Saturday, 19 December 2020

Letter of thanks from George Patterson

 On behalf of Hudson Stoker’s immediate family, Sheila, and Jeff Lee, (Sister and Brother-in-Law), and his two nephew’s, Great Nieces and Great Nephew, and myself, I would personally wish to thank our many friends at Morpeth Harriers & AC, North East Counties AA, and Northern Athletics, and friends, for the many cards and kind wishes expressed at the time of our very sad loss.

We were all very much overwhelmed by the number of people wo showed their very kind concerns at a time when we very much needed you.

Hudson was, and still is a most wonderful friend, whom I will never be able to forget, and I will continue to treasure the memory of his wonderful friendship for the rest of my days.

I was very lucky in life to have met and known him, and our 52 years that we spent as friends, and close companion, will always be held most dearly to my heart.

He was very much a gentle, gentleman, something unique, who is thankfully now out of the pain that he very much bravely bore, without a grumble, and with the determined grace and dignity that was very much true to his character.

Neatness, and the need for everything in its place was very much Hudson’s forte, lessons I learnt from him throughout our lovely life together.

He will always be very sadly missed, God Bless.

Kind Regards

George Patterson

Tuesday, 1 December 2020

John Keefe & Hudson Stoker

 THE North East athletics family has been hit a double whammy with the news that long-serving officials John Keefe and Hudson Stoker passed away last weekend.

It’s a huge blow to everyone who knew the two superb servants who graced the field of athletics in a special style by going about their business in a quiet but exceptional way and with their passing the sport will be a lonely place without them.

The Harrier League in particular is hugely grateful and appreciative for the tireless work the pair put in over many years which, in a sense, helped make the NEHL the envy of other cross-country leagues throughout the country.

John Keefe

John started life as an athlete with his home-town club Jarrow Cycling and Athletics Club having notable successes giving the club a strong standing in the region. A move into the admin side with the likes of Tommy Power, Jimmy Hedley, Bob Charlton and Eric Huskisson after a name change to Jarrow and Hebburn Athletics Club, saw the South Tyneside outfit prosper even further especially when they had athletes of the calibre of Steve Cram and the largely unheralded David Sharpe, proud athletes who competed on the World stage in the famous gold with blue sash vest.

If his work at the club wasn’t enough – he filled all the major positions at one time or another – John took on the role as Harrier League secretary at a time when the organisation was struggling for funds. But he had the answer. He asked for volunteers on race days to go round with a bucket persuading competitors and their supporters to dig deep for the cause and it worked a treat so much so the league is now in a much healthier state now as the collecting bucket is no longer and in the archives of history!

Jonathan Gilroy presenting John Keefe with the Jarvis Award at Jarrow & Hebburn's 80th Anniversary

After passing over the league secretary position John continued to be a regular at Jarrow & Hebburn and local fixtures despite some atrocious weather working as an official at the finish line, a role he also enjoyed in warmer climes at track meetings throughout the region.

Hudson Stoker

Hudson, meanwhile, was, in comparison to John, a relatively late starter to the local athletics scene after linking up with the Northumbrians in 1986. However, he quickly made his mark after working alongside great friend George Patterson as members of Morpeth Harriers.

George & Hudson at the 2019 Northern's XC Champs

A gentle gentleman, Hudson proved an asset to the Northumberland outfit where he took on many tasks without question, a fact quickly recognised by the hierarchy which resulted in him being installed as a life-member.

Away from his club duties Hudson found a new niche when he took up announcing duties like a duck to water. While local events were the bread and butter, especially with the mic in one hand and his beloved camera around his neck ready for action before proclaiming in that immaculate voice of his: ‘Slow pack you have five minutes to the start’ at a HL fixture. His calm delivery quickly got him recognised where he was installed at Northern Athletics’ events as well as English Road Relay Championships.

RIP John and Hudson, our thoughts and prayers are with all your family and friends at this sad time.

*For further tributes to John and Hudson check the relative club websites

By Bill McGuirk

Monday, 23 November 2020

Aykley Heads Review

Aykley Heads Cross Country 2014-2019


As in previous years Harrier League fixtures in 2013/14 included a race just over the border in Gateshead but no running in County Durham. Venues which had previously been used in Consett and Chester-Le-Street were no longer viable. A suitable site needed a course and a large parking area. Three local clubs Elvet Striders, Durham City Harriers and Derwentside A.C. decided bringing a race back to Durham was a good idea and investigated a variety of sites settling on Aykley Heads. A suggestion was made at the 2014 Harrier League A.G.M. and we had a date of 22nd November 2014 for the first race.

