Sunderland Harriers go into the North East Road Relay Championships in defence of the Royal Signals trophy at Hetton Lyons Country Park on Saturday.
The popular relay is known as the Signals Relay after the Royal Corps of Signals, who were affiliated to the Association and based at Catterick, presented a trophy to the North Eastern Counties AA in 1927 – and the trophy is still in use to this day.
Last year Sunderland won the main event of the championship, the senior men’s six-stage relay over legs of 2.22m for the first time since 2007, after a neck and neck tussle with holders Morpeth Harriers.
Not to be outdone, the club’s Over-40 team and the Over-50 teams scored emphatic wins in their events to become the first club to win all three events.
Team manager Jimmy Johnson said: “It will be hard to match that superb performance. We have an injury problem to one of our runners so I don’t know yet what the senior team will be.
“Andy Powell suffered a groin injury after he won the North East Veterans Cross Country title last week and is unsure if he will be fit enough to compete. Club captain Nathan Reed is waiting in the wings in case he is needed.’’
Last year it was Michael Wilson that led off for the Wearsiders and he recorded the club’s fastest time of 10.56 on the first leg. This time he runs the anchor stage in having his first race since July after suffering from shin splints.
The rest of the team will be Steve Rankin, Liam Taylor, Craig Gunn, Michael Barker, Andy Powell or Nathan Reed.
The club have four teams entered and if Reed is needed for the A team. The B team will be Michael Laws, Michael Edwards, Ian Ritchie, Sean Mackie, Mark Smith and Kris Cantle.
The Sunderland Over-40s also defeated Morpeth in 2019, to easily win their category. This time they will be relying on Steve McMahon, Steve Potts, Paul Blakey, Steve Gordon, Graeme Pullan and Martin Blenkinsopp.
The Over 50s beat North Shields Poly to win their title last year in again winning by a big margin to add to the Sunderland medal haul.
The four-stage relay team will be selected from Tim Field, Michael Thompson, Paul Merrison, Paul Collins and Darren Fletcher.
The improving Houghton Harriers senior team will be looking for another good performance after finishing third last year in winning their first ever medals in the senior men’s and senior women’s relays.
After Cameron Allan had led the way on the first leg with the second quickest time overall, Lee Dover, Johnny Evans, Rory Graham, Chris Coulson and Will Bellamy, ensured the clubs first medals.
And the Houghton women’s team took well deserved silver medals, behind Morpeth, through Eva Hardie, Lara Greggs, Nicole Phillips and Anna Pigford.
Olympian Alyson Dixon, just back from four weeks high altitude training in Iten, Kenya, is expected to compete in the Sunderland Strollers team. She is targeting the Tokyo marathon on the 1st of March and at the age of 41, it will be interesting to see what time she achieves.
She often uses the signals relay to gauge her form before a major marathon and this time instead of London it is Tokyo. She will be joined on her trip to Japan by clubmate and Over-50 Wendy Chapman, a leading national veteran endurance runner.
At the age of 37, Dixon smashed the veteran women’s over-35 Signals course record and it still stands today.
Signals course records:
Senior men – Morpeth 65.00, 2017 - leg Ricky Stevenson (New Marske) 10.09, 2012.
Veterans 40 – Sunderland Harriers 71.12, 2010 - leg Guy Bracken (NSP) 11.02, 2013.
Veterans 50 – NSP 49.37, 2018 - leg Guy Bracken (NSP) 11.09, 201.Women – Chester-le-Street 49.12, 2010 - leg Laura Weightman (Morpeth) 11.22, 2014.
Veterans – NSP 55:06 – 2016 - leg Alyson Dixon 11:33, 2016.
The timetable is: 12.00 – Women and Over-50 Men’s Four Stage Relay. 1.15 - Senior Men and Over-40 Veterans Six Stage Relay.