly rather than dry and flat as they were in Liverpool.
But the 19-year-old galloped away from the field to win the women’s under 20s race at the British Cross Challenge event, which doubled as the Great Britain team trials for next weekend’s SPAR European Cross Country Championships in the Netherlands.
Hughes told Dai Sport: “I thought it was going to be a little bit muddy but when I got there, there was no mud at all, and to be honest, that isn’t really suited to me.
“I normally prefer hills and a bit of mud, but Liverpool’s just flat and it was dry that day, but it went well on the day.”
“It went well” is something of an understatement. The modest former Menai Track and Field runner from Anglesey, strode to an impressive win which triggered an avalanche of Welsh success across the junior and senior races resulting in seven athletes booking their places on the plane to Tilburg.
Hughes said: “I really didn’t expect it to go that well, I hoped to make the team for the Europeans and that was the main aim, but I really didn’t expect to win. I just felt good on the day, it was one of those days where my legs felt really good.
“In cross country races you don’t really have a plan because anything can happen. I just went with it and dealt with anything that was thrown at me and held the lead all the way to the line. My legs felt good which was lucky on the day.”
Hughes will go to Tilburg with positive memories of competing at the European Championships.
Last year the Loughborough-based student was part of the Great Britain under-20 team which was led to team gold in Slovakia by individual champion Harriet Knowles-Jones.
Hughes, who finished ninth in the individual standings, is looking forward to challenging for honours again: “Last year was amazing, I really enjoyed that.
“It was so good to be part of such a strong GB team, with Harriet obviously winning the individual race, it just made us all proud to be a part of it.
“I really learnt a lot because I had a fall in the race as well, right at the start. So I learnt what to do in that kind of situation.
“I was quite far back when I fell, so I worked my way back through the field. I didn’t panic, although when you’re in that situation often you do panic, but now I’ve experienced it, I know what to do next time.
“I learnt so much from last year, so I’m really looking forward to this year. I’ve been a little bit under the weather this week with a cold and stuff but I should be fine.
“I’m feeling good and still running, I just feel tired I guess from Liverpool. I’ve got another week to recover and train again so it all looks good.”
Just as she did at Liverpool, Hughes plans to go to Holland and take on whatever is thrown at her as far as conditions and opposition are concerned.
“I’m assuming it’s going to be flat and fast, that’s what the Euros were like last year so I’m guessing it’s going to be the same,” she said.
“I literally just want to go there, have a good run and see what happens when I’m there. At the Europeans anything can happen. I’m just going to go there and race. I might feel good, I might feel bad, you never know.
“I’m hoping the team will win again, that’s probably one of the main aims. It’s a really strong team, we’re all quite closely packed time wise. I think that the four of us can easily get into the top 15, or the top 10. We’ve got a lot of strong girls going.
“I think we’ll just go there and run our own races because everyone runs tactically differently. But when you run for Great Britain you want every place to count, so you work as a team when it’s getting hard and you encourage each other on.”
Hughes’ cross country form has been a continuation of an excellent track season which saw her retain the Welsh Junior Female Endurance Athlete of the Year Award.
She added: “I’ve had quite a few illnesses and Liverpool was only my second cross country race of the season, so I didn’t really know what to expect, but it’s been ok.
“The track season went well, I got a few PBs, but it didn’t go quite as well as I’d hoped. It was a stepping stone for next year.
“Getting the endurance award was a big thing, I was really honoured to get that. I didn’t expect to get it. It was a really good night.
“I think this coming year I need to step up a bit more on the track and get my times down again because I think I can run a lot faster than I have run over the past season.”
Despite feeling she could have been quicker this summer, Hughes still set a new Welsh under-20s 1500m record at the British Milers Club Stretford Grand Prix when she clocked 4:17.21 and won the 1500m for Loughborough at the British Universities Championships.
Over 3,000 she clocked a PB of 9:25.17 at the Trafford AC Grand Prix to go fifth in the all time Welsh under-20 rankings.
Unfortunately she was unable to defend her senior 1500m title at the Welsh Senior Championships due to illness, but her performances saw her named on the Welsh Athletics Commonwealth Games Programme talent development list.
Despite the track success, Hughes says she currently enjoys the challenges posed by cross country. “I prefer cross country because I seem to succeed more there at the moment.
“But I think once I get my speed, I’m sure I’ll get the feel for running on the track back. I used to love running on the track but it’s just not been quick enough recently. I’m hopeful that this season it’ll come back and I’ll enjoy the track again.
Away from the track and cross country courses, Hughes has plenty to keep her occupied as she studies human biology at Loughborough University.
“It’s quite hard to be honest, you train twice a day and you’ve got gym or another session in the middle. It’s tiring and my course is quite intense, there’s a lot of work to do but you just balance your time right I guess. It’s doable but you do get fatigued.
“It’s hard to balance them both especially now because I’ve got exams and stuff coming up. I’m obviously going away to Holland which is exciting and you just want to train, but you need to get back and study as well. Most people have to do it though.”
At the moment, Hughes seems to be doing an admirable job of getting the balance just right, which will put her and the Great Britain team amongst the favourites as they come under starters orders against Europe’s best in Tilburg next weekend.