Pre-race Planning

Now the easy part was over. The event needed the course to be mowed, new gates to be added, 60 volunteers to be recruited and most importantly signed agreements with landowners to allow access. Throughout the events the core team stayed the same Geoff Davis (Elvet Striders) volunteer recruitment and course clearance, Geoff Watson (Durham City Harriers) course building and dismantling and Mark Davinson (Derwentside A.C.) leases, landowners and general organisation. We were also indebted to Andy Niven volunteer Countryside Ranger who mowed the grass each year and helped develop the course while protecting the nature reserve we ran through. The fixture couldn’t have become a reality without the support of our masses of volunteers mostly from Elvet Striders who ensured everyone was parked safely, didn’t get lost and events ran smoothly.

Photographs show car park and course marshals from 2014

2014 The Chair And Crazy Corner   

When the original route was designed it went all the way round the edge of the land. On Facebook after the race the most discussed course features were the hairpin bend at the end of the course, which we called crazy corner, and the 3ft step 100 metres before that, the Chair named after the jump on the Grand National. As a new course replacing Blaydon runners didn’t know what to expect but most posts described it as brutal, muddy fun and one of the hardest courses. It was a proper cross country course was the consensus which was exactly what the organisers were looking for. All three organisers were determined to copy Saltwell’s Keith Wood and run. A trend which would continue in future years.

Innovative dance move on crazy corner

Juniors in the haze

Women approach crazy corner with the very helpful tree in photograph

All three by Hippie Nixon

2015 Tweaking The Beast

A second fixture was agreed for 21st November 2015. Any thoughts the course was too difficult were erased with approximately 40 extra runners in both the men’s and women’s races. In a couple of places where the paths had taken a battering new routes were cut through the grassland adding a different type of underfoot surface and a bit more elevation. Heavy rain leading up to the fixture made the top of the big hill very sticky with several shoes coming off.


Shoes in hand photograph by Darren Fairclough

Laura Weightman winning the women’s race

Men halfway up the big hill Paulo’s Running Pics

2016 NECAA Championships Adding Length

Aykley Heads was lucky enough to host the NECAA Championships on 10th December 2016. A longer course was needed so a few new innovations were introduced including the woodland and removing the chair which were both retained for future events. The route through the sticky, deep mud to the right of the trees at the top of the bank wasn’t used and did not return. In the senior championship races Olympian Laura Weightman won the women’s race and GB cross country international Jonathan Taylor the men’s.

Chairman of Durham County Council Eddie Bell helps George Patterson start some of the championship races

For the last six years we have had the best maps in cross country beautifully illustrated by Juliet Percival

Footage from the men’s race at the NECAA Championships 2016 from Ian Twaddle

2017/18 Maintaining The Challenge

By 2017 the fixture was a regular fixture in the cross country calendar and hosting was by now maintaining the same blueprint which had been previously successful. Alterations from the NECAA Championships which had been popular were retained and the course reverted to its previous Harrier League length. In 2018 the course stayed the same. Both years were dry for November and numbers remained similar with a record of 416 finishers in the women’s race in 2018.

2017 A new way to watch the race by stationary train Dougie Nisbet

2017 A new way to watch the race by stationary train Dougie Nisbet

2018 women on the downhill John Jobson

2018 men near the start Stuart Whitman

2019 A Final Mudbath?

By 2019 Durham County Council had planning permission to develop a new headquarters and progressed plans to turn County Hall into an industrial estate. Northern Athletics had agreed to hold their 2021 Championships at Aykley Heads. With the new building expected in Spring 2021 the car park would be a building site by the Summer. Heavy rain throughout the Autumn had already led to postponements. In previous years thick, sticky mud had slowed runners down. In 2019 wet, slippy mud covered the course and made cornering difficult. Some runners hoped the crazy corner would be reinstated but the course remained the same as the previous year.

Club colours? Ben Heathcote

Juniors in the mist Stuart Whitman

2020 The Future

At the time of writing the Northern Championships has been postponed but may take place in March if restrictions permit. Building of the council HQ remains on schedule making it unlikely car parks will be available in November 2021. Thanks to all the volunteers, race officials, league officials and runners who helped make Aykley Heads cross county a great event. Durham County Council and Durham Police Authority have both been amazingly supportive of our cross country community ripping up their land. I hope you have enjoyed it as much as the organising team have.

Written by Mark Davinson.

