Gerrard and Damen triumph at National Cross mudbath

Snowfall on the morning of the Saucony English National Cross Country Championships turned Sunderland’s Herrington Park into a quagmire

National Cross 2013

Keith Gerrard retained his English National cross-country title after a thrilling duel with Steve Vernon on a snow-covered, muddy-as-hell Herrington Country Park in Sunderland.

Twelve months earlier the Newham & Essex Beagles athlete had won his first National senior crown in unseasonably warm conditions at Parliament Hill in London. This time he was covered in mud from head to frozen toes after beating Stockport Harrier Vernon by just three seconds over 12km in the 126th edition of a senior men’s race watched on Saturday by local legends such as Steve Cram and Brendan Foster.

“When I won last year I don’t think I had a spot of mud on me at the finish but today was much tougher and probably the most hard-fought win of my life,” he said, after also weaving his way through lots of lapped runner as early as the second lap of three.

After leading for much of the race, Gerrard had to dig deeper than ever when Vernon held the advantage rising up the hill into the finishing straight. With both men exhausted, Gerrard had slightly more left after the thick, gluey mud had sapped both athletes’ legs of almost all their strength.

“Steve pushed me so hard,” Gerrard added. “We were kicking the hell out of each other for 12km. But in the last 200m something just got into me and I just managed to find enough to win. This was my trophy,” he grinned, “and I didn’t want to let anyone take it!”

Ironically, though, Gerrard had prepared for the race by training on largely firm trails at altitude in Albuquerque and he had flown into the UK only 48 hours before the event. “I did the same last year and it worked,” he said, “so I thought, why not try it again?”

Holding a senior men’s trophy engraved with legendary names such as Jack Holden, Ron Hill, Basil Heatley, Dave Bedford and Brendan Foster, he added: “I’m really pleased to have turned my form around as I had a really bad run at the Euro Cross in December (59th) and was about a minute behind Steve and the other Brits.”

Behind, Neilson Hall placed third, followed by Shaun Dixon, Daniel Garbutt, Mike Skinner, James Wilkinson and Jonny Taylor, while Morpeth Harriers scored a popular local victory as they took the team honours ahead of Leeds City AC. Dixon especially put in an eye-opening performance as he was only 174th three years ago and 61st in 2012 and he’s improving fast aged 30.

Louise Damen enjoyed a clearer margin of victory as she finished a minute ahead of Sonia Samuels, with 2012 winner Gemma Steel third. Revelling the muddy underfoot conditions, the Winchester & District athlete was perhaps the most dominant winner of the day, but has she ever faced such muddy conditions? “Maybe the Ostend world cross in 2001, when Paula won the women’s title and I was a junior – that was pretty muddy,” she said.

Muddy or firm, warm or cold, flat or hilly, you can guarantee Emelia Gorecka will master whatever conditions are thrown at her and she coasted to a remarkable seventh consecutive age-group victory when she beat Jenny Walsh by almost half-a-minute in the junior women’s race.

Coincidentally, Gorecka’s first National win came at the same Sunderland venue when the championships were last held here in 2007. Now, her immediate goal is to break up the African dominance at next month’s World Cross in Poland. “I was 23rd in Bydgoszcz in 2010 and 15th in Punta Umbria two years ago,” she said, all smiles after making light work of such tough conditions and a talented field of rivals.

It was also a tremendous day again for Gorecka’s club Aldershot, Farnham & District as their long trek north paid off as they took five team titles.

Gorecka’s victory was no huge surprise but there was a turn-up in the junior men’s race when Weynay Ghebresilasie finished only third in a race won in majestic fashion by Ian Bailey of Aldershot, Farnham & District from Michael Callegari of Shaftesbury Barnet.

After competing for Eritrea in the steeplechase in the Olympics, Ghebresilasie has become an asylum seeker in the UK and has been racing with Sunderland Harriers this winter. It is tempting to say the snowy conditions were alien to the east African-born runner, but he won the Northern title in similar underfoot conditions at Knowsley Safari Park last month and had also been training in Herrington Park in recent weeks.

However, he was said to be carrying a leg injury and has also perhaps not faced a runner as strong and determined as Bailey this winter as the Mick Woods-coached athlete, who turns 20 early next month, powered 25 seconds clear of his rivals.

Another surprise came in the under-15 girls’ race when Lucy Jones overturned more fancied opposition to win gold. Even the Charnwood athlete admitted she was only looking for, at best, a top five position. So the Leicester-based runner burst into tears of joy after beating Harriet Knowles-Jones of Warrington by six seconds.

Northern champion Dan Evans of Warrington won the under-15 boys’ race by 12 seconds as he beat Ben Dijkstra of Leicester Coritanian and Nathan Gibson of Aldershot.

Adam Howard was also impressive in the under-17 men’s race as the Oldham & Royton athlete strode to a four-second victory over Joe Steward of East Cheshire Harriers and Alex Carter of Team Bath AC.

Although they did not have it all their own way, it was generally a good day for northern athletes and this had started when Annabel Mason from Wakefield won the first race of the day, the under-17 women’s event, from Grace Baker and Alex Clay. Mason was wrapped up with a hat, gloves, long-sleeved top and tights, but she said the icy conditions didn’t bother her massively due to her northern fell-running background.

In the under-13 races, Thomas Kendrick of Tonbridge and Katy-Ann McDonald of Herne Hill Harriers emerged winners. Kendrick had finished fourth in the rescheduled South of England Championships at Parliament Hill seven days earlier, while McDonald chose to keep her legs fresh for the Sunderland event.

» Results see here.

» See the February 28 issue of Athletics Weekly for 10 pages of reports, photographs, results and news from the 2013 Saucony English National Cross Country Champs.


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