THEY turned out in their hundreds, competitors and spectators alike, to take in the superb surroundings of Alnwick Pastures, a picturesque course set out by host club Alnwick Harriers under the backdrop of the town's Alnwick Castle.
Dubbed the 'Windsor of the North', Alnwick Castle 'welcomed' William the Lion, King of Scotland on two occasions during the late 12th Century who, at the Battle of Alnwick, was captured outside the Walls.
However, it was a much warmer welcome that awaited the arrival of legions of competitors, friends and families this time round for the final fixture of the Start Fitness North Eastern Harrier League and while there was a lot at stake when William took on the might of the North the showdown was just as competitive with numerous individual and league placings to sort out after a superb cross-country season which opened back in September with Saltwell Harriers' promotion at Wrekenton.
|Prudhoe Plodders U11 girls finish their first season|
Once again the under-11 'Try Cross-Country' events opened the programme and the future generation of cross-country runners was there in abundance and it was pleasing to see West Jesmond Junior School having representatives on the start line in both the boys and girls contests mixing in with established club runners.
|A huge line of spectators line the finishing straight encouraging their favouites on|
The under-11 boys were the first to face the starter and it turned out to be another victory for North Shields Poly's Zac Brannon winning in a time of 3min 55secs. Young Zac completed a clean-sweep of victories adding to his previous six successes during the season. Morpeth's Oliver Tomlinson finished runner-up 10 seconds behind the winner with Tynedale's Jem Henderson completing the medalists a further eight second adrift.
|U11 winner Zac Brannon|
The under-11 girls were next in action contesting the same 1,000 metres course and again it was another unbeaten campaign for Elswick's Poppy Wilde who, like Zac, won all seven events starting at Wrekenton followed by wins at Druridge Bay, Gosforth Park, Akley Heads and Thornley Hill Farm and also the Sherman Cup fixture at Temple Park. Poppy's winning time of 4:15 at Alnwick would have placed her fourth in the boys race and she was followed home by Birtley's Daisy Graham (4:21) and North Shields Poly's Katy Otterson (4:24). The boys event attracted 57 competitors with 62 lining up in the girls contest with each and everyone being loudly encouraged all the way to the line.
Next up it was the turn of the under-17 men and, with the it being the final fixture it wasn't surprising that the handicap would be of no significance and though it proved though it wasn't until the final 400 metres that Daniel Dixon (Morpeth) managed to overhaul long-time leader Oliver Gabriele (Gosforth) from a two-minute penalty. At the line three seconds separated the duo with Daniel covering the 2.6-mile course in an actual time of 13:02. Houghton's Will Bellamy, also running from the fast pack, finished in third place nine seconds behind Oliver who, like Daniel, was having his first taste of harrier league action this season.
It could not have been closer as far as the individual standings were concerned with Daniel's Morpeth team-mate eventually leading the way home winning by one point from Will with Blyth's Josh Fiddaman finishing in third place a further five points adrift. In the team stakes Morpeth came out on top for the third consecutive year heading Houghton by three points having won three of the six fixtures while, Blaydon, who won at Thornley, finished in third spot.
|u17 men's fast pack|
The combined under-17/20 women attracted 26 starters and also faced a distance of 2.6-mile but on this occasion the handicap proved to be no problem for Morpeth's Holly Peck, Giving away two minutes start to the slow pack and one minute to the mediums, Holly, who has lined-up in all six fixtures this season, worked her way gradually through to move into the lead with the finishing line in sight after overtaking medium pack runner Newcastle University student Erin Gallagher in the home straight. Morpeth's Robyn Bennett, also running from the fast pack closed within two seconds of the runner-up to claim the third place medal.