2019 mudfest by Paul Dunlop

Thursday, 23 July 2020


Hi, hope everyone is ok in what are strange days indeed. Just a few notices from discussions we've been having over the past months and a meeting held earlier this evening to make some decisions about 2020/21 season. An e-mail with reports and details will be going out to all clubs in due course, but just to summarise discussions so far:
  1. Results from 2019/20 will stand (as at Micky has been meeting with our sponsors (Start Fitness) and we're looking to organise a presentation event, within the ever changing government COVID guidance and what will be acceptable to Start Fitness. Will obvioulsy keep you informed on that one.
  2. The AGM which would normally have been held tomorrow (24/07/2020) will hopefully be held towards the end of the year. We will circulate reports (General Secretary's and Financial) direct to clubs in the meantime. To be honest at the moment we don't have anything to discuss regarding fixtures for 20/21 due to the changing guidance coming from government, UKA, and we would also need to consider all landowners that we work with whether local authorities or private landowners.
  3. The plan for 20/21 season, and we'd draw your attention to details for road / trail events released by UKA / EA this week, is to tentatively look towards a restart in the New Year and hopefully get 3 or 4 events in across Feb - March, possibly January as well. Although as far as we are aware the North Easterns are still scheduled for December, a good marker will be whether the Northerns go ahead in January. As you'll be aware the nature of the Harrier League, numbers of people across the day, lapped courses etc means that at present we would be nowhere near meeting the current published requirements for events.
Will keep you all updated as and when anything develops. Keep training; hope to see us back in action in the not too distant future.
All the best
SFNEHL Committee

Saturday, 21 March 2020

RETRO Cross Country - March 26th 2000


WHILE there is no ‘live’ athletics activity at the moment – plenty of virtual running though thanks to Vicki - here is a brief report from the Durham Pine Harrier League fixture of 20 years ago. It was the first season of the coming together of the men and women as previously the women would more often than not hold their fixtures on the Sunday, following on from the men’s event at the same venue the previous day. 

Even though I was in attendance at Prudhoe that day – can someone enlighten me why it was on a Sunday - please excuse the fact that in some cases I don’t know the Christian names of some of the athletes! – feel free to add them if you can.

IT’S only right to kick off with the senior women’s race for it was won by the promoting club’s – Tynedale Harriers - Karen Robertson, and even though there was no pack system at the time, managed to win by over a minute with Scottish Commonwealth Games marathon representative Lynn Harding (now Cooper and the NECAA cross-country team manager) finishing in second place ahead of Jarrow and Hebburn’s Clare Smallwood (now Simpson). Compared to the huge women’s fields now witnessed at harrier league fixtures on this occasion, I don’t know how many dropped out because of the severity of the course, but the results state that only 21 managed to finish. 

On a pleasing note however, it’s good to see that the leading three athletes home are still involved in the sport we all love.

The under-17/20 women’s race attracted just 11 competitors and was won by Gateshead’s Claire Taylor (formerly North Shields Poly). L Davies of the Poly finished runner-up while Tynedale’s L Wallace completed the one-two-three. Only one under-20 athlete was involved with Angela Hunter (now McGurk) of Jarrow & Hebburn, finishing in fourth place.

The under-15 girls contest, which had 15 competitors, was won by Tynedale’s H Pearson with Blaydon’s N Batey in second position and Danielle Watts (Morpeth) finishing in third place. A young Danielle Hodgkinson (Wallsend) finished half-way down the field over a minute adrift of the winner.

The under-13 girls event had 31 finishers with representatives from 12 of the region’s clubs. First across the line was Julia Orr (Quakers) who had four seconds in hand over second-placed Emma Nesbitt of Morpeth with Birtley’s A Barter holding off Gosforth’s Joy Fenwick for third place.

The senior men’s course must have been short of 10km on this occasion for first home in a time of 30min 53sec was Crook’s Kevin Archer who crossed the line over a minute-and-a-half clear of Morpeth’s Stephen Munday who, like third-placed J Bent (Blaydon) ran from the medium pack. First fast-pack runner home and quickest on the course, was Jarrow and Hebburn’s Kevin Corr who, from a five-minute handicap, worked his way through the field to finish in 11th place. 

There were 201 finishers and, as he has done on many occasions since, George Routledge (Heaton) was last man home! Also amongst the finishers that day were Blaydon’s Bill Courtney in 79th place and following him across the line was the current Start Fitness Harrier League sponsor’s owner, Tony Wallett of North Shields Poly.

Only 13 competitors lined up in the under-17 men’s event with victory going to A Hudson of Durham City who crossed the finish line 20 seconds ahead of second-placed fast-pack runner R Smee (Elswick,) with Quakers’ C Bedford, also from the fast pack, 13 seconds further adrift in third spot. Despite the small field, two clubs managed to close in a three-to-score team with North Shields Poly totaling 23 points to Quakers’ 24!

The under-15 boys’ race with 24 competitors, was won by Blaydon’s Matthew Armstrong who held off the challenge of fast-pack runner Marc Elliott of Gateshead by 15 seconds. Also running from the fast-pack was third-placed S McCarthy (North Shields Poly) who crossed the line just five seconds behind Elliott. Gosforth won the team race led home by Drew Graham in fourth place.

The under-13 boys’ event attracted 43 competitors and it was the only triumph for a fast-pack runner with Nathan Shrubb (Wallsend) managing to cross the line five seconds clear of his rivals. Elswick’s Jonny Pearson finished runner-up while Nick Swinburn, then of Blaydon, claimed third place ahead of Gosforth’s Lewis Timmins. Pearson and Swinburn ran from the slow pack while Timmins was a fast-pack entry.

