Tuesday, 12 March 2019

Cross County News by Bill McGuirk - INTERCOUNTIES


WHAT a day the North East had at a wind-swept Inter-Counties Cross-Country Championships held under the backdrop of Prestwold Hall, Loughborough where it seemed the region's athletes were constantly being called to make their way to the presentation area.

The 10-race programme opened with the under-20 men's event run over a distance of 8,000m with the undulating course mainly mud-free, a huge contrast to when the championships were held at the same venue the previous year.

Included in the North East team, which was depleted through injury and illness, was newly-crowned National XC champion Rory Leonard (Morpeth) so, with the race being used as a Trial for the forthcoming World XC Championships in Denmark, a huge weight was on his young shoulders despite having lifted the under-17 title on the same course 12 months previously.

With strong winds blowing across the downs it wasn't surprising that no one wanted to take up the running which resulted in a huge bunch of athletes still in contention at the completion of the first of two laps and while Leornard was sensibly content to abide his time team-mate Josh Cowperthwaite (Middlesbrough Mandale) was battling away just to keep in touch at the rear of the group. Going up the steepest climb on the course for a second time South of England champion Zakariya Mahamed made the first significant move which saw the group break up slightly though Leonard was still in a good position a few metres behind however, despite the momentum increase Cowperthwaite didn't give any more ground on the uphill stretch.

After hitting the brow of the hill there were still a dozen athletes together with Cowperthwaite languishing in 15th place. The fast downhill section eventually saw the group begin to split significantly and by the base of the hill the leading group had been reduced to three with Leonard amongst them and Cowperthwaite moving up into 11th place around 80 metres adrift as the field disappeared out of view into a wooded section of the course. Things changed dramatically when the athletes came back into view as Wrexham's Matt Willis had opened up a huge lead with Leonard and Mahamed next to appear, amazingly, just a few metres ahead of Cowperthwaite, what a huge surprise that was to everyone lining the course, where did he find that improvement from!

Willis was now well clear and on his way to victory but, after a 7k slog, the battle for the minor placings was really hotting up with just a few metres separating the trio of Leonard, Mahamed and Cowperthwaite - Josh got onto Rory's shoulder at one point - going into the final 400 metres. And to the delight of all the North East supporters who had travelled to the East Midlands, it was the gold vests of Leornard, who finished bloodied and bruised after being spiked, and Cowperthwaite who would step onto the podium to not only to receive their silver and bronze medals respectively but also claim the two remaining automatic places in the GB team for the World Cross-Country Championships at the end of the month.

Leonard and Cowperthaite were quickly called back to the presentation area when it was announced that the North East team had finished runners-up behind Yorkshire with just 10 points separating the two Northern Counties in the four-to-score contest. Backing up the new World cross-country representatives were Morpeth's Kieran Hedley, who finished in a superb 23rd place just over a minute behind Cowperthaite, and Middlesbrough Mandale's Ben Bergstrand, who finished in 46th position. A special mention here goes to Blyth's Joe Wren who answered team manager Stewy Bell's call at the 11th-hour and, in his first-ever county call-up, backed up the medal-winning quartet by finishing 161st.

From unknown to unstoppable - link to RunJumpThrow

The crowd was still buzzing when the under-13 boys were called up by the starter for their 3k event which had over 300 competitors on the start line and it was Houghton's Brandon Pye who had the honour of being first NE athlete home in 26th place, albeit just one position ahead of Tom Slane (Blackhill Bounders) with the duo being credited with the same time of 12min 38secs. Ryan Davies (Morpeth) was the next scorer in 30th place, two seconds adrift of Pye and Slane as Gosforth's Ethan Bond completed the scoring quartet in 89th spot to close in the team in fifth place. The county's none-scorers were: 108th Nathaniel Henderson (Tynedale); 117th Sam Terry (Durham City); 242nd Alex Bowyer (Darlington).

The senior women were next up and they faced a journey of 10k for the very first time as the championships followed the IAAF ruling of the men and women should contest the same distance. And it was Shildon's double European XC Championship silver medalist Kate Avery who proved the star performer as far as the county is concerned. Avery was always in contention, together with Morpeth's Mhairi MacLennon who was running for Scotland East District, in the leading group and it wasn't until the final kilometre that the duo dropped away as Jenny Nesbitt (Worcestershire) and Jess Piasecki (Gtr Manchester) upped the pace in the final uphill section. MacLennon, the Northern champion, and Avery were shoulder-to-shoulder battling for the final podium place and it was the Scotland athlete who proved the stronger in the closing stages with her determination bringing her to within one second of Piasecki at the line. Avery, meanwhile, finished a comfortable fourth to lead the North East to a superb third place in the team contest behind Yorkshire and Essex.
Twelve months earlier Josh Blevins (North Shields Poly) finished runner-up in the under-13 championship and though he was one of the youngest after moving up into the under-15 contest he still showed excellent form to be first NE finisher in 16th place over the 4k course just over 30 seconds adrift of a podium place. Tynedale's Charlie Daley did ever so well to be second counter after not arriving at the hotel until 3am after his father's car had a blow out on the motorway. Thankfully, a sleepless night didn't effect Daley's run too much as he finished in 37th place out of a field of over 300, Darlington's Adam Russell was the county's next scorer in 44th place with Gateshead's Ethan McGlen completing the four-to-score team contest in 51st place which left the NE finishing just short of a medal spot in fifth place. Middlesbrough Mandale's Max Creasey, Gateshead's David Race, North Shields Poly's Oliver Douglas and Ben Walker (Morpeth) also competed finishing 63rd, 147th, 215th and 269th respectively.