Holly's win, her fourth of the season, led her to winning the overall individual award after finishing four points ahead of Gosforth's Rhian Purves with Eva Hardie (Houghton) a further three points behind in third place. Morpeth duly lifted the team title finishing seven points clear of Houghton with third-placed Gosforth just one point further behind.
|Morpeth's Holly Peck|
The under-15 boys contest over a distance of 2-mile saw 51 contestants and it was Morpeth's Sam Tate who took full advantage of his 1min 40sec handicap as he came home 43 seconds clear of fast pack runner Chris Perkins of Birtley with Josh Blevins (North Shields Poly), also running from the fasts, finishing third a further 11 seconds behind.
|Sam Tate - Morpeth Harriers|
|Sam Tate - Morpeth Harriers|
It was Chris's fourth harrier league outing of the season and it was his fourth leading time which saw him finish on maximum points to lift the individual title four points clear of Tynedale's Charlie Daley, winner at Gosforth Park, with Josh completing the leading one-two-three a further point behind. In the overall team positions Morpeth won the title for the fourth consecutive year finishing with 14 points seven ahead of Durham City with Gosforth finishing in third place a further eight points adrift.
The 1min 40sec handicap proved no problem for the first two finishers in the under-15 girls 2-mile contest which had 62 starters. Birtley's Elizabeth McKinnon and Gosforth's Ruby Nelson, running from the slow pack, were the early leaders but were run down in the closing stages as first Katie Francis (Birtley) and then home-base Millie Breeze, both running from the fast pack, eased past to finish in first and second places with a gap of seven seconds separating the pair at the line. Elizabeth just hung on to claim third place with the timing system giving her the same time as Ruby.
|Katie Francis, Birtley AC|
Despite missing the Alnwick fixture Gateshead's Ines Curran had enough points in hand to claim the overall individual title finishing five points clear of Mille with Chester-le-Street's Emily Chong finishing in third place just one point further behind. The team title wasn't sorted until the last fixture and it was Birtley who finally came out on top pipping North Shields Poly by five points with Morpeth finishing in third place a further three points behind.
The under-13 boys, of which there were 66 starters, also faced a 2-mile circuit and again the 1min 40sec handicap was no difficulty for the leading two finishers. North Shields Poly's Olly Hayes was a long-time leader before being overhauled by Ryan Davies (Morpeth) and Houghton's Brandon Pye. Ryan went on to win by 11 seconds with Brendon just getting the better of Olly by three seconds to claim the silver medal.
|Under 13 boys start|
|Ryan Davies |
The overall individual title however, went to Blackhill Bounders' Tom Slane who won the opening four fixtures scoring maximum points to finish three points ahead of Brandon with Ryan claiming third place. Morpeth claimed the overall team title with a clear-cut victory as winning at Alnwick was their fifth of the campaign. Durham City finished in second place with Gateshead third.
The biggest field of the day as far as the junior races were concerned came in the under-13 girls 2-mile event which saw 78 finishers with once again the first two home defying a 1min 40sec penalty. In the early stages Elswick's Isabella Russell was leading together with Lucy Hayes (Houghton), Molly Baker (Morpeth) and North Shields Poly's Madeline Surtees. However, they were overtaken by Hannah Bowyer (Blackhill) and Durham City's Freya Gibson with Hannah going on to win comfortably by 17 seconds. Freya finished runner-up with Isabella finishing a close-up third.
However, the overall individual title went to Chester-le-Street's Freya Clarkson, winner of the opening three fixtures, who finished two points clear of Durham City's Charlotte Dillon with Freya Gibson and Gosforth's Alice Lewis finishing on the same number of points in third position.
In the u13's team grand prix Durham won, with Gateshead and Gosforth coming in second & third.