The harrier league has come on leaps and bounds since that day thanks to the leadership of a series of hard-working committees and while the sport is in limbo at the moment with the present team at the helm it is sure to move up another notch as soon as they get the ok. 

Roll on next season – bring on the mud!

Bill McGuirk
NEHL Reporter

Full Results:
Senior men

Tuesday, 17 March 2020


Hi Folks,  It is with regret that the final Start Fitness North Eastern Harrier League fixture of 2019-20, which was to be held at Druridge Bay on the 29th of March, is now cancelled.  We will also be postponing the NEHL Presentation till September (or before the start of the new season).

In accordance with NEHL rule 4.3, the individual grand prix will now be the best 3 performances from 4 fixtures (Wrekenton, Aykley Heads, Alnwick Castle, and Lambton Castle).  Team grand prix stands from all four fixtures.

It has been a challenging season for the NEHL, with torrential rain affecting three fixtures in the season, to the Covid-19 virus at the end, and we can only hope that next season we can come back stronger.

We will keep you up to date with a date for the AGM.

Your support throughout the year has been fantastic, and the committee pass on our thanks.

Vicki Thompson
NEHL Ladies Sec.

The following statement is from England Athletics:

Coronavirus Statement: last updated 17 March at 9am
The UK government has advised that everyone in the UK should now avoid “non-essential” travel and contact with others to fight coronavirus.  Whilst it has not issued any ban on public gatherings of any size either indoors or outdoors at this stage, the advice is to avoid non-essential contact with others, including going to sporting events, pubs, clubs, theatres and social venues.

As a result, England Athletics advises that all face-to-face activity such as club training sessions, events, competitions, club committee and face-to-face meetings, athlete camps, running groups and social events should be suspended until at least the end of April.

The decision has been taken in the interests of athletes, runners, officials, coaches, volunteers, supporters and the wider athletics and running communities. This decision is also in alignment with actions taken by the home country athletics federations in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland and is similar to action taken by other sports.
Where possible, athletes and runners at all levels are encouraged to maintain their own personal fitness and keep active during this time, while following government guidelines about safe distance and safe exercise environments.
England Athletics will continue to review and monitor government advice and will provide detailed updates on the impact to our sport in the coming weeks. We appreciate that the current situation will undoubtedly place our member clubs in a difficult situation and we are working with UKA and the other Home Country Athletics Federations on the best way to help alleviate the situation and will update you as plans evolve.

Social distancing and advice

Social distancing measures (as defined by Public Health England as spending more than 15 minutes and within a 2-metre distance talking to someone) are now advised not only if we test positive or have symptoms, but in day to day life.  As well as current travel advice, the current UK government is advising anyone with a “new, continuous” cough or high temperature and those they live with need to self-isolate for 14 days.

At Risk groups

The latest advice from the government’s chief medical adviser is that those over 70 currently do not need to be self-isolating. However, in the coming days, every Briton over the age of 70 and those in at-risk groups over the age of 70 will be advised to be “largely shielded from social contact” for 12 weeks to help protect themselves. Those with underlying medical issues such as high blood pressure, lung complaints and weakened or compromised immune systems are more likely to develop serious illness as a result of the disease.
Anyone with a higher risk from viruses such as cold or flu should take sensible steps to reduce the risk of picking up infections. Click here for NHS advice on infection control – it is summarized below:
  • wash your hands with soap and water often – do this for at least 20 seconds
  • always wash your hands when you get home or into work
  • use hand sanitiser gel if soap and water are not available
  • cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve (not your hands) when you cough or sneeze
  • put used tissues in the bin immediately and wash your hands afterwards
  • avoid close contact with people who have symptoms of coronavirus
  • use phone, online services, or apps to contact your GP surgery or other NHS services


All qualification and development courses have been postponed.  Everyone who has booked onto a course will be sent an email asap informing them of the postponement and will be able to defer their booking.
Where we can, we will attempt to continue with education via online methods (e.g. webinar, Skype etc). However, this may not be practically possible for all activities. Where not, the aim will be to re-schedule courses to a later date wherever feasible.

Qualifying races

We are currently undergoing a contingency planning process for qualifying races and will keep everyone updated as soon as possible.

Road Races

We will be working with our partner runbritain to coordinate a communication detailing appropriate advice and guidance to road race organisers in the immediate future.


