National Cross-Country Championships

Back to Parliament Hill, then, for the English Cross Country Championships, happy hunting ground for Leeds over the past decade with 2 victories and a 3rd place, including the first team victory 10 years ago which kick-started a decade of harriers dominance of the cross-country scene. Parliament Hill is one of the classic cross-country courses, reknowned for its frantic uphill start, testing hills and thick, strength-sapping mud. Well, 2 of those were present on Saturday and, as London basked in un-seasonal warmth and sunshine, the mud was replaced by fast and firm underfoot conditions, mixed with tussocky grassland, making for a race challenging in a whole different way. Put it this way; Greg Hull averaged 6 minute miling and was only 300th, so the pace at the front must have been more akin to a road race!


In the younger age-groups, Laura Benson was our sole representative and she did a sterling job, as she has done all year. She finished 281st in a large and strong U15 girls’ field; she will have gained a lot of strength from this season’s racing, in which she has been one of the club’s most regular racers, and this will benefit her greatly next season.


The junior men would have been in the running for medals if it were not for the spate of injuries which ruled out Mike Wood, Danny Davies and Eliott Todd. As it was, only 3 runners took to the line for the Northern champions. Out of those, Dale Worton had the best run. Showing he has learnt from a disappointing Northerns, Dale set off steadily before working his way through the field, picking off the many who always start too fast at Parliament Hill. In the end he finished a fine 21st (and, incidentally, 3rd Northern runner). In 33rd, Gordon Benson didn’t enjoy his best race, losing touch with a fast-starting leading group, but is young enough to be back for more and will no doubt finish much higher in the future. He had also had to contend with a bout of tonsillitis since the Northerns which has hampered his training. Chris Wright finished 88th, well inside the first half of a strong field, and is another who is capable of much higher finishes.


The women’s team went into the Nationals full of confidence after a great winning performance at the Northerns, but also without Susan Partridge, the leading finisher at Pontefract, who was away altitude training in Boulder. Nevertheless, they produced another fine performance. The early stages looked worrying, with the Leeds vests seeming way down the large field, but, as the men have done so often, the women ran sensibly and confidently, moving through the field all race long. After a conservative start, Claire Duck moved through strongly and was the leading finisher in 39th, capping a very good cross-country season which has seen her return to form. Emily Birchall was the leading scorer for much of the first lap but lost a little ground in the second, and in the closing stages Sarah Peterson, looking a completely different athlete to the one who failed to make the scoring team at the Northerns, moved through to take the 2nd scorer spot, 59th to Emily’s 62nd. They were closely followed by Charlotte Wills, finding the race tough but sticking to her task to finish 68th, with just 12 seconds separating 2nd to 3rd scorers. This was enough for the women to finish 4th, their best performance in recent years and a great performance to cap a season in which the squad has developed in strength and turned into a genuine medal-winning force. With athletes still to come into the team and the road relays approaching, the future looks very bright.


Meanwhile, Jess Nixon started strongly before slipping a little for 145th, closely followed by a resurgent Sophie Lovell, just 5 seconds behind in 149th, having spent the whole race cutting through the field. Ruth Wilcox was 240th, just 6s ahead of Rachel Dyson in 249th, enjoying the lack of mud and running strongly, whilst the ever-smiling Faye Pinker was 481st. A hypothetical B team would have finished 26th and 7th Northern team, a good show of strength in depth before the road relays.


The men went into this race with something to prove, having lost their Northern title at Pontefract. On paper this was a stronger team, with Midland champion James Walsh racing and Alan Buckley returning from illness, and in Jameses Wilkinson and Walsh, we had 2 realistic shots at the individual title. They both set off like they meant it, both well up in the leading group at the top of the first hill, despite Walshy being one of several athletes distracted by a bizarre “false start”, the starter firing the recall gun and then almost instantly realising that stopping 1600+ rampaging runners was an impossible task and allowing the charge up the first hill (always one of the great sights in English sport!) to continue. Both remained firmly in the top 10 amongst the yellow vests of Stockport and Newham, until Manxman Keith Gerrard made a frighteningly fast break before the woods on the 2nd lap, stringing out the field. Wilko was still in the top 5 but Walshy looked out of it at this point, dropping down to 8th. However, he has proven many times he is not one to give up and as the runners reappeared from the woods with about 1½ miles to go, it was Walshy who had taken the advantage, leading Wilko in 5th. However, Wilko is just as unlikely to give up a fight and, in a case of the unstoppable force versus the immovable object, the 2 slugged it out until the final metres, where Wilko just snuck ahead to finish 5th, Walshy (who had managed to splatter his face with the only mud on the course!) just a second behind in 6th to give the team a great start.


