THE TRIP to Thornley Hall Farm is usually accompanied with athletes asking ‘how muddy will the course be!’ However, on the occasion of the curtain-raiser – and the closure – of the North East cross-country campaign, they were met with a bone-hard circuit much to the surprise of all who ventured to the County Durham countryside to partake in the inaugural North Eastern Counties Cross-Country Relay Championships.
Thanks to landowner Jon Taylor’s generosity and the hard-working race organiser, Archie Jenkins, the event, under strict Covid conditions, went ahead smoothly after an immaculate minute silence held in honour of the death of Prince Philip.
No spectators were allowed at the farm with team managers permitted to watch the action unfold from a vantage point well away from the course as the appointed Covid officials made sure those that were fortunate to be in attendance were aware of what was expected of them. Thanks to the generosity of the region’s athletes a collection for the ManHealth Charity managed to raise a staggering £562.23.
There were five events on the programme – Masters Women (40+), Masters Men (40+), Senior Women, Senior Men and Under-20 Men - with limited entries accepted due to the latest Government and England Athletics’ restrictions with first leg runners spread out two-metres apart on an extended start line.
MASTERS WOMEN (3x3k Relay)
THE Master’s Women opened the day’s action and it was Tyne Bridge who came to the changeover point in first place ahead of 19 rivals thanks to Alison Dargie’s effort of 12min 14sec, a time which was to prove the overall best of the contest. North Shields Poly (Stephanie Dann) were 10 seconds adrift in second spot with Birtley (Lorna Graham) a further nine seconds back in third position.
On stage two the Poly moved into pole position with over a minute advantage thanks to the stages’ fastest time by Becky Coleman as Elswick improved from sixth (Joanne Brown) to second thanks to Felicity Smith. Tyne Bridge (Charlotte Carpenter) were now back in third. Going into the final stage the Poly had an advantage of nearly a minute-and-a-half as Alison Smith set off. However, it was Elvet Striders who proved to be their biggest rivals in the chase for the gold medals. The Durham team were back in eighth place (Anna Basu) on stage one and improved to sixth (Corrine Whaling) on the penultimate stage but still over two minutes adrift of the leaders. However, Anna Thompson quickly set about cutting back the deficit and while the Poly still held a significant advantage at the finish Thompson had reeled in everyone else as she posted the second quickest time of the day to see Elvet home to take the runners-up awards. Elswick, thanks to Andrea Banner, claimed the final podium place.
MASTERS MEN (3x3k Relay)
THE all-conquering Sunderland club continued to dominate NE masters events with a gun-to-tape victory though there were only 20 seconds in it at the end as Darlington claimed an exciting second place two seconds ahead of Elvet Striders.
Michael Barker had opened up the blue-vested Wearsiders’ account with the fastest overall time of 10:09 with Darlington (John Clifford) in second place 18 seconds adrift. Tyne Bridge (Cees Van Der Land) were a further five seconds back in third place after 38 teams had faced the starter. On stage two Sam Thurlbeck increased Sunderland’s advantage over Darlington (Paul Cook) while Michael Littlewood, with the stage’s quickest time, moved Elvet Striders up from fourth to second. Chris Jackson had the honour of contesting the glory leg for Sunderland and it was a comfortable outing as the battle for minor honours hotted up behind. It was Darlington who were to prevail in the chase for second place with Wesley Tarn’s fastest stage time being enough to edge out Elvet (Graeme Watt) by two seconds.
SENIOR WOMEN (3x3k Relay)
ELSWICK Harriers pulled out a master stroke by including over-40 athlete Judith Nutt in their team. Despite the long competitive lay-off, Amy Fuller carried over her excellent form to give Elswick the perfect start by posting the fastest time of the day on the opening leg, an advantage the Newcastle club held all the way to the finish. Gateshead (Gillian Manford) were in second place followed by Jesmond Joggers (Molly Pace).
On stage two the leading positions stayed the same with Nichola Conlon keeping the Newcastle outfit ahead despite Gateshead’s Katherine Downie cutting back the lead by 10 seconds. Jesmond (Emma Glover) were still in third place with Morpeth the biggest stage movers, improving from 12th (Lorna MacDonald, who battled on despite picking up an injury) to fourth thanks to Lindsey Quinn. On the final stage Elswick played their ace and it proved a winner. Despite the best efforts of her younger rivals Nutt’s experience proved to be a successful formula as she brought Elswick home 15 seconds clear of Gateshead (Katherine Downie) as Morpeth (Catriona MacDonald) moved into third place to claim the bronze awards. Quickest on the stage was Lydia Turner as she brought Birtley through from 13th to seventh.
SENIOR MEN (4x3k Relay)
THE expected rivalry between three of the region’s most successful clubs prevailed with victory going to Gateshead who finished ahead of Sunderland and Morpeth.
Sunderland were in pole position at the first changeover thanks to Michael Wilson’s 9:25 effort, a time which was to prove the second best of the day. Gateshead (Conrad Franks) were in second place 21 seconds adrift with Tyne Bridge (Michael Hedley) also 21 seconds behind in third place. Jordan Scott brought Morpeth home in fourth spot. On leg two Liam Taylor added valuable seconds to Sunderland’s lead as Tom Charlton moved Tyne Bridge ahead of Gateshead (James Cripwell). Things changed dramatically on the penultimate stage as Gateshead’s National Cross-Country champion Calum Johnson took over 39 seconds down on Sunderland’s Nathan Reed. Johnson, who honoured an agreement to turn out for the team despite being down to contest a road race, quickly cut back the deficit and when he came to the final changeover he had an advantage of 27 seconds after being the only competitor to dip under nine minutes with a 8:54 clocking. Adam Pratt moved Morpeth into third place as Tyne Bridge (Neil Eyes) slipped back to fifth behind Sunderland’s B team.
Despite new Sunderland recruit Stephen Jackson’s quickest efforts on the final leg the Wearsiders had to be content with the runners-up medals as Daniel Alexander continued to keep him at bay to bring the Tynesiders home with a 15-seconds advantage. Alistair Douglass brought Morpeth home in third place followed by Sunderland’s B team, Jarrow and Hebburn and Morpeth’s B team. After his eye-catching performance, Johnson said: ‘’I had agreed to run for the club weeks ago and it would have been unfair to drop out of the team. As it happens it also fitted better into my plans for my half-marathon debut in two weeks time. It means I can do a longer tempo run tomorrow as today was nice and short and not too taxing on the body.’’
UNDER-20 Men (3x3k Relay)
ONLY five teams from three of the region’s clubs faced the starter and it was a runaway victory for the Morpeth trio of Matthew Briggs, Rowan Bennett and Ross Charlton as Durham City finished second and their B team third. However, clubs could only be awarded one set of medals which resulted in Houghton being promoted into bronze medal position. What stood out in the event was the performance of Charlton who ran the last leg for Morpeth in a time of 9:38, a time bettered by only two athletes in the senior event!
Bill McGuirk is the North East's top athletics correspondent. NECAA Chairman and official, Bill can be found at all local athletics events supporting the sport he loves.