ON THIS DAY FEBRUARY 24, 2001 Michael Openshaw was crowned National Cross-Country champion roared on by huge local crowd at Maiden Castle, Durham City
The superb victory by the Chester-le-Street-based athlete came out of the blue as pre-race media attention never gave him a mention possibly due to the fact that he was a doubtful starter plus the fact that he missed out on a place in the GB&NI team for the World Cross after finishing 10th in the Trials at the Inter-Counties at Wollaton Park, Nottingham three weeks earlier. So, for us who were there that day, it came as a huge surprise to spot Openshaw an hour or so before the off warming up as the rest of the championship programme unfolded.
I managed to catch up with Michael earlier this week and after jogging his memory of this time 20 years ago he vividly remembered the day that turned out to be the springboard to the best year of his athletics career.
“Despite the National being held so close to home it wasn’t in my plans to run after the disappointment of not making the team for the World XC Championships,” confessed Openshaw. “At Wollaton Park I could have opted to run the short course (4k) Trial but decided to take my chance over the longer distance which, unfortunately, didn’t quite work out the way I had hoped. “In the early stages I was feeling really comfortable in the leading group but for some reason got into a verbal confrontation with another athlete which resulted in me shooting to the front and forcing the pace on. “That rush of blood probably proved to be my downfall for in the end I slipped back down the field to finish 10th just over a minute adrift of Glynn Tromans.”
By now Openshaw had left his home-town club and linked up with Midlands-based outfit Birchfield Harriers but at Nottingham, which was also the Inter-Counties Championships, he was a member of the winning North Eastern Counties team which was led home on that occasion by Dominic Bannister who had finished in third place. On all accounts on returning home Openshaw’s cross-country campaign was over especially as fixtures in March were cancelled up and down the country due to the foot and mouth disease. However, all things changed dramatically on February 24 when Openshaw made his intentions to contest his first-ever National as a senior.
“I didn’t have the motivation to do any serious training after the Trials as there didn’t seem any reason as I certainly had no plans of running the National at that point,” added Openshaw.
“However, on the morning of the race, literally four or so hours before it was due to start I rang Gordon (Surtees, his coach), who was on a train, and I said rather than go for that 10-mile training run which was what I had originally planned to do, I fancy giving the National a go and I think he said OK then so that was that and I started to gather my gear together before heading over to Durham."
“One thing certain I didn’t have any pre-race nerves and I just thought to myself go out and enjoy myself and that’s what I did. The race itself turned out to be what I had expected and surprisingly, despite the lack of training, I felt comfortable as the likes of Keith Cullen, who had finished second in the Trials, and Rob Denmark (formerly of Gateshead Harriers) pushed on at the head of affairs as I settled in the main group just behind.
“By half-way Cullen had opened up a slight lead as the bunch behind began to break up but I was still going along nicely at that point. With just over a lap to go I managed to reel Cullen in and ran with him for a short period then, for some unknown reason, he just stepped off the course, whether he felt he should save himself for the forthcoming World Championships or whatever left me bewildered."
"I certainly didn’t want to be left in the front with over a mile still to go it just wasn’t my way especially after what happened in the Trials. Luckily, Sam Haughian - who went on to win the National in 2002 but tragically died in a car crash in 2004 - managed to join me and we were stride-for-stride entering the closing stages."
“My confidence grew the closer we got to the finish for I sensed everyone lining the course was rooting for me and was banking on my track speed would to come into play and that’s the way it panned out as I went for home with around 200 metres to go and, thankfully, managed to get the gap before crossing the finish line."
In a way I supposed I surprised myself but not as much as it did to my old friend Jim Colpitts who was officiating at the finish. He was manning the ropes that day and the sight of me charging down the home straight caught him out so much so that he managed to drop the rope just as I crossed the line!"
It was a great feeling going up to receive the trophy with many people staying behind for the presentation and giving me a huge cheer. Being a local it was possibly the loudest of the day.
“Looking at the names on the trophy certainly gave me a proud feeling especially five or so hours earlier I wasn’t even going to run!’’
After missing out on a place for the Sydney Olympics the year before Openshaw’s target for the rest of 2001 was gaining selection for the August IAAF World Championships which were scheduled for Edmonton, Canada. However, for that to happen he had to run sub 13min 25sec 5,000m, a qualifying time over eight seconds quicker than his lifetime best of 13:33.26 which he recorded in Milan in June. Openshaw was in a quandary, should he line up in the Trials in Birmingham or should he take a chance and go to Heusden, northern Belgium where a high-class field was assembled.
“It was a huge decision to make and extremely difficult. By missing the Trials would the selectors take it as a slant against them but on the other hand endurance races at the Trials are usually slow-run so even if I managed to have won there would be a good chance it wouldn’t be quick enough “So, I made the decision to go to Belgium with the hope that I could get the time required and that no-one managed it at the Trials. In the end the Trials were won in 13:52.72 while I managed to just get under the figures required by running a huge personal best of 13:24.44 even though I could only finish 15th in the race."
“It was a huge relief to know that I had made the right decision though I still had an anxious wait before the selectors got in touch to say I was in the team. Big decisions seemed to be the order of the day for me during 2001 but thankfully the one to run the National at the last moment and the one to go to Belgium instead of lining up in the Trials certainly were ones to be pleased with.’’
Unfortunately, for Openshaw, who was the only British male endurance athlete to make it to Canada, he couldn’t quite repeat his Belgium exploits in the World Championships where he was eliminated in the heats after clocking one of his slowest ever 5,000m times of 14:00:84.
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.