Steve Vernon: King of the hill

AW caught up with Steve Vernon, a new breed of runner who successfully combines cross country and mountain running

Posted on October 23, 2013 by
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Steve Vernon

Gone are the days when distance runners were expected to spend winter on the cross country circuit before automatically moving on to the track and then, in the twilight of their career, the marathon. Modern runners are making up their own rules, with many athletes heading straight into the marathon – or even ultra-marathons – at an early age. Some track specialists ignore the country and road completely and are happy running around in circles on the indoor and outdoor track meetings.

Then there are off-road runners like Steve Vernon, who split their year into two sections – winter on the country and summer on the mountain running circuit.

For Vernon, some of this has happened out of necessity rather than choice. A long-term injury problem caused his legs to cramp up when he ran at a sustained pace on even surfaces. This scuppered his track and road racing ambitions, including dreams of racing the Olympic marathon. Even some of his cross-country races have been ruined if the course is flat and firm.

Yet instead of sulking at what he cannot do, the gritty northern runner has got his head down in recent years and now enjoys a split-season approach where he targets the Euro or World Cross in the winter and either the European or World Mountain Running Championships in the summer.

“I used to treat it (mountain running) as secondary to cross country and then Jonathan Wyatt (six-time world mountain running champion) said I could be quite good at it if I stopped messing around with it and took it more seriously,” he says.

Despite coming off his mountain bike recently and facing a race against time to be fit for the British trials in late November for the European Cross Country Championships in Belgrade the following month, Vernon is looking forward to another successful year in 2014 both on the country and in the mountains.

In January, he will attempt to win an unprecedented sixth North of England cross country title. In February and March he hopes to be battling for victory at the National Cross or Inter-Counties, or both. Then, in the summer, his major target is the World Mountain Running Championships in Italy.

All of which follows a pleasing past 12 months that includes 10th place in the Euro Cross in Budapest last December, his fifth Northern cross country title at Knowsley Safari Park, a close second place to Keith Gerrard in a vintage National Cross head to head in snowy Sunderland, plus fifth place at the European Mountain Running Championships in Bulgaria in July.

“I’ve had a great year,” he agrees. “At the European Mountain Running Champs I was very pleased to finish fifth. Tenth place in the European Cross Country Championships last December was fantastic.

“I won my fifth North of England cross country title and while I was beaten by Keith Gerrard in the National Cross, it was my seventh individual medal at the National and I’m wondering if that might possibly be a record.”

AW sees that Eighties icon Dave Clarke also won seven medals. But given that the National Cross began in 1876 and the names of minor medallists are not easily found (AW ’only’ started in 1945!) it is difficult to work out if anyone has beaten Vernon’s and Clarke’s tally.

And of course, it could well soon become eight in February next year as Vernon looks to repeat the form that brought him National gold at Alton Towers in 2011.

» This is an extract from a four-page feature on Steve Vernon published in the October 17 issue of AW which is available here or digitally here

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