Avery was backed up superbly by Heaton's Danielle Smythe in 42nd place; Gosforth's Helen Warburton was 50th, former Gosforth athlete Rachel Lundgren, now running for Hallamshire, was 56th; followed by Morpeth pair Emma Holt and Catriona MacDonald, the pair completing the scoring six in 59th and 109th places respectively. Completing the NE squad were county debutantes Hannah Wood (Low Fell) and Brigid Dennehy (Gateshead) who crossed the line in 109th and 113th places respectively with Sunderland's Alice Smith finishing 181st.

picture by Peter Lundgren

Next up was the under-17 women's contest over 5k and it proved to be a resounding success for Darlington's India Pentland after finishing runner-up in the National at Leeds two weeks earlier. Pentland, who finished in bronze medal position last year, was in control throughout before making a move to the front in the closing stages to pull away from her main rival, South of England champion Tia Wilson who had also finished behind her in fourth place in the National. Despite losing her footing in the finishing straight, Pentland had opened up a significant gap which she stretched to 12 seconds at the line to claim a magnificent victory. Afterwards, a happy Pentland, who originally told team manager Lynn Cooper that she was concentrating on the English Schools' XC Championships - which take place this weekend in Leeds - and would give the Inter-Counties a miss, said: "I'm so happy to have won. I wanted it so much today after finishing second in the National.''

Morpeth's Holly Peck, another first year at under-17, was the next NE counter in 25th place with Houghton pair Anna Pigford (65th) and Lydia James (67th) completing the scoring quartet with the team again finishing in fifth place with a total of 158 points, just eight points more than bronze medallists Berkshire. The NE team was completed with Houghton's Eva Hardie, who was 76th; Gateshead's Chloe Wellings (93rd); Darlington's Catherine Roberts (97th) and Gosforth's Rebecca Wren who finished 167th.

The under-20 women's championship opened the second half of the day's proceedings and it was Gosforth's Rhian Purves who led the region's charge finishing in 20th place. New Marske's Eli Barnbrook was the next county's scorer crossing the line in 46th place. Sunderland's Sarah Knight and Jarrow and Hebburn's Emily Jones completed the scoring quartet in 59th and 101st places respectively. Sunderland's Eve Quinn, Morpeth's Gracie Hufton and Sunderland's Hayley Dobinson were also in action finishing 112th, 124th and 144th respectively. 

It was a cavalry charge when the under-13 girls 3k contest got underway and it was Blackhill's Hannah Bowyer who led the region's challenge finishing in a respectable 54th place out of the 307 finishers. Second counter for the NE was Middlesbrough Mandale's Zoe Hill in 57th place with team-mate Emma McNeil next home in 65th position. Durham City's Freya Gibson completed the scoring four in 81st spot to give the team a total of 257 points to finish in 12th place from the 40 teams who finished. Durham City's Charlotte Dillon finished 83rd; Eden Creasey and Isobel Herbert (both Middlesbrough Mandale)were 87th and 97th respectively with Gosforth's Alice Lewis finishing well inside halfway in 118th place.

Photo by Anna Lewis

The under-17 men's championship got underway three hours after the opening event and it was worth waiting for especially if you were a North East supporter. Unbeknown to many observers Sam Charlton (Wallsend) only decided to take his place on the start line two days before the race due to picking up a heavy cold. However, the decision to take his chance proved a worthy decision as he stormed home to a six-second victory and relegate Scottish champion Hamish Armitt into the runners-up spot. 

Due to the strong winds, Charlton, who often takes up front-running duties, decided to sit in the leading bunch on this occasion until taking the lead when it mattered with the finish line in sight. The Scottish athlete had made a decisive bid for glory going into the second of two circuits and at one stage it looked as though his bravery would pay off as he opened up a significant lead of around 30 metres at the brow of the final steep climb. And, it was Charlton who decided to give chase pulling along another half-dozen of his rivals. On the fast decent Armitt was still at the head of affairs but it was Yorkshire's Joshua Dickinson and Mohamed Ali (Middlesex) who were closest with Charlton appearing to feel the effects of his effort in chasing the leader down. 

