Northern Cross-Country Championships, Juniors and Seniors

There are always high expectations for Leeds City at the Northern Cross-Country Championships, even more so this year with the senior men attempting to set a new record of 10 consecutive wins and the junior men and senior women looking to build on their medals from last year. To come away with 2 team golds and a silver, not to mention 2 individual silvers, was an achievement to be proud of.


First up were the junior men, bronze medallists last year. Gordon Benson set out as if he meant business, holding his own in the leading group on the first lap. Not far behind were a comfortable-looking Dale Worton, Danny Davis and Sam Bucknall, and the team title was looking in the bag. They made the watching Leeds spectators sweat though as things unravelled a little on the second lap of the firm, flat Pontefract course. Gordon slipped out of the top 10 but hung on determinedly to finish 12th whilst Danny held his position well to finish just 21s behind in 16th. Sam slipped a bit to 27th, down on his top 20 performance of last year but still a vital run for the team. Dale was not enjoying the last lap but gritted his teeth and hung on for 32nd when it would have been easier to give up. As the senior men have found, it’s these performances in adversity that make the difference and win medals, and so it proved here as Leeds won by 14 points from Liverpool Pembroke. There was capable back-up in the shape of Chris Wright, who moved through after a steady start to finish 40th. With Elliot Todd and Mike Wood missing, there is clearly a great team taking shape here and they should be looking forward eagerly to the Nationals and hopefully more medals!


Next up were the senior women who, after years in the shadow of the men, have been building up a strong squad over the last couple of years. They were led by defending champion Susan Partridge, who was straight to the fore in a leading group led by Stockport’s Jess Coulson. After one lap, the rest of the team were packing well behind her, with Claire Duck hovering around the top 10 and looking full of running, whilst not too far behind Emily Birchall and debutant Charlotte Wills were ensuring everyone else was having to chase blue and yellow vests. Susan didn’t enjoy the rougher terrain of the out-and-back loop of the course but finished like a train, overhauling Coulson in the last half mile to finish 2nd behind Hallamshire’s Lizzie Adams. Claire finished a fine 12th, amongst some very good company, whilst Emily ran probably the race of her life to finish 17th, improving on last year’s position by 10. Charlotte is going to be a very strong addition to the team, running strongly for 22nd and ensuring the team came home 32 points clear of defending champions Bingley, with Hallamshire in 3rd ensuring a Yorkshire clean sweep. This is the first Northern victory for the women since the 1990s, and they should be rightly proud. With the likes of Katy Parry, Alex Gostling, Kirsteen and Lorna Young and Karen Hallas in the wings, this is another squad that should be getting excited about the upcoming Nationals and road relays.


They’ll be kept on their toes by several of Saturday’s runners though, as there was a close battle going on not far behind the A team. Sarah Peterson came out on top in 42nd, with Jess Nixon just getting the better of Jennie Guard in 53rd and 57th, with both looking to have their best runs for some time. Another 20-odd seconds behind was Rachel Dyson, having her best ever Northerns in 65th, completing a B team that would have finished 8th! In a real show of strength, there was also a C team, with Celia de Maria in 85th, Ruth Wilcox 89th, Sian Davies in 110th and Sarah Whitley in 147th, and they would have finished as 12th team out of 25.


After all that, the senior men had a lot to live up to, and the race itself didn’t disappoint. Starting at a furious pace, a group quickly started to break away, containing James Wilkinson and Simon Deakin amidst the yellow vests of Stockport, Liverpool and Altrincham. Not far behind was James Smith but there was then a big gap back to the next Leeds scorers, especially after Mike Burrett had to drop out after the first lap. We’ve been in this situation before and, in fact, the Leeds charge through the field has become a feature of many winning performances. Unfortunately, this time it was not to be.


The group at the front remained intact until the last lap, with Wilko looking comfortable along with defending champion Steve Vernon, and as the leaders headed up the long drag to the finish it had turned into a two-horse race. Wilko gave it his all and made Vernon work hard for the win, as he finished just 5s ahead. Wilko can be proud, though, that he pushed one of the country’s best cross-country runners all the way. His time will come. Meanwhile, Deak was running one of his best cross-country races and, despite losing a little ground on the last lap, came home in an excellent 8th. Then came the gap, as the Stockport, Altrincham, Liverpool and Salford vests seemed to come streaming in, followed by the Leeds pack, with Carl Smith emerging from a quiet period recently to finish 35th, followed closely by James Smith and Martin Hilton, battling to the line for 36th and 37th. Also fighting for every position was Martin Gostling and he brought the team home in 52nd place, but behind the last counters of Altrincham and Liverpool. The team race was looking too close to call and we were really missing John Lunn, who would have had it all worked out in his head long before the official results were announced. When they were, it was Altrincham who had taken the title, just reward for years of effort from a small club, with Leeds in 2nd, 11 points ahead of Salford.


Oliver Ziff has made a step forward this season and continued his progress with 60th in what was a very strong field, just 2 places ahead of the legendary Doscoe, a stalwart of so many of the previous victories. Alex Davy had run a gutsy race and was right up with Olly for the first couple of laps. He finished 81st in what was probably his best senior race. Mark Bryant just missed out on a top 100 spot in 104th whilst Pete Branney and Leon Foster enjoyed their own personal battle, with Pete just coming out on top, 116th against 119th. This B team would have placed 8th, just ahead of Sale Harriers A team, and 3rd Yorkshire team! There were plenty more blue and yellow vests, with Fergus Meade, not quite back to his best yet, in 126th, Pete Steel in 185th, Ben Dyson in 224th, Martin Farran in 238th, Chris Needham in 254th and Aaron Lowery in 281st making up a C team that would have finished 19th. Meanwhile, Rob Gatenby finished 566th whilst Alistair Davy was 618th.


So is this the end of the Leeds City dominance of northern (and even national) cross-country? Not at all. Whilst it can’t be denied that the core of the ‘golden generation’ of the last decade or so is finally getting older and more injury-prone, there is still plenty of strength at the club. Things on Saturday could have been very different had Alan Buckley not succumbed to a cold, or if Joe Townsend hadn’t had to withdraw through injury, and there is still Dave Webb and James Walsh waiting in the wings, as well as several injured athletes who will be itching to get back into the fray. The junior men have shown that the future looks bright and hopefully the seniors will use this defeat as a spur to get back to winning ways.


Speaking of James Walsh, he made his traditional journey back to his Midlands home and won what is fast-becoming his traditional victory in the Midlands Championships. He emerged from the leading pack after lap 1 to open up a winning lead and finished some 30seconds ahead of the rest. This was his 6th victory in this event, a post-war record, and James’ next target will no doubt be overhauling the 8 titles of Jack Holden.