Sunderland Harriers go into the 114th North Eastern Counties Cross Country Championships with their biggest ever entry in the Senior Men’s and Women’s events at Alnwick.
A total of 35 Sunderland men and 11 women are included in the fields of 423 men and 254 women, which are well down on last year’s championship respective figures of 501 and 316 at Wrekenton.
While the North Eastern Harrier League continues to flourish by breaking all records for participation, the championship organisers will be disappointed at the senior numbers.
There can be many reasons why the entry is not what it should be, including Alnwick is not on the majority of club’s doorsteps and the word championship can put some runners off.
However, the day will be a celebration as it is 25 years since the first European Cross Country Championship was staged at Alnwick with the North Eastern Championships held alongside it.
And It was a good day for Sunderland Harriers as Brian Rushworth finished runner-up to Olympic steeplechaser, Gateshead Harrier Colin Walker, and the city club won the team race with Rushworth, Tim Field, Brian Bewick, Glenn Forster, Paul Taylor and Wayne Johnson, the team counters.
Rushworth went on to win a record-breaking 10 North Eastern Counties Championship titles, spanning from 1986 to 2000 in beating 1966 Commonwealth Marathon champion Jim Alder’s nine victories. Rushworth ran his last cross country race at Wrekenton in 2014 in the North Eastern Harrier League at the age of 52 before injury ended his athletics career.
The men’s team, who have won the championship 14 times with their last win coming in 2008, have a decent team turning out on the Alnwick Pastures on Saturday.
Team manager Jimmy Johnson said: “We have a good squad racing on Saturday and I expect them to be in contention for medals. Maybe Morpeth and Gateshead will be too strong for us, but there is three sets of medals up for grabs.
“We only have one doubt to the team in Michael Wilson, who has been suffering from shin splints and is still undecided on whether to run. But the rest of the team are fully focussed and looking forward to the challenge ahead.’’
They are Liam Taylor who makes his championship debut,, Steve Rankin, Andy Powell, Nathan Reed, Craig Gunn, Chris Jackson' and Michael Barker.
Both Gunn and Rankin were in good form at the weekend in clocking personal bests in parkruns. Gunn won at Silksworth in 16.38 and Rankin did likewise at Herrington Country Park with his time of 16.55.
Sunderland Harriers women, bronze medallists at Redcar two years ago, will be led by Gemma Frost and Jenna Wilkinson.
Houghton Harriers will be relying on their younger athletes to deliver their expected medals. The Under-17 Men’s team sees Will Bellamy and Henry Johnson in the chase for individual medals and team medals. Bellamy could be in a battle with Middlesbrough’s Archie Lowe for the battle for gold.
The rest of the Houghton team is Samuel Gibson, Chris Coulson, Luke Pye, Jack Seeney, Izaak Taylor.
Houghton’s Cameron Allan will go into the Junior Men’s race as one of the favourites to lift the individual title and he will take on Wallsend’s Sam Charlton, who won every title available to him last season.
The Houghton Under-17 women’s team of Laura Megan Greggs, Lydia James, Amy Leonard, Nicole Phillips, Anna Pigford, will also be looking to medal.
The first three finishers in the county championships will have automatic selection for North Eastern teams for the Inter Counties Championships at Loughborough on March 7. The Northern Championships on Saturday 25th January, 2020, at Camp Hill, Bedale, North Yorkshire, will indicate current form and teams will be selected the following day.
If athletes are unable to run the Northern’s, all other cross-country races will be taken into account, if the selectors are informed.
The Alnwick course is the same as one the used for the Harrier League but on a extended course that covers three laps of 4k. The women cover 8k with two laps of 4k.
There are non-championship races for Under-11 Boys’ and Under-11 Girls’ which start at 10.35 and 10.40 respectively.
The championship time-table is 11.00am -Under-13 boys, 11.15 - Under-13 Girls, 11.30 - Under-15 Boys, 11.45 Under -15 Girls, 12.00 - Under/17 Men, 12.20 - Under 17/20 Women, 12.45 - Under-20 Men, 1.15 - Senior Men, Senior Women, 14.10.
In the Middlesbrough Graded 5k, Bedford and County runner Chris Thornley, who trains with Sunderland Harriers, won in 16.15. Sunderland Harrier Steve McMahon was second (17.00) and Sean Mackie finished fourth 17.26.