With just over a mile to go the leaders went out of view but when they returned Charlton was just metres behind Armitt and Dickinson with Ali slipping out of contention. "Yes, it may have been the effects of the cold I had earlier in the week but when we were down to three I knew then that I was in with a chance of a medal and no way was Josh going to get the better of me for I beat him in both the Northern and National Championships. I think the determination at that point in the race gave me the confidence to take my chance and go for it on the final short incline before the home straight. I have to say I was on my knees, it was tougher than the National, and the finish line could not come quick enough. It was a lovely feeling though breaking the finishing tape after having doubts midway during the race.''

Charlton, who donned his favourite black t-shirt under his race vest - aka Mike McLeod - came home in his customary manner with a Shearer-like arm celebration to warm applause especially from family and friends who had made the trip to support him. Gateshead's Charlie McMillan, after a cautious start, worked his way through the field to finish in an excellent 24th place in what is arguably his best performance of the winter, Middlesbrough's Archie Lowe, in his first year at under-17 level, was next NE counter in 33rd spot with Houghton's Henry Johnson completing the scoring quartet in 38th place to give the team a total of 97 points just seven points adrift of third-placed Yorkshire. Morpeth duo Ross Charlton and Daniel Dixon finished 40th and 46th respectively with Middlesbrough's Jack Creasey finishing 71st and Houghton's Will Bellamy 78th.

The under-15 girls 4k championship was the penultimate event on the programme and it proved hugely profitable for the North East. Led by ninth-placed Ines Curran, the team came out on top in the four-to-score contest relegating Scotland West into second place by one point with the Scotland East team completing the one-two-three. Curran ran a superb race and was up to sixth place at one point as the 300-plus field wound it's way around the undulating countryside. Despite dropping a couple of places in the closing stages Curran finished just 29 seconds outside an individual podium position. Helping the NE claim first team were Houghton's Amy Leonard, who was 25th, Katie Francis (Birtley) who was 29th and 42nd-placed Emily Chong of Chester-le-Street. It was a superb team performance ably backed up by the other four members Millie Breeze (Alnwick) who finished 63rd, Chester-le-Street's Lucy Scothern (112th), Blaydon's Cecelia Reid (115th) and Middlesbrough's Lois Creasey who finished 162nd.

Katie Francis - Photo by Tom Millmore

U15 Gold winning team - Photo by Tom Millmore

Katie Francis - Photo by Tom Millmore

What a great season Carl Avery has had and after picking up a silver medal in the Northern and a bronze medal in the National the Morpeth athlete gave his all to finish in seventh place in the senior men's 10k event, the final race on the programme. Avery was always in contention until the final stages when the gaps eventually appeared ahead of him. Nevertheless, at the line he was only 27 seconds away from making another appearance on the podium. It was a real gutsy performance which augurs well with international call-ups certainly on the horizon. The NE has a great tradition in the senior men's race having won the team race on many occasions. However, it wasn't to be this time round and the county had to be content with sixth place in the six-to-score event and third place in the nine-to-score listings.

Gateshead's Calum Johnson, having his first cross-country outing of the winter, bravely fought his way through the field after a sluggish start to finish 19th while evergreen Phil Wylie (Cheltenham) was next scorer in 30th place. County champion Greg Jayasuriya (Middlesbrough and Cleveland) was next home in 50th spot followed by Birtley's Adrien Bailes in 96th with late call-up Finn Brodie (Tyne Bridge) completing the six scorers in 101st place. The scoring six were backed up by Kieran Walker (Middlesbrough) who was 105th, Gateshead's Conrad Franks (112th) and another athlete who answered a late call, Jordan Scott (Morpeth) who was 158th.

An exceptional days sport saw the North East shine once again and it's thanks to managers Lynn Cooper and Stewy Bell, together with the selectors and the cross-country committee for making it a huge success.



Under-17 Women: India Pentland (Darlington)

Under-17 Men: Sam Charlton (Wallsend)
Under-15 Girls team: Ines Curran (Gateshead), Amy Leonard (Houghton), Katie Francis (Birtley), Emily Chong (Chester-le-Street)


Under-20 Men: Rory Leornard (Morpeth)

Under-20 Mens team: Rory Leonard, Josh Cowperthwaite (Middlesbrough Mandale), Kieran Hedley (Morpeth), Ben Bergstrand (Middlesbrough Mandale)


Under-20 Men: Josh Cowperthwaite

Senior Women team: Kate Avery (Shildon), Danielle Smyth (Heaton), Helen Warburton (Gosforth), Rachel Lundgren (Hallamshire), Emma Holt (Morpeth), Catriona MacDonald (Morpeth)


KATE AVERY, together with Mhairi MacLennan, have been named in the GB&NI senior women's team for the World Cross-Country Championships in Denmark at the end of the months and they will be joined by Rory Leonard and Josh Cowperthwaite who will line up in the junior men's championship

Photos: Adrian Royle

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