Simon Deakin’s participation had been in doubt after suffering from a week of illness, but, as it turned out, he had his best run yet at the Nationals! After a conservative start, he spent the whole race moving through the field, running with Carl Smith till halfway before pulling away to finish in 24th. This means that Deak has been the sole runner to feature in all 10 (consecutive, no less) Leeds medal-winning teams, a record believed to be unmatched in English National history, and a streak which looks set to continue. Carl finished 39th with a typically battling performance, capping a season in which he has established himself as a vital member of the harriers squad. Despite his recent training being limited due to illness, Alan Buckley was also digging deep and battling to maintain his position. He finished 69th, down on races of recent years but, in the circumstances, a fine performance and a vital one for the team. The identity of the 6th counter was in doubt for much of the race, but in the end it was Martin Gostling who fought through to take his first National gold medal. The injury-prone Gostlo never seems to have an ideal build-up and this time had struggled with a pre-race cold, but, as he so often does, conjured a great performance from adversity, finishing 76th. For the Leeds spectators, the team result seemed up in the air, with Bedford, Tipton and Stockport all in the running, but when the result was announced it was a comfortable victory for Leeds, the 6th in 10 years and the 3rd in the most recent 4 races at Parliament Hill.


Not far behind were two stalwarts of previous National-winning teams, with Martin Hilton in 107th (his lowest finishing position in 15 years, which says something about his exemplary record) and Darran Bilton just 12s behind in 113th in probably his strongest run of the season. In 127th was Mike Burrett, finding the firm course very fast given his current marathon training and no doubt wishing the course was its usual muddy self. Mike rounded out the 9 man team, a title which we also took, although the rules state no team can hold both titles in one year. Still, with the 12 stage coming up next, this represented a great show of strength in depth, especially as Mike was closely followed by the battling Doscoe in 129th and Olly Ziff, another to establish himself as an important squad member this season, in 132nd. 12th man was James Smith in 154th, struggling to come to terms with a course which will have done little to change his mind about cross-country. With 753 points, this B team would have finished 12th and 4th Northern team, a result which should instill confidence before the road relays.


Pushing Smithy all the way was Alex Davy, looking stronger by the race and finishing just 2s down in 156th. Tom Edwards led another group of battling Leeds runners, finishing 295th, just 2s ahead of Leon Foster (297th) who was in turn 1s ahead of Greg Hull in 300th. Pete Branney was 342nd whilst Ben Dyson, feeling good and running strongly, was 484th. For stat fans, a C team would have finished 27th with 1874 points, 9th Northern team (including our B team)! Gav Chatterton found his toughest week yet of marathon training catching up with him, finishing in 608th whilst Trevor Wilks was 661st. Aaron Lowery actually pulled out in the early stages after turning his ankle on the warm-up but rejoined the race and was determined to finish, ending up 1092nd. Gary Wilks was 1258th, followed by Rob Gatenby in 1309th. Alistair Davy was 1482nd, meaning we had enough for 4 teams (102nd out of 125, ahead of a lot of A teams!).


Leeds runners are not just confined to the English National, and the previous weekend Katie Parry contested the Welsh Championships. The course seems to have been completely different to Parliament Hill, consisting of, in Katie’s words, “mud, bog, rivits, divits & hills – put it this way; Sunday morning saw the washing machine doing a special ‘mud wash’!” She goes on to say; “After seeing the entry list before the Championships I knew that going into the race I would be in the mix for 4th. 3 names I knew would have the beating of me even on a bad day; but there were still names around me that were beatable. Towards the end of the second lap, with first and second places away & gone; sitting in 5th, I was working hard to chase lady in front, with 3rd place just within touching distance. Fortunately/unfortunately, 4th place was struggling & soon dropped out leaving me in no-man’s land! It was then just a case of keeping it going. With no-one to work with or towards it was a very tough & long run for home!” 4th was a great result for Katie, who is one of several runners who can bolster an already-strong womens’ team in the road relays.