Wimbledon Common will tomorrow host the 127th Oxford v Cambridge cross country race, marking the start of this year’s varsity competition.
Both the men’s and women’s races are hosted by Thames Hare and Hounds (THH) cross country club, who this year celebrate their 150th anniversary.
THH, the oldest cross country club in the country, has hosted the men’s race since 1896, and the women’s race since its inception in 1976.
Club secretary Simon Molden said: “That relationship between us and the two universities is something that is important to us.
“We get members out in sufficient numbers to put on an event that is fitting for the status and the tradition.”
With the UK’s two oldest university’s competing, it seems fitting that they are hosted by the UK’s oldest cross country club, and the event comes with some unusual traditions.
All competitors run in white kit – a curious choice for cross-country – with Oxford donning white shirts and black shorts, while Cambridge set off in full white attire.
THH have their own quirks too: race marshals are known as ‘pioneers’ – a title that is unique to the club, as far as they know.
But varsity hasn’t always been held on Wimbledon Common.
Initially, the races were hosted alternately by the universities, but after ten years a neutral course was sought out, with THH named hosts in 1890.
But it did not start smoothly, and the first race is known as ‘the fiasco’ after the runners all got lost and a no-race was declared.
THH were given a second chance in 1896, and have hosted the race ever since, except between 1926-1945, due to the construction of the Kingston Bypass disrupting the course.
THH are proud of their long-running varsity tradition, but they are also proud to be a part of a movement of gender equality far ahead of its time.
In 2015 the varsity boat race made headlines when the women’s race was held on the same day and on the same course as the men’s race for the first time in its history.
But according to Mr Molden, that was old news for varsity cross country runners.
He said: “For us in cross country that’s always been the case, and its been happening for 40-odd years – they’ve had that equal status.”
“In 1976 Thames was still an all-male club,” said Mr Molden
“It took a bit of persuading for some of the older members in the club at that time that we should be taking it on.
“But we did, and it’s right that we did.”
Tomorrow competition is set to be fierce, with Oxford leading the women’s standings 24-17, while the men are tied with 63 wins apiece.
It is still unclear who will emerge victorious on Saturday, and strong team lineups on both sides mean that it is still too close to call a winner in the ‘blues’ races.
Last year Oxford claimed victory in the women’s race, ending a five-year losing streak, while Cambridge won the 126th men’s race.
Cambridge Hare and Hounds club captain Lizzy Apsley, who will be taking part in her third varsity race on Saturday, said: “I’m quite positive, I think both teams have hard races.
“Oxford have very strong teams, they’ve got quite a lot of older runners compared to our teams.
“I can’t call it either way.”
With thanks to seandalai for use of photo via Flickr