AFTER an absence of 25 years the North Eastern Counties returned to Alnwick for it's annual Cross-Country Championships and those who ventured north of the county to support the event witnessed an exciting day's sport despite having to endure constant high winds whIch kept the temperature to just above zero. The NECAA is indebted to Alnwick Harriers for their superb work on the day and prior to the championships in making sure things went smoothly and smoothly they did though there were a number of tongue-in-cheek comments by athletes that the course laid out should have been a bit tougher!
A number of athletes who competed at the same venue a quarter of a century ago came along to present awards including John Caine who was working in his capacity as the link between the region hosting the inaugural European Cross-Country Championships which were held in tandem while three of the long-serving county officials - Les Venmore, Kevin Carr and Bill McGuirk - who were at their posts that day were involved once again this time round. To make it an occasion to remember Championship Secretary, Archie Jenkins, had produced an excellent booklet full of information and statistics many of which were snapped up by those who had a couple of quid in their pocket. To those who had an input, however large or small, the Association thank you all, without your support we would not have a championship so, once you all have recovered, we look forward to returning to the pastures in a couple of month's time when you start all over again for the final fixture of the season of the Start Fitness North East Harrier League.
FORMER Alnwick Harrier Carl Avery lived up to being billed as favourite as he lifted the impressive Wilkinson Sword for the very first time. Now running for Morpeth Avery tried on numerous occasions to claim the title but never managed to top the podium. However, the rolling Alnwick hills certainly proved to his liking as he took an early lead and was never headed after that. At the completion of the first of three circuits Avery had a lead of around 80 metres over Calum Johnson (Gateshead) with Houghton's Cameron Allen holding down third place ahead of defending champion Greg Jayasuriya (Middlesbrough and Cleveland), Adrian Bailes (Birtley) and Houghton's Alex Brown.
The gap between the leading two athletes stayed roughly the same as they entered the final lap though it was evident that Allen, who could have ran in the junior men's race, was slipping further behind as the rear of the near 300-strong field was being lapped. As the leaders came into view for the final time it was Avery who still held the advantage over Johnson and as he crossed the finishing line he stopped the clock at 40min 50secs, 12 seconds ahead of the Tyneside athlete. The race for the bronze medal changed dramatically over the final 4k with Brown proving the stronger and managing to overhaul Jayasuriya and Allen. Naturally, Avery was delighted to finally have won the North East title admitting he thought it may never happen after going close a couple of times. "I've been second and third before but never won until today,'' said Avery after receiving his award from old warhorse Stewy Bell who finished runner-up in the senior race at Alnwick 25 years previously. "I'm over the moon to eventually win especially here at Alnwick were I have a lot of friends who seemed to be cheering me on at every corner. I felt pretty good throughout even though the wind was pretty strong at times. The win sets me up nicely for the rest of the winter. It would be nice to regain the Northern title after finishing second earlier in the year and it would be even better if I could improve on my third place in the National.''
Johnson, meanwhile, wasn't too downhearted in finishing runner-up as it was his first cross-country outing of the campaign. "I have to be happy with my run today,'' said Johnson, whose recent main sporting activity has been competing as a tri-athlete. "That was my first cross-country race since the Inter-Counties in March so I was a bit rusty and didn't really have the confidence to go with Carl in the early stages though, to finish just 12 seconds behind, gives me a boost before the other championships after the turn of the year.''
With two inside the top three it was no surprise that Morpeth came out on top in the team stakes once again after totalling just 79 points in the six-to-score contest. Gateshead claimed the silver awards finishing with 138 points while Sunderland, with 173 points finished in third place just three points ahead of Darlington with Tyne Bridge a further six points back in fifth position.
