VETERAN cross country runner Keith Lofthouse lost count of how many people he told that he couldn't win last Sunday's Watkins Family Handicap at Warrak and would never have backed himself.
The former racing writer said, "I'm a nervous punter and I'd already made a monumental blunder during the week when I backed an 80-1 winner at the Bendigo races just to run a place!"
The wiry Lofthouse, who had never finished closer than seventh in the gruelling 6.5 kilometre event, defied his own predictions when he surged to the lead with two kilometres to run and resisted the determined efforts of back markers Peter Gibson and Ian McCready to run him down.
Both placegetters are past winners of the race and Lofthouse anxiously sneaked a look over his shoulder to see how close they were when he rounded the last bend for the 400 metres uphill run to the timekeepers.
The battling runner, who was hampered by a calf injury for the first half of the season, held on grimly for a 0.13 second margin, his first win with the Stawell and Ararat Cross Country Club in 28 months and 50 starts.
"I've only ever got close to winning a prestige race by running second in the Eaglehawk to Bendigo in 2002 and second in the George Perdon (16km) in Melbourne in 2004 and that was only after years of learning how to run those races," he said.
"It's taken me seven years to work out the Watkins. It's a genuine cross country course through forest, fields and paddocks with steep rises and falls and I've been going out too hard too early and putting myself in oxygen debt on the first hill.
"Race sponsor Leo Watkins knows how tough it is. He even had a fall during the week just laying out the course, but then he's nearly 81 and probably shouldn't be doing it."
Fastest time of 26.56 was posted by improving young gun Sam Gason which was almost a minute faster than he ran in the same race last year.
The same One Tree Hill in Ararat, which tested the mettle of horsepower in last week's motorised Hill Climb, confronts runners in the three kilometre King of the Hill on Sunday.