No emergency services will attend large gatherings so it is unavoidable that competitions will now be suspended until at least the end of April.  We are in contact with event organisers to find suitable alternative dates within the competition calendar and our cancellations page link is kept up to date:

This page can be accessed any time using

Monday, 16 March 2020

NEHL Lambton Report


DESPITE the attraction of a new venue numbers were significantly down for the re-arranged Start Fitness North East Harrier League fixture at Lambton Castle. There were a number of reasons for that, however, but for those who did manage to make it to the grounds of the former Lion Park, by all accounts they enjoyed it immensely and they can’t wait for next season and a repeat performance. The Washington, Low Fell and Birtley clubs were the hosts manning their posts throughout the day while John Stephens and his team, together with the landowners, had produced a ‘challenging’ course, on all accounts, a true cross-country test. Thanks indeed go to the landowners in ensuring that the NEHL could at least boast five fixtures during a difficult season for all concerned - BillMcG

SENIOR MEN (11.1km)
SUNDERLAND’S Liam Taylor set out his stall from the off and by the end of the first of three testing circuits that included a never-ending steep hill, he had opened up a near two-minute advantage over his near 370 rivals. After joining Taylor in the opening surge Sparrow Morley (Tyne Bridge) dropped back to lead the chasing pack in second place as the duo took advantage of a 2min 35sec and 5min 15sec start over the medium and fast packs respectively. 

When Taylor came into view a second time he still held a comfortable lead as Houghton’s Luke Pickering, running from the medium pack, had moved through into second place.  By now the field was bunching up as fast pack runners Chris Larkin (Newcastle University, who finished in second place in the previous fixture in Alnwick, and Gateshead’s Conrad Franks, Stephen Jackson (Elvet) and leading over-40, Darren Purvis (Birtley) were all cutting through the opposition. 

Entering the finishing straight after a gruelling contest, it wasn’t surprising that Taylor appeared first but, despite Pickering momentarily taking a wrong turning, Taylor’s advantage was quickly being eroded. However, Taylor, glanced behind to see the danger and managed to hold off his younger challenger with four seconds to spare at the finish line. It could be said that the Wearsider had eased off slightly during the final circuit but the performance by his younger rival was the one to appreciate. 

Posting the overall fastest time of the day it didn’t come as a surprise for he had ran really well in the Inter-Counties XC the previous weekend when, not representing the North East, managed to finish ahead of two of the county’s scorers! 

Alex Mirley (Elvet Striders) was third man home while Larkin, followed by Franks, were the next quickest behind Pickering after working their way through to finish fourth and sixth respectively. Taylor led Sunderland to team victory who now head the table by four points from Elvet with Blaydon in third place. Birtley lead Division Two ahead of Gosforth and Ponteland while the Division Three leaders are Jesmond who lead Saltwell and Tynedale.


FORMER Lincoln Wellington athlete Libbie Read made her harrier league debut a winning one. Running in Heaton Harrier’s colours for only the second time – she finished 151st in the National – Libbie spread-eagled the near 250-strong field from the off and at the halfway point had close on a two-minute advantage over fellow Heaton athlete, Laura Smith, Sarah Wharton (Tyne Bridge) and Ponteland’s Sarah Bell. Taking full advantage of the 2:25 and 5:15 over the medium and fast pack runners, Libbie still had a substantial lead as she entered the finishing straight. Claire Davies (Stocksfield Striders) running from the mediums, finished runner-up while another Heaton runner, Danielle Smythe, claimed the third place award after seeing off her fast pack rival Jane Hodgson (Morpeth) after the pair had locked horns throughout in their bid to post the overall fastest time. 

Posting the third fastest time was Saltwell’s Gemma Bradley. Tyne Bridge, led home by Sarah Wharton, won the Division One team-race and now top the table ahead of Morpeth; Wallsend lead Division Two from Jesmond while the Division Three leaders are Claremont who lead from Jarrow and Hebburn and Ponteland.

UNDER-17 MEN (4.7km)
IT WAS South Shields who were celebrating after Ryan Stewart came home 19 seconds clear of Elswick’s Keiron Dixon with Sunderland’s Rhys Clark completing the one-two-three. Fastest on the course was Alnwick’s Oliver Telfer, who worked his way through the field to finish in fifth place from a handicap of 2:35, was the fastest on view with Morpeth’s Euan Duffin second quickest. With so many athletes in this age group away competing in the English Schools’ XC Championships it wasn’t surprising that no clubs managed to field three counters.

UNDER-20/17 WOMEN (4.7km)
SOUTH Shields were celebrating a second time when Emma White came home over a minute clear of Gosforth’s Amy Ellis with Birtley’s Amy Drummond finishing in third place. Emma, running from the slow pack, was also the fastest overall with Birtley’s Eve Southern, working her way through to fourth place from a handicap of 1:20, second quickest. Like the men’s age group, no team closed in.

UNDER-15 BOYS (3.7km)
SUNDERLAND’S Adam Hughes held on by five seconds to see off the challenge of Morpeth’s Bertie Marr who had worked his way through to second place from a 1:45 penalty. Ben Weston (South Shields) finished in third place ahead of Morpeth’s Sam Tate who posted the second fastest time behind his Morpeth team-mate. Morpeth, with Liam Roche backing up Marr and Tate, won the team race finishing with 15 points, four less than Sunderland.

