HOW do you improve an event that is already accepted as being five-star? Only the Start Fitness Harrier League committee have the answer to that for the attraction for fast and not-for-fast runners to line up their production continues to grow at an alarming rate.
Who could have envisaged a few years ago that well over 600 would face the starter in the senior men's run and 499 senior women would want to race over the country.
It's a truly amazing statistic which is great for the region and, of course, the governing bodies, who play the numbers game in search of funding from government departments.
And while it is encouraging to see so many 'mature' competitors now coming into the sport what stands out equally is the number of runners at the other end of the age scale who are tackling the mud and hilly terrain for the very first time. During the 2012-13 season the committee introduced a 'Try Cross-Country' for under-11s leaving it to the promoting clubs whether to host a non-league break into the sport, some supported the idea some were hesitant to say the least and those who 'pushed the boat out' put on a combined boys-girls event which, in it's infancy saw between 60 and 70 taking part.
Move on a few years and we have a situation that 97 boys and 80 girls completed the course at the league's opening fixture hosted by Saltwell Harriers at Wrekenton. Figures like that can only be good for the sport especially here in the North East where football still reigns so, for those who had the foresight seven years ago to give youngsters a 'Try Cross-Country' session for the very first time should be very proud of their actions. Well done.
PLAY IT AGAIN SAM
A FEW weeks short of his 18th birthday Sam Charlton, the National, Inter-Counties and English Schools' Cross-Country under-17 champion, opened up the campaign just as he closed out last season by winning the opening Start Fitness NEHL fixture at Wrekenton.
Heavy morning rain made for good running conditions which attracted a record field of 666. However, that didn't deter the triple champion from shooting off from the start of his first cross-country race against senior opposition over a distance - 10k - alien to him.
At the completion of the first of three tricky circuits, Sam was over 200 metres clear of his nearest rival, Northumbria University's Chris Larkin with another teenager, Josh Fiddaman (Blyth) in close attendance followed by Northern Ireland international Ryan Holt (Tyne Bridge) 30 metres or so further adrift in fourth place. The lead extended over the ensuing two laps with Sam weaving his way through lapped athletes as Ryan moved into second place on the final circuit.
The smile on the winner's face as he crossed the finish line told it all for it was Sam's first outing for over three months after having nursed an ankle injury picked up in the early part of the track season and his early reaction after receiving his medal was of jubilation.
''I didn't feel any pain at all which I'm delighted to say. I set off with a plan and everything fell into place. I can't believe that I've run so well with so little training under my belt. Having said that I know I'm nowhere near where I want to be but I have to continue being patient and hopefully everything will be all right when it comes to the important fixtures later in the season.
''I had intended to run Druridge Bay next week but I'm going to Loughborough to a training camp so it's disappointing for I really enjoyed my first harrier league outing as a senior but there are other fixtures, hopefully I can turnout at Lambton, I want to do to help Wallsend in the league.''
While Sam was running away from the opposition at the head of the field the seasoned fast pack runners were doing there utmost, from a five-minute penalty, to haul in as many rivals as possible. At times, on the narrow sections of the course, it proved quite difficult due to the huge numbers ahead but Gateshead's inform Conrad Franks dug deep to eventually work his way through to finish 17th, in an actual time of 31min 05secs, which was eight seconds slower than the winner. Jordan Bell (Blackhill), after working his way through to 32nd was next quickest on 31:48.
While it's only right to highlight the leading performers, on the day everyone who turned out had the satisfaction of knowing that they were part of a continuing growing master stroke, the Start Fitness NEHL!
While it's early days a rejuvenated Blaydon top the first division after earning promotion from division two last term while it's Birtley and Jesmond Joggers who head division two and three respectively.
AGE is certainly no barrier these days when it comes to winning races. North Shields Poly's Katherine Davis competes as an over-50 athlete but she managed to show a clean pair of heels to all of her 500 rivals to claim victory in the two-lap 6.5k contest.
Just like young Sam in the men's race once the gun went Katherine went straight into the lead and was never headed throughout. Gateshead's Gillian Manford tracked the Poly athlete throughout the first circuit followed by Sunderland's Gemma Frost, Alex Sneddon (Jarrow and Hebburn) and Wallsend's Jennifer Berry at variant distances. All the while the medium, who were set off 1min 15secs behind and the fast pack a further 1min 45sec later, were making steady headway cutting back the deficit.
Entering the final stages Katherine showed no signs of slackening and came home to win by 30 seconds in a time of 25min 02secs which when the results were checked equated to the third fastest time of the day, a truly unbelievable run. Gillian held onto second place as fit again Jane Hodgson moved in third place running from the medium pack and in doing so recording the second fastest overall time. The fastest athlete on the course was Jane's Morpeth team-mate Rachelle Falloon who cut through the field from her five-minute penalty to finish in 10th place in actual time of 24:28.
North Shields Poly were comfortable winners of the division one team race - title holders Gateshead finished fifth - while Jesmond Joggers certainly mean business this term by topping division two. Division three sees Jarrow and Hebburn in pole position closely followed by Claremont and Newcastle University.
CHARLIE DALEY was another athlete who led throughout on his way to success in the under-17 men's contest. Taking full advantage of his 2min 30sec start the Tynedale athlete had five seconds in hand over Durham City's Joshua Wraith at the line. Morpeth's Euan Duffin finished a close-up third. An excellent run by Morpeth's Rowan Bennett saw him cut through the field to finish in 15th place from the fast pack recording a time of 16:52 leaving Charlie the second quickest on the day.