SONIA SAMUELS (then Sonia Thomas, competing for Wallsend) was crowned under-17 champion at Alnwick 25 years ago and has been in competitive action ever since culminating with a Rio Olympic marathon appearance in 2016. Now based in Loughborough, Sonia was delighted to be on hand to present the medals to the under-17 and under-20 winners earlier in the day before rushing back to the comfort of her car before it was time to warm up for her race. Having lifted the senior title on two prior occasions - Hartlepool in 2007 and Redcar two years ago - Sonia was the overwhelming favourite to make it a hat-trick of victories. And that's the way the race panned out after she took an early lead in what was the final contest of the 11-race programme. Two 4k circuits faced the near 200-strong field which had cut up slightly in places though otherwise the running surface was quite firm.
Going into the final lap Sonia, now competing for the Sale Harriers Manchester club, had opened up a significant gap over Philippa Stone (Middlesbrough Mandale) with Morpeth's Catriona McDonald a significant distance back in third place as Helen Warburton (Gosforth), last year's champion Georgia Campbell and Morpeth's Jane Hodgson kept in touch a short distance behind. There was no change in the top three on the way to the line with Sonia, a proud Geordie, coming home in a superb time of 31min 21secs, 47 seconds clear of Philippa with Catriona a further 32 seconds adrift in third place. While it was a third win for Sonia the result was equally pleasing for the runner-up who was having only her second cross-country race in two years after being sidelined for the majority of 2018 through injury but the former junior international showed she is close to her best with a storming performance.
Sonia, who was back in the region staying with her mum, one of the many who braved the cold to lend her support, said she was over the moon to win her third senior title in what she described ''real cross-country'', before adding: "I love coming back home and being able to get a race in and the championships fitted in nicely and to win my third senior title here in Alnwick will be something I'll remember for a long time, or will it be the freezing cold wind I remember!? Naturally, I'm pleased to win again and now I'm looking forward to the turn of the year and the National - she has finished second and third but never won - and the Inter Counties where it's always a pleasure to represent the North East.''
Jarrow and Hebburn, led by Georgia Campbell, won the team title for the third consecutive year, a feat never equalled as far as the senior women's championship goes, The South Tyneside outfit totalled 57 points in the four-to-score contest with Tyne Bridge finishing in second place on 111 points. However, the biggest roar of the day came when Jesmond Joggers were announced as bronze medallists edging out Elswick by just two points. It was a great result for the Newcastle outfit, one of the fledgling clubs in the region.
LAST year's under-17 champion Sam Charlton went into the race as favourite after his exploits of last winter that saw him go unbeaten in all of the major domestic championships and he looked as though he was on track to justify that favouritism after the completion of the first short lap when he held the advantage over Morpeth's Daniel Dixon who was followed by Gateshead's Charlie McMillan and Dixon's team-mate Ross Charlton. However, things changed dramatically on the second circuit and when the first athlete came into view it was McMillan who had eased past his rivals to open a significant gap which extended to 28 seconds at the finish with Charlton, who complained about the recurrence of an ankle injury, having to be content with second place with Dixon managing to hold off Ross Charlton to complete the podium spots.
Only two teams managed to close in the three-to-score contest with victory going to Morpeth who finished on 14 points 13 better than runners-up Middlesbrough Mandale.
THE first three to finish in the combined age group came from the older section with Darlington's Lucy-Erin Hunter, in her first North East Championship for four years, claiming the gold medal. Hunter was chased home by Gateshead pair Elisha Tait and Chloe Wellings with Tait following the winner across the line 11 seconds behind while Wellings was a further three seconds adrift in third place. In recent under-17 contests Chester-le-Street's Emily Chong has played second fiddle behind Gateshea's Ines Curran. However, on this occasion Chong managed to turn the tables to take the title comfortably by 21 seconds as Birtley's Tess Graham finished a close-up third. Gateshead, with just 10 points, claimed a runaway victory in the combined team contest with Houghton second on 30 and Blaydon third on 49.
ARCHIE LOWE was only sixth in last year's championships at Wrekenton but he managed to put many of his peers to the sword this time round. The Middlesbrough Mandale athlete was always in control and came home to win this time round by a margin of 27 seconds. Henry Johnson, who was ninth last year, finished a good second while Johnson's Houghton team-mate Will Bellamy had to settle for third place for the second successive season. All of the medalists are in the second year of the age group however, following them across the line in fourth place was Darlington's John Russell who is having his first season as an under-17. Houghton, with two in the top three, won the team contest finishing with 16 points, Morpeth finished second with 22 and Darlington third on 28.