The senior women's 4-mile event over two laps saw 439 finishers and it was a triumph for front-running Gina Howorth of Elswick who took advantage of a 5-minute handicap over the fast pack. Gina was quickly in her stride at the head of affairs followed a short distance behind by Rachel Adamson (Tyne Bridge) and the duo were never headed as they came home in first and second place, Gina eventually won by 21 seconds with Gateshead's Brigid Dennehy working her way through from the medium pack to claim third place.
|Gina Howorth, Elswick Harriers|
|Gina Howorth, Elswick Harriers|
Fastest on the course was the in-form Danielle Smythe (Heaton) who, running from the fast pack, managed to weave through the huge field to finish in sixth position. Despite by-passing the fixture Morpeth's Emma Holt was once again crowned individual champion with Danielle, who was third last year, finishing runner-up and Elvet's Fiona Brannen completing the one-two-three.
An exciting climax to the league season saw Gateshead lift the Division One title ahead of Heaton with Sunderland & Alnwick unfortunately, relegated to Division Two for next season. Taking their place in Division One are Gosforth & Elswick while relegated to Division Three are Claremont & Crook. Moving up to Division Two are Wallsend & Washington.
As is customary, the senior men's six-mile contest was the final event on the programme and it attracted a record Alnwick entry with the rolling hills attracting 543 finishers. Blyth's Joe Woods led throughout taking full advantage of a 5-minute handicap over the fast pack and two-and-a-half minute start over the medium pack. Lee Gifford (Tyne Bridge) was in second place, a position he still occupied at the finish as David Green, running from the medium pack, managed to overtake fellow North Shields Poly team-mate Adam Smith in the closing stages to complete the podium places.
|Joseph Woods towards the end of lap 1 (photo Ben Heathcote)|
|Joeseph Woods on the right, with his training partner Joseph Dungworth.|
|Joseph Woods (lap 3) passes (lap 2) MV70 runners Barry Pascoe & Mike Gill|
Fastest on the course was Birtley's Adrian Bailes who worked is way through the huge field to finish in fifth place. Adrian's run was certainly important as it moved him into pole position in the individual overall rankings where he eventually finished six points clear of Durham City's Dan Jenkin with Conrad Franks claiming the third individual spot.
|Conrad Franks & Adrian Bailes|
The league affair was another Division One success for Morpeth who retained their title by finishing five points clear of Tyne Bridge with Gateshead finishing in third place while after a ding-dong encounter where three clubs were in danger of relegation it was Jarrow and Hebburn and Gosforth who face the drop after Wallsend had pulled out all the stops to get everyone out - one wit, who shall be nameless claiming they must have scanned every page of the telephone directory to get so many on the start line - which paid dividends so much so they live to fight another day in the top division.
North Shields Poly were clear winners of Division Two and, after winning five of the six fixtures, are duly promoted. However, the fight for the second spot could not have been tighter with the final league table showing Blaydon in second place on 25 points the same number of South Shields with Birtley one point further adrift in fourth position.
It was also extremely close in the relegation dog fight with Saltwell going down together with Sedgefield as Low Fell managed to get the better of their rivals on the final day. Ponteland Runners will take their place in Division Two for the first time in their short history after topping Division Three with Crook also joining them next season.
Full results for Alnwick and the Grand Prix
Competitors will be pleased to know that they will be back at Alnwick not once but twice next winter when the club not only host a harrier league fixture but also the North Eastern Counties Cross-Country Championships, which will celebrate 25 years of the European Cross-Country Championships, the first, and the second, of which were held on a course as close to the castle as possible.
Overall, the season has been another huge success with over 8,000 competitors lining up over the seven fixtures so it's a big thank you to everyone who has had an input. To the hosting clubs Saltwell, South Shields, Blyth, Gosforth, Derwentside, Blackhill Bounders and, of course, Alnwick, without their support there wouldn't be the best cross-country league in the country, to the league committee and all the officials and marshalls, a huge thank you and especially to every competitor, old and not so old, fast and not so fast, who make the league what it is and finally a word of thanks to Start Fitness the league sponsors for their continued backing which is greatly appreciated.
The season may be over - there's still the presentations to come - for another year but already things are moving to sort out next season's fixtures and dates that's what this league does to keep ahead of the game!
Photos: Stuart Whitman, Steven Millen, & Darren Fairclough