In a tight team race Gosforth, led home by fourth placed Kieron Mutch, had their three counters accumulating 23 points while Morpeth finished one point adrift in second place.
In the combined under-17/20 women's race over the same 5k course as the under-17 men, Gateshead's Ines Curran had no difficulty moving up an age group winning by 23 seconds from Chester-le-Street's Emily Chong with Tynedale's Kate Salthouse a similar distance back in third place. Eli Barnbrook (Newcastle University), who finished in fourth spot was the first under-20 athlete home. Ines' winning time of 19:32 proved to be the quickest under-17 time of the day with Morpeth's Robyn Bennett the best of the under-20s as she worked her way through from a 2min 30sec handicap to finish ninth overall in 19:33.
Emily was second fastest under-17 and Kate third while Gateshead's Chloe Wellings was the second best under-20 on the day with Houghton's Eva Hardie third quickest.
The under-15 boys faced one circuit of just over 3k and it was Morpeth's Joe Dixon who triumphed winning in 8:32 14 seconds clear of Blackhill's Tom Slane who beat off the challenge of Ryan Davies (Morpeth) to claim the runners-up award. Fastest on the course was Birtley's Chris Perkins who, from a 1min 40sec handicap worked his way through the field to finish 11th in an actual time of 8:02. Joe was second quickest with Gateshead's Theo Barron third best with 8:45.
With two finishers in the top three it wasn't surprising that Morpeth were easily winners of the team stakes finishing with just nine points - Bertie Marr was their final scorer - Durham City were second and Gateshead third.
The under-15 girls also faced a distance of 3k and it was a success for Chester-le-Street's Freya Clarkson who won by 12 seconds in 9:54. Blackhill had their second runner-up of the day through Hannah Bowyer while North Shields Poly's Katie Joslyn completed the one-two-three a further 12 seconds adrift. Fastest on the course was
Alnwick's Millie Breeze and North Shields Poly's Holly Waugh who worked their way through the field from a 1:40 handicap to finish 13th and 14th respectively in identical actual times of 9:28. Just two seconds adrift of the fasest pair came another North Shields Poly athlete Ellie Van Dere Merwe.
North Shields came out on top in the team stakes finishing with 30 points with Durham City second (48pts) and Gosforth third with 53pts.
The under-13 boys also tackled 3k and it was Zac Brannon (North Shields Poly) taking the honours in this first race in the age group after moving up from under-11. Zac finished 14 seconds clear of Morpeth's Oliver Tomlinson with Arran Head, also of North Shields Poly, claiming the bronze award a further four seconds back. Zac's time of 9:38 proved to be the best of the day as William Wells (Gateshead) moved through from his 1:40 penalty to finish in 27th place in 9:39, just one second adrift of the race winner. Third fastest on the course was Gateshead's Matthew Das who recorded 9:43.
The Poly were comfortable team winners totalling nine points with Alnwick (23pts) second and Elswick third with 43.
Elswick's Poppy Wilde had half-a-minute in hand when winning the under-13 girls 3k contest Her winning time of 10:06 was the fasest of the day. Isabel Swanston claimed Blackhill's third silver medal of the day while Jarrow and Hebburn's Darcy Tullis claimed third place just one second behind Isabel. Second quickest was Crook's Leah Aldworth (10:15) when finishing 23rd from the fast pack. Next best was Gateshead's Annabel Milburn who posted a time of 10:16. Elswick celebrated winning the team race with 29 points, Gateshead were second with 39 and Gosforth third with 40.
The under-11 'Try Cross-Country' events were over a distance of just over a mile with Durham City's William Jardine crossing the line in first place ahead of a trio of Gateshead runners in the boys contest. William won in 5:54, Alex Leornard was second (5:59), Harry Garrett was third (6:03) and Harry Hunter fourth in 6:04. In the girls race it was even better for the Durham City club as they fielded the first two runners home. And it proved to be a family double as Alexandra Jardine claimed victory (6:38) ahead of team-mate Grace Carter who finished on 6:48. Completing the podium places was North Shields Poly's Ruby Dunn in 6:50.
What a great day's sport enjoyed not just by the competitors but by all the family and friends who lined the course to cheer each and everyone home. It's a quick turnaround for the second fixture of the campaign when the action moves to Druridge Bay this Sunday with action once again getting underway at Noon. If you missed out at Wrekenton make sure you on the start line next weekend!
Race Report by Bill McGuirk
Full Results: http://harrierleague.com/results/
|SAM'S WAY: Sam Charlton was the leading light in the senior men's race|
|IN A HURRY: Morpeth's Rachelle Falloon posted the fastest time in the senior women's race|
|SHOWING THE WAY: John Stevens who had been up at dawn helping erect the course at Wrekenton shows how to warm up for your event without being on the race line|
|COME ON THE POLY: Katherine Davis led the field home to win the senior women's contest|
|CHEERING THEM ON: The under-11 boys contest gets underway helped on by a huge group of supporters|
|"Right lads, it doesn't matter whether you're in the hairy pack or the baldy pack, the most important thing is we're all in the Jarra vest."|
|One Blackhill Bounder certainly enjoyed the start of her race at Wrekenton!|
|Thank you from the JJs men and women! We had a stormer of a day! Our new members have been converted to XC - some have never run XC, neither at school! A big thank you to all the organisers and volunteers! #mudisgood!|