THIS is one of the region's strongest age group with a number of talented athletes so an exciting contest was envisaged and so it proved. Chris Perkins (Birtley) and Josh Blevins (North Shields Poly) have been two of the leading runners in the country both of whom picked up England Schools' international vests last winter after finishing in sixth and second places respectively. Twelve months ago Perkins got the better of his rival by 10 seconds and again he managed to come out on top this time round by 18 seconds. Morpeth's Joe Dixon finished strongly to claim third place. Perkins has now claimed victory on two occasions at both under-13 and under-15 and for good measure also won the non-championship under-11. Morpeth came out on top in the team stakes finishing with 19 points, Durham City finished in second place with 60 points and, in a close battle for the bronze medals, Houghton celebrated finishing with 73. Both Alnwick and Blaydon missed out after totalling 76 points.
WHAT a superb advert for girls sport and particularly cross-country running. Like the under-15 boys this is another of the region's strongest and so it proved after a superb contest unfolded. And it was Birtley who had big reason to celebrate when Kate Francis led the field home to come home 14 seconds clear of North Shields Polys Ellie Van Der Merwe with Alnwick's Millie Breese completing the podium places a further six seconds adrift. The chase for team honours could not have been closer and there was a rousing cheer when it was announced that victory went to home-based Alnwick who managed to finish on 25 points just one point better off than runners-up North Shields Poly with Darlington claiming the bronze awards with 39 points.
TWELVE months ago Darlington's Alex Boyer finished in sixth place when the championships were held at Wrekenton. This time round, however, he had plenty in hand to take the major prize. At the line Boyer finished 19 seconds clear of Gateshead's Theo Dragoi with North Shield's Poly's Zac Brannon coming through to complete the medalists. Gateshead won the team contest finishing with 18 points, Darlington finished runners-up on 26 and North Shields Poly were third with 40 points.
SOUTH of the region claimed all the individual honours in this age group and it turned out to be the closest finish of the day. Victory went to Darlington's Zara Jones who managed to hold off the challenge of first year under-13 Sophie Quinn by just one second in what was a tremendous result for the Billingham Marsh House club. Eden Creasey of Middlesbrough Mandale completed the one-two-three a further 11 seconds behind. While the individual awards zoomed their way south the leading team medals went to Newcastle club Elswick. It's been a while since the 'West Enders' .produced promising youngsters but the club seem to be on the right track now once again. Elswick totalled 46 points, Tynedale claimed second place with 50 with Middlesbrough just one point further adrift to claim the bronze awards.
ONCE again the championships got underway with under-11 'Try Cross-Country' events and again there was a healthy turnout with many giving the sport a go for the very first time. Once again it was pleasing to see youngsters from West Jesmond Primary School lining up with seasoned club runners. First home in the boys contest was Middlesbrough Mandale's Chalie Johns who was followed home by Morpeth's Robert Walton with Aidaen Turner (North Shields Poly) holding off Gateshead's Harry Hunter to claim the third place award after the two runners recorded the same time. The girls event, run over the same 1,500m course, was won by North Shields Poly's Katy Otterson with Grace Carter (Durham City) finishing second and Niamh Phillipson from another of the region's fledgling clubs, Derwent Valley Trail Runners, finishing in third place. There were competitors from 20 different clubs which is encouraging for the future of cross-country in the region.
A huge thanks to everyone who took time to turn up to Alnwick Pastures in what was testing conditions. Whether a competitor, supporter, official or someone just passing by wondering what was going on, the NE Counties AA applaud you all and look forward to seeing as many of you as possible in 12 months time when the championships return to Sedgefield when, hopefully, the snow won't make another appearance!
Elswick Harriers won the overall female trophy with Morpeth Harriers claiming the trophy for the men. The Northumberland outfit won the overall team trophy
Report by Bill McGuirk
Photos: Stuart Alan Whitman