UNDER-15 GIRLS (3.7km)
ANNA DORMAN (Tyne Bridge) was the star after leading throughout the contest. Caitlin Flanagan (Morpeth) finished runner-up, eight seconds behind the leader with Gosforth’s Evie Hutchinson, a similar distance adrift in third place. Fastest on the course was Blackhill’s Alix Walton who worked her way through to fifth place from a 1:45 penalty. Blackhill were comfortable team winners ahead of Gosforth and Elswick.

UNDER-13 BOYS (3.7km)
MORPETH’S Ollie Calvert came home well clear of Jacob Brown (Billingham) with Birtley’s Martyn Rahmann finishing in third place. Fastest overall was Gateshead’s Matthew Das, who, from a penalty of 1:45, finished in sixth position. Morpeth finished ahead of Birtley in the team race with Durham City finishing in third place.

UNDER-13 GIRLS (3.7km)
GATESHEAD’S Iona Johnstone led all the way to break the tape ahead of fast pack pair Hannah Wightman (Gosforth) and Jarrow and Hebburn’s Darcy Tullis. At the line Iona had 42-second cushion over her nearest rival. Hannah led Gosforth to a comfortable team victory with Jarrow and Hebburn second and Gateshead third.

UNDER-11 Boys (2km)
IT WAS a Gateshead one-two in an impressive field of 58. Victory went to Alex Lienard who crossed the line 15 seconds clear of Harry Garrett with Morpeth’s Rob Walton claiming third place a further six seconds behind. A total of 23 of the region’s clubs had representatives in the contest while Newcastle’s West Jesmond Junior School also had a number on the start line.

UNDER-11 GIRLS (2km)
DERWENT Valley Trail Runners’ Niamh Phillipson came out on top after showing a huge improvement after finishing in 10th place in the opening fixture in Wrekenton. Grace Carter (Durham City), a winner at Aykley Heads in November, finished runner-up with Millie Slane (Blackhill) claiming the third-place medal.

*WELL done to everyone who turned out, the new venue proved extremely popular with competitors and spectators alike. Thanks once again go to all the marshalls, technical officials and the league committee who have managed to overcome numerous problems throughout the season to give everyone a superb day’s sport.

Bill McGuirk
NEHL Reporter

Photos - Stuart Whitman, Phil Lingwood

Wednesday, 11 March 2020

Calum Johnson Interview

AFTER his National Cross-Country success I eventually found time to ask Calum Johnson a number of questions and, under the microscope, he confidently come up with some interesting, honest and sometimes controversial replies. So here goes and I hope you appreciate his answers as much as I did - BillMcG

Q. Alan, your dad, was no slouch in his younger days so was it inevitable that you would follow in his footsteps or, like many youngsters, did you have a calling to play football.

A.   Unfortunately, I don’t think I inherited the football genes. I know my Dad used to play in his school days and I think my other two brothers got the football bug as they both played for the school and one of them still plays football now. I grew up knowing Dad was a really good runner and I always thought one day he would try and get me into running despite me having other interests like Judo and Swimming (quite a bizarre combination I know!). He never ever pushed me into running competitively though of which I’ve respected a lot and he would always let me do what interested me. Eventually, after being involved in school cross-country races as a teenager, I finally found that I was a decent runner as a 15/16-year-old and I am sure that this would have been music to my Dad’s ears!

Q. Can you remember your first race and if so where and what was it and how did you get on and if you didn’t win can you remember who did?

A.   Although I never ran for a club as a youngster (well until I was about 15/16 when I joined Gateshead Harriers), Dad used to always take me down to run in the Good Friday Road Races (organised by Elswick Harriers which was his club in his running days). I recall racing in the under-13 race and wore one of my Dad’s Elswick vests which was huge on me! I finished third that day but can’t remember who was in front of me though. My first race as a Gateshead Harrier was at the Northumberland County Schools’ Cross-Country Championships (Inter Boys race) and I think I finished fourth or fifth that day. It was won by former runner and fellow Gateshead Harrier and good friend Lewis Hogg who won it by miles. Lewis had so much talent but sadly injury problems stopped him from a running career as a senior athlete. I went on to finish 74th at the English Schools’ that season.

Q. Your dad still has the bragging rights as far as track times go. Do you feel that is a side of the sport you would like to put right?

A.   He certainly does and I will put my hands up and say he was definitely a quicker athlete than I am now! His track times from 800m up to 5000m are way better than mine. I think I have bragging rights when it comes to cross-country though! I am very much a strength/endurance-based athlete due to the nature of my training and the volumes of training I do for Triathlon. I would love to try and lower my track PB’s one day. I don’t know how that would fit into my Triathlon commitments but I haven’t ruled out solely focusing on running at some point in the future, and if that is the case then I certainly will try to focus on improving my track running capabilities and times.

Q. About six years ago athletics looked as though it was being pushed to one side even though you were awarded your first GB vest. Was it around that time you were attracted to the triathlon scene?

