The Schools International Athletic Board (SIAB) Cross Country International Delights At The Picturesque Pembrey Country Park

The Schools International Athletic Board (SIAB) Cross Country International Delights At The Picturesque Pembrey Country Park

By Owen Morgan

Almost 30,000 fans singing Yma O Hyd along with Dafydd Iwan. A spine-tingling acapela rendition of Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau. And the most perfectly placed free-kick I’ve witnessed live.

Last Thursday night’s World Cup play-off semi-final victory for Rob Page’s team over Austria was one of the most idyllic Welsh sporting occasions I’ve had the pleasure of attending.

I thought I may have to wait a long time to experience anything that came close. I was wrong.

On Saturday, there was another sporting event on Welsh soil which was also wonderfully idyllic, but in a totally different way.

The Schools International Athletic Board (SIAB) Cross Country International was an undiluted delight to attend.

I wasn’t even supposed to be there. A Friday night request by Welsh Athletics to cover the event meant I was driving somewhat bleary eyed through the gates of Pembrey Country Park at 8.30am on Saturday morning.

But what a morning it was. Cloudless blue skies meant  the breathtaking park, which sits just a pebble’s throw from the golden beaches  and sparkling waters of Carmarthen Bay, was looking its absolute splendid best.

Pembrey is fast establishing itself as a running and cycling venue of international standard thanks to its top class facilities as well as its outstanding natural beauty.

Add more than 180 of Great Britain and Ireland’s best young cross country athletes, kitted out in the red, blue, white and green colours of the home nations, and the scene was perfectly set for one of the purest forms of sport you can hope to watch.

At its most basic, all you really need to take part in cross country is a large expanse of countryside, a pair of daps and lots of enthusiasm and energy.

Granted, some of the footwear on show may have been a little more sophisticated than your average pair of daps and a lot more colourful, but there was enthusiasm by the bucket load, not to mention bags of athletic talent.

The past two years have been particularly challenging for our school age youngsters. At a time when obesity rates and mental health issues are rising at an alarming rate, it was a glorious sight to see dozens of secondary school age pupils running for the pure pleasure of competition.

From the local primary school races, which kicked off the action, to the thrilling excitement of the international relays which brought the day to a close, young faces were wreathed in smiles, while laughter and cheers filled the sea air.

There were also plenty of grimaces – there always are in cross country – especially at the top the most daunting dune, which matched the height of the huge ski slope which is the centrepiece of the country park. And at the finish line beyond which shattered athletes collapsed to the floor, spent by their efforts.

But more smiles were never far from faces whatever position the youngsters finished in their races, and the energy was soon back in aching legs, especially once the relays began.

It was a joy to watch athletes, who had already run their races over a range of distances from 3,000m to 6,000m, sprinting from one side of the park to the other in order to cheer on their team-mates in the thrilling finale of a superbly organised event marshalled by a small army of volunteers.

Unfortunately for home spectators, Saturday’s results didn’t match that of the previous Thursday evening as the hugely impressive English team dominated every single race from juniors through to intermediate level.

But it mattered not as the Celtic nations put in every ounce as much effort as their all-conquering English counterparts. Equally importantly, they appeared to derive just as much enjoyment from the event.

While athletes clad in white won all the individual gold, it was great to see every single position being hotly contested, with even some of the minor placings inspiring sprint finishes and last-gasp lunges for the line.

There were some medal successes for the Celtic cousins in the overall team events where England also enjoyed a golden clean sweep.

Wales took silver in the junior girls’ category with Ireland claiming bronze. The junior boys event saw Ireland claim silver and Scotland earn bronze.

In the intermediate age groups Ireland’s boys claimed silver and Scotland bronze, while Scotland’s girls won silver and Ireland picked up bronze.

The junior mixed relay saw Ireland win silver and Wales bronze, while in the mixed intermediate relay Ireland also picked silver with Scotland earning the bronze.

But whoever took home the medals, the biggest winner on the day was school sport in general.

Sport at this age group is hugely important at whatever level it is being contested, the physical and mental health benefits are immeasurable, whether competing for fun or medals.

And it’s worth remembering the likes of Wales’ Thursday night World Cup heroes Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey were both promising athletes before plumping for football careers and the SIAB schools cross country championships boasts double Olympic 10,000m champion Mo Farah as a past gold medallist.

With the future of some schools athletics events in doubt, the success of events like last weekend’s SIAB Cross Country Championships in Pembrey is hugely important to the future of schools sport and its potential benefit to young people.

Well done to every involved in staging such a successful event and all those who took part.

Full results are on the Welsh Athletics website.

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