Thursday 24 February 2022




THE first ‘National’, held in 1876 at Buckhirst Hill, saw just 32 competitors and the race was declared void due to every runner going off course.

Things have moved on a bit since then and on Saturday with 10 events on the programme the English Cross-Country Association has received over 8,400 entries, with the senior men’s 12k race boasting over 3,000 alone.

And, despite the 600-mile round trip to London, the North East is well represented having athletes in all races and well over 200 from the region lining up in the senior men’s contest.

And it’s pleasing to see that it’s not just the region’s more established clubs who will be on the start line from the youngest under-13 races to senior/vet men and women.

While Morpeth look as though they have a strong senior representation (14) the likes of Sunderland, Tyne Bridge, who have a host of youngsters going for the experience, and Wallsend, all have 10 entries while Houghton and Low Fell have seven.

The opening hill @ Parliament Hill

Of course, the attraction for many is the fact that this time round – it was cancelled last year due to Covid – the National is once again being held at its spiritual home at Parliament Hill and if anyone hasn’t witnessed the charge up the hill from the start then try and pencil it in when the championships return in three years’ time for you experience the ground move under your feet!

To win the ‘National’ is a wonderful achievement and the North East has boasted a number of senior men champions over the years.

Saltwell Harrier Jack Potts
J A Burns & J H Potts

Saltwell’s Jack Potts got the ball rolling in 1931 and the following year it was the turn of fellow Olympian Alex Burns (Elswick) to claim victory. Potts won again in 1936 and after the intervening War years, the region had to wait until 1977 when Gateshead’s Brendan Foster scored a superb victory at Parliament Hill. 

1977 National: Leaders after 3 miles Mike McLeod (Elswick Harriers), Brendan Foster (Gateshead Harriers), Dave Black - obscured (Small Heath Harriers), Tony Simmons (Luton United Harriers) and Bernie Ford (AFD)  pic credit - Peter Tempest

Brendan wins in '77, photo credit Mark Shearman

Two years later it was Elswick’s Mike McLeod’s turn to claim the gold medal. 

Mike McLeod in the '79 English National

The region had to wait another 22 years for its next champion which was former Chester-le-Street athlete Michael Openshaw, who was running in the colours of Midlands outfit Birchfield. 

Michael Openshaw

And while he has decided to forego defending his title this weekend, Gateshead’s Calum Johnson is the last name etched on the trophy after claiming victory at Nottingham in 2020.

Calum Johnson by Gary Mitchell

Naturally, the senior men’s race is the Blue Riband event of the Championships but the region can boast numerous individual and team winners in the junior contests so come Saturday evening all those who have graced the Hampstead Heath course can travel home safely and with a smile on their face. As Max Boyce proudly proclaimed: ‘And I Was There!’ as I will.



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