A.   I gained my first GB vest as a junior in January, 2013 at the Great Edinburgh Cross-Country and I remember it very well. I was still based in Newcastle at home around that time and was training with the group at Gateshead. Although Triathlon was now my main interest, I tended to use cross-country as part of my winter training and preparations for the Triathlon season. I then moved to Leeds for University in September, 2013. It was around that point I started to focus more on Triathlon so I had to compromise on cross-country races in the winter. Being down in Leeds I was part of the Triathlon programme and sort of had to abide by the coaches down there!

Q. Since starting your triathlon journey you have had some notable successes. What has been the highlight of that journey so far?

A.   Despite Triathlon being my main focus, winning the National Cross-Country title has certainly been the highlight of my sporting career so far! However, there are some stand out moments in Triathlon for me which include finishing 12th at my first World Under-23 Triathlon Championships and winning silver in the Mixed Triathlon Relay. Also, I won my first international title at a European Cup event in The Netherlands in 2017 which was special, especially as both my parents were there watching and were able to share that special moment with me.

Q. While cross-country isn’t on the Olympic programme is it triathlon you feel you have the best chance of becoming an Olympian?

A.   I would love to see cross-country eventually on the Winter Olympics programme. I can’t see it happening in my time as an athlete which is unfortunate as I do feel it would be my best chance of competing at an Olympic Games. However, saying that, I haven’t ruled out trying to qualify for the Triathlon in a future Games. As much as racing at the Olympics is a dream and goal of mine, I think you have to be realistic and as it’s only once every four years, plus a maximum of three athletes who will go, the chances are slim. Especially when you take into account the bias and politics involved when picking athletes. As someone who knows the sport well, I am confident in saying that at the last two Olympic Games, it wasn’t necessarily the best three triathletes that were on the team and unfortunately that’s how it seems to work. I do believe I have a chance, just like any of the other top level triathletes in Great Britain and I will do my very best to put myself in a position to qualify in Paris 2024 (2020 team already picked, albeit prematurely). If it doesn’t work out then you may see me try to qualify in a different sport (I’ll keep quiet on that one for now). I think qualifying for the 2022 Commonwealth Games is a very realistic goal for me and that is something that is very much on my radar right now.

Q. Winning the ‘National’ came out of the blue to many observers but after your Northern victory many of your followers felt you had a great chance and so it proved.

A. Yes, to be honest, I surprised myself by winning the National and the way I performed on the day. I think as far as execution goes, it was one of my best ever performances. Races like that don’t come along very often as an athlete, there aren’t many days where everything goes right and you feel absolutely 100% in control. After the Northern, I knew I was in great shape and my fitness was really good and so I knew that I had a good chance of getting a medal, that was my main goal even though it’s not something I think about too much before a race. It may surprise a lot of people that as someone who doesn’t solely focus on running can win such a big race and beat a lot of high class runners. However, what a lot of people don’t know about me is that as a Triathlete, I do large volumes of training across the three disciplines. I tend to rack up on average, about 30 hours per week. Yes, I don’t run the miles that the top runners in the country will run but I do a lot of training that conditions me very well and gives me a good aerobic engine for events like cross-country. When courses are tough and heavy going, as Nottingham was, it suits me well being more of a strength-based athlete.
National Cross Country winner Calum Johnson
Heavy going at Nottingham

Q. The ‘National’ has been won by many great endurance runners in the past including North East Olympians Jack Potts, Alex Burns, Brendan Foster and Mike McLeod. You’ve joined an elite band and after reading the names of previous winners on the trophy how does it feel to join such illustrious company?

A. Winning the National really was a dream come true. I’ve said to a lot people that it’s a race I’ve imagined winning since the day I started running competitively. To actual win it really did mean a lot and I think the photos at the finish line were testament to that! I keep having to look at the trophy to remind myself of what I have achieved and when I read through the names, I am just in awe of what is in front of me. I still wouldn’t put myself in the same league as those names you’ve mentioned like Mike and Brendan as they have achieved so much more than I can really dream of. As a Newcastle/North East lad, I am honoured to have my name next to theirs on the National winning trophy as I really do aspire to be at the same level as they were in their best running days. 

Calum makes the cover of Athletics Weekly

Q. The cross-country season is drawing to a close so what are your immediate plans for the rest of the year?

A. I am actually quite gutted that the cross-country season has more or less ended as it is something I really love doing throughout the winter months. It gives me the motivation and the right training I need to prepare me well for the Triathlon season. My first Triathlon race is just under three weeks’ time and it is part of the European Cup series. I would love to start the triathlon season off on a high. I know my running is definitely in a good place right now so it’s a case of fine tuning my overall fitness and making sure I am ready for the swim and the bike segments too as they will determine whether I am in the race or not. I then plan a Wold Cup race a month later and hopefully qualify for the European Championships in July where I would like to aim for a medal there.

Q. I know your mam and dad, Heather and Alan, have been an inspiration to you over the years supporting you through the highs and lows, but who else over the past decade or so has helped guide you to become the nation’s leading cross-country athlete?

