Monday 29 March 2021

Good Friday Relays



THE year 1966 is stuck in most people’s memories as the year England won the World Cup at Wembley. However, a little closer to home history was also being made a few months earlier (April 8) when the first Elswick Harriers’ Good Friday Road Relays took place.

Now, the event is one of the most popular on the local athletics circuit and while this year’s event – as was last year’s – has been cancelled I thought I would delve back over the years into the 55-year pilgrimage to the West End of Newcastle.

The first running of the Relays saw straight races for colts, boys and youths with the senior men’s relay contesting two circuits of the Two Ball Lonnen, Fenham Hall Drive, Wingrove Road and Ponteland Road course.

That inaugural event attracted the cream of North East distance runners with Saltwell’s Bill Wilkinson posting the fastest time of the day of 15min 30secs followed by fellow internationals Jim Alder (Morpeth) 15:37; Brooks Mileson (Sunderland) 15:43; John Caine (Gateshead) 15:48; Maurice Benn (Heaton) 15:52 and John Hillen (Saltwell) 15:56.

Setting the scene in the younger age groups years later was a sprightly Steve Cram (Jarrow and Hebburn) who was to go on and set course records for colts (6:16), boys (10:48) and youths (10:25).

Following on a year later from the Relay’s opening gambit, the senior course was changed to include the Denton Bank incline with Hillen setting the standard for future years by posting the day’s quickest time of 10:18.

Since that day only six athletes, once again all internationals, managed to dip under 10 minutes with the host club’s Olympic silver medallist Mike McLeod quickest of them all with a 9:46 clocking in 1977. Brendan Foster (Gateshead) recorded 9:52 in 1979 while two years later multi World record holder, Cram, also ran 9:52. Morpeth’s Mark Hudspith, a regular Good Friday competitor, has a best of 9:54 while Geoff Turnbull (Gateshead) ran 9:56 and Sunderland’s Graham Smith posted 9:59.

In the year 2000 17-year-old Mo Farah, on a break to the region, even took to the city’s roads after being persuaded to run in a makeshift Hounslow team despite having just five minutes to warm up. His preparation may not have been perfect but he did manage to post the third fastest overall time of the day (10:23) behind Steve Hepples (Loftus) who recorded 10:14 and the promoting club’s David Anderson who clocked 10:15. However, Farah’s outing was to no avail as the team was disqualified for they had only three runners one of which ran two stages!

The first time senior women contested the Denton Bank course was in 1986 with victory going to another World record holder Jill Hunter of Blaydon Harriers in 12:07. In 1988 Darlington’s Joanne Scott ran 11:58. That time was subsequently bettered six years later by fellow Blaydon double Commonwealth Games champion Kirsty Wade who ran 11:53 in 1991. The Wales representative also won the following year (11:22) and in 1997 in 12:05 which, on that occasion, suggested the weather conditions had a bearing on proceedings.

Another three-time winner was Cramlington’s Shirley Griffiths who triumphed three years in a row. In 1994 Griffiths posted 12:09, the following year 11:37 and in 1996 12:06.

Like the majority of events on the public highway it was with great sadness that the Elswick Good Friday extravaganza would have to find a new venue due to the increased traffic on the roads. So, in 2003, the organising committee were fortunate in finding a new location at Newburn Business Park and while not as testing a course it has been extremely popular for all ages, especially for the all-conquering Morpeth Harriers senior men’s four-man relay squad who have come out on top no less than 13 times!

Since the move, course records have tumbled after the host club’s Ryan McLeod ran 10:27 in 2003. That time stood the test of time for four years until Morpeth’s Ian Hudspith recorded 10:18 in 2007. Five years later Hudspith’s team-mate Peter Newton ran 10:12. The following year the host club’s talented athlete Phil Hurst ran 10:08 then two years later he recorded 9:55, a time which still stands today and is the only sub 10-minute performance ever posted.

Elswick Harriers' Phil Hurst - course record holder

In the early days the senior women’s event continued as an individual race with Morpeth’s Dianne Henaghan going into the record books with the first victory on the new course in a time of 12:12. Five years later Olympic representative Aly Dixon, then competing for Chester-le-Street, recorded 12:10. However, a year later that time was blown away by fellow international Kate Avery (Shildon) who ran 11:52.

In 2012 the senior women’s event changed to a relay with another Olympian, Morpeth’s Laura Weightman, regularly using the competition as a prelude to her summer track aspirations.

During the second running (2013) Weightman recorded 11:23 which was equalled the following year by Birtley’s Lydia Turner. As a warm up for the Rio Olympics in 2016 where the Morpeth athlete made the final of the 1,500m, Weightman posted 11:08 then 12 months later ran 10:52, a record which still stands, and in 2019, the last time the event was run, posted 10:53.

Course record holder Laura Weightman

Over the years Elswick Good Friday Relays have produced some excellent competition and while, for the second year there will be no exodus to Newburn the Newcastle club, one of the oldest in the country, should be proud of their record and eagerly await 2022 when, hopefully, young and old will be able to descend on the banks of Tyne for a great day of athletics. 


*Prior to Elswick Harriers taking over the Good Friday running of the event, Benwell Harriers used to promote road races on that date. Although they were not functioning as a club at this point, they managed to host their last farewell in 1965.

**Thanks go to Alan Nendick and Frank Watson for providing much of the information used in the article 

***WHILE there may not be any competitive action at Newburn on Good Friday you can still participate in a make-believe virtual relay. It can be ‘run’ anytime between April 2 and April 9. It is a free-to-enter event but Elswick Harriers are using the format to raise funds towards the cost of a Defibrillator to ensure maximum safety at the club’s training sessions. For further information see the club’s website.

BANK TOP: Gateshead’s John Mills closing on the brow of Denton Bank on his way to winning the Elswick youths race in 1975

A STAR IS BORN: Steve Cram on his way to a colts course record in 1975

NOT THIS TIME MO: How the Chronicle reported the Elswick Good Friday Road Races in 2000

OFF YOU GO: Jarrow & Hebburn’s Vince Wilson set's off during the 1995 Good Friday Relays

NEARLY AT THE SUMMIT: Wallsend’s Peter Saint grits his teeth as he approaches the top of Denton Bank in the 1996 Elswick Good Friday Relays

Bernadette Caygill & Angie Foster battling up the hill in 1988.

Debbie Spoor 1987, aged 15. Coming down Netherby Drive to the finish

Martin Slater: Ah the days when you could race on the roads - mind once a year scaling this hill was enough.

NEHL general secretary Micky Baker, when he was younger & fitter.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this brilliant article. I lived around these events and I'm sure they inspired me to run.