Northern 6 and 12 Stage Road Relays, Liverpool, 31st March

Leeds City have set high standards in the North of England 12-Stage Road Relay Championships in recent years, with the men finishing in the top 3 every year since 2003 (including 4 victories) and the women being regulars in the top 10, with a 2nd place in 2007. After medal-winning performances at the Northern and National Cross Country Champs, hopes were high that the teams could repeat the feat at Liverpool’s Sefton Park.

 

The women’s chances were not helped when Claire Duck had to pull out on the eve of the race with illness. However, Karen Hallas proved to be a more-than-capable replacement, bringing the A team home in 10th place on the first leg, within reach of the medal positions. Charlotte Wills then flew round leg 2, running the team’s 2nd fastest time of the day, 13:21, also 2nd fastest on her leg, and moving the team up to 4th. Celia de Maria, currently in marathon training, is used to longer distances than the just-over-2 mile leg here, but ran strongly to keep Leeds in the top 5. Next up was Katie Parry, who has been improving throughout the cross-country season and who ran an absolute stormer. She came home in 13:05, fastest on the leg and 3rd fastest of the whole day! This put the girls back into 4th, within seconds of the medal spots and with all to play for on the last 2 legs. Kirsteen Young has been battling injuries over the winter but made a solid return to racing, running 14:18 (6th fastest on the leg) to move up to 3rd spot, handing over to Emily Birchall, another who has steadily improved over the winter. Emily ran the team’s 3rd fastest leg (13:46, 5th fastest on leg 6) but, despite battling hard, lost 2 places to Liverpool and Wakefield’s international 1500m runner, Charlene Thomas, bringing Leeds home in 5th. However, the women can take heart from the fact that they were only 30s off a medal and only 1:20 behind winners, Rotherham. With Susan Partridge and Claire Duck available, the team will be stronger at the Nationals and can realistically be challenging for medals.

 

Whilst there weren’t enough for a full B team, Jennie Guard and Rachel Dyson both ran, and both obviously had a point to prove as they stormed round in times that would have got them both an A-team spot (and improved the A team’s finishing position by a place). Jennie led off with 14:20 in 17th, followed by Rachel’s 14:23, almost bringing the B-team into the top 10. It’s strength in depth like this that ensures Simon doesn’t have an easy job as team manager!

 

Whilst the men retained their national Cross Country title last month, it has become apparent this year that the standard in the North has increased, as shown by the fact that 5 teams were close together in the hunt for medals at the Northern Cross. That strength in depth was repeated here, with hosts Liverpool, a rejuvenated Salford, the ever-dangerous Morpeth and the recently-strengthened Stockport all making sure the competition was fierce and close.

 

Martin Gostling led off with a solid 23:25, coming home in 12th on a closely-fought leg. Michael Salter ran our 2nd fastest short leg of the day (11:44) to move into 8th whilst Alan Buckley continued the forward momentum with a 23:38 long leg to move into 6th. Alex Davy earned an A-team spot after a strong cross-country season and ran 12:11, coming home in 7th, a position retained on the next leg by Mike Burrett with 23:56. Danny Davis (12:06) ensured we reached the half-way stage in 5th. At this stage, Leeds are used to being up at the front of the Northern relays, but the strongest legs were surely still to come, with James Wilkinson taking over for leg 7. Unfortunately, this leg was absolutely stacked with talent and, despite running the 4th fastest time of the day (22:04), Wilko was only 3rd fastest on this leg, dropping a place to 6th as a flying leg from Nick McCormick moved Morpeth into 4th. The forward momentum was regained, however, as Dale Worton ran the team’s fastest short leg of the day (11:40, 4th fastest on the leg) to move back into 5th. Simon Deakin was 2nd fastest on his leg as he moved up another place before Michael Williams made a return to competition with the team’s 3rd fastest short leg, and 2nd fastest on leg 10 (11:55), moving past Morpeth into 3rd in the process. James Smith, cheered on by his 10 day old daughter (who may have been responsible for some sleepless nights), was 3rd fastest on leg 11 (23:17), but a flying leg from Morpeth’s Peter Newton gave them the advantage going into the final leg. Darran Bilton is always guaranteed to give 100% and he fought valiantly to catch Morpeth’s final runner, closing the gap to a mere 12s before running out of road, coming home in 4th behind Liverpool, Salford and Morpeth. Like the women, the men were tantalisingly close to the medals but similarly, their team will be stronger at the Nationals. There were absences and some under-par legs, but credit must be given to the other teams in the mix, helping to keep Northern distance running interesting, not to mention stronger.

 

The B team’s target was to qualify for the Nationals by finishing in the top 25. After last year’s 8th place showing, this should have been easy but late withdrawals weakened the team and made the task a bit more challenging. Chris Wright led off, running a solid 24:46 for 22nd, handing over to Rob Torch who moved up a place with 12:50. Chris Needham slipped 5 places with a 26:36 long leg, before super-sub, Martin Horbury ran a 15:20, finishing in 33rd. With so many clubs front-loading their teams, this position was always going to improve and Aaron Lowery started the upward trend, running 26:37 and moving into 31st. Greg Hull ran an excellent 12:41 (good enough for several top-10 A teams) to move up 4 places before Ben Dyson gained another spot with a 26:31 long leg. Chris Birchall, with a 12:14 leg, was actually 7th fastest on leg 8, gaining another 2 places in the process and moving the team into the qualification spots again. Gavin Chatterton put his marathon training miles to good use, running the team’s 2nd fastest long leg of the day (24:57) to move up to 21st. The gaps between teams were growing by this stage and, despite running a very good 12:35 (like Gav, 12th fastest on his leg), Elliot Todd could only maintain this position. On leg 11, Adam Osborne (25:20) gained 1 place before Mike Wood set off in the mass start, which he led home, running the 10th fastest time of the leg (12:27) to maintain 20th place and ensure qualification. On this occasion, we were only 3rd B team behind Liverpool and Salford, further evidence of growing strength in the North. However, the B team too should be stronger at the Nationals. It should also be noted that a good proportion of both teams is made up of athletes in their late teens to early 20s, and it is these runners who will go on to form the core of future teams.