A. Yes for sure, Mam and Dad have been the biggest key players in supporting me and keeping me on track over the years. They have always looked out for me, been at my side every step of the way and given me the best possible chance of reaching the top. They’ve allowed me to take opportunities that would be out of my reach if it wasn’t for their support so I can only thank them for that. 

To be honest there are too many people who know who they are, that have supported me in several ways on this journey. I certainly have to thank John Stephenson, the coach at Gateshead and aside from my Dad, he is the other person to introduce me to running. I joined his group at the very start and have loved every bit of it and so much that I am actually back there now after seven years away at University and other places too. John has always believed in me and has never given up doing so despite all of the setbacks I have had. That means a lot to me, to have someone who fully supports your endeavours and goals no matter where you are or what you are going through just shows how great a person John really is. 

As you’ll know and many top athletes will know, there are people who come and go and are fully behind you when you are performing well but then disappear off radar when things aren’t going so well. As an athlete, those people you don’t need in your team. It is people like my parents and John, who you should respect and engage with because ultimately, those are the ones that will help you reach your goals and achieve your dreams.

Q. You have worked extremely hard over many years and you have finally been rewarded. Where there any times when you felt that it wasn’t going to happen and the enjoyment was no longer there?

A. I always find this one of the most important questions to be asked so I am glad you have asked me! Unfortunately, most people who follow sport and follow you as an athlete and aren’t necessarily close to you, will never know what really goes on behind the scenes. Generally, they will see happy social media posts, good results, see you flying to sunny and beautiful locations around the world and basically assume that you live this dream life with no stresses or worries! In reality, it’s far from that. Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful to not be working a nine-till-five job and that I get the opportunity to visit some brilliant places and see some cool things but that’s just a very small part of the life as an international athlete. 

To be one of the best athletes in the world, you have to be one of the most mentally and physically strong people and that takes a lot of work. Over the years, I have had many setbacks. I’m not going to go into them all as I feel that will just bore people. In Triathlon, there is very little reward for a huge amount of work and so you really do have to enjoy the training. When I go to races, it’s money out of my own pocket (usually I will go to races and whatever money I win will go to paying for the trip), I don’t stay in fancy hotels, I use public transport (which isn’t easy with a bike when travelling abroad) and I have spent many nights in airports to save money. Even to the point of tying my luggage to my feet so I can try to get some sleep without having anything stolen! I’ve been turned away every year for the last five years by the Triathlon governing body, telling me I am not good enough or I am too old to ever become a world class athlete. 

I’ve had to pick myself up many times, get on with it by myself with no coaching, medical, physical or financial support. But I have kept going, I’ve always had enough belief in my own ability to keep going and not give up, and to this day I am proud of that. One thing I have learnt is that if you start to lose the enjoyment, then something needs to change and you must try and work that out yourself because nobody else is going to tell you that. Only you know how you really feel.

Q. Finally Calum, athletics is not easy by any matters or means so what advice would you give to any youngster considering taking up sport.

A. I think foremost is that you are enjoying your athletics or whatever sport it is that your training and competing in. As a youngster, you really want to be doing more than just athletics that may include another sport, going to school and joining in after school clubs, socialising with your friends. Don’t sacrifice all those other things for just athletics. Don’t treat athletics as the only thing you care about or that matters. It’s ok to have a bad race, or a training session you’re not happy with. Take time to look after your body and enjoy going out for food or to the cinema with your mates. I have been there. Yes, I train a lot of hours now, and I commit most of my life to a sport but I certainly wasn’t doing that until most recently. Don’t let any setbacks (i.e. injuries, illnesses or even people telling you that you can’t do it or you aren’t good enough), stop you from working hard or trying to achieve your goals. Be patient, keep persevering and look after your health.

Q. Given your result at the National Cross-Country Championships, was the Inter-Counties result a bit of a disappointment? What were your thoughts following the race?

A. Yes, I was disappointed with the result at the Inter-Counties. I would have liked to have been more competitive at the front end of the race and really competing with the likes of Mahamed and Adam Hickey. The frustrating part was that I know I am capable of doing so, especially on a tough and muddy cross-country course. However, the two weeks post National and leading into the race had been far from ideal. I struggled to do any training after the National due to illness and then ended up in hospital the week before with abdominal issues and was unsure whether I would even race. However, I decided to race because I love cross-country but in hindsight it was probably not the best decision in terms of looking after my health! But these things you learn from and you get to know more about your body and how to deal with certain things. I still finished fifth and that is still way better than I have ever performed at this race which shows that despite everything, my fitness is in a good place. The North East team won the team title which did help lift my spirits and I was chuffed to see the title return to where it belongs, up in the North East.

Intercounties XC Senior Men

Thanks for your time Calum, 

Bill McGuirk

Follow Calum on Twitter @caaljohnson