Rolling farmlands of Knowsley Safari Park may provide the natural habitat for Stockport’s ‘flying’ duo, writes Stephen Green
This Saturday is set to see Jess Coulson and Steve Vernon take to the rolling farmlands of Knowsley Safari Park for the Northern Cross-Country Championships.
Reigning European U23 champion Coulson is down to start the women’s race, with the winner of a bronze medal last year in Pontefract having been displaying imperious form all season, following her Euro victory with fourth in the Edinburgh International this month.
It will be difficult to see anyone challenging the Mick Woods-coached athlete, aiming for her first Northern title, over the 8km distance, should she decide to run.
Elle Baker, another Stockport athlete, was part of the Budapest bronze medal-winning team, as was Rosie Smith, so expect both to be in the leading pack.
Susan Partridge, the 2011 champion, was second last year behind surprise winner Lizzie Adams, who is not running on Saturday. Partridge leads a strong Leeds squad who are aiming to retain the team title.
Hatti Archer, another former champion, will be hoping to regain her superb form of 2011. Lauren Howarth, if running, should also feature. Jacqueline Fairchild may be an outside bet for a medal.
In the men’s race Steve Vernon will be aiming for his record fifth Northern cross country title. The absence of Euro Trials winner Jonathan Taylor makes for another repeat of last year’s thrilling race, with James Wilkinson, bronze medallist in the Euro Cross, versus Vernon.
Other contenders include Andy Wiles, Simon Horsfield, Pat Martin, Jonny Mellor and Olympic triathlon bronze medallist Jonny Brownlee.
Dave and Andy Norman will be looking to lead Altrincham’s defence of the team title with Leeds, Stockport and Liverpool expected to challenge for team honours.
In the U17 men’s race UK 1500m record-holder Matt Shirling will be determined to register a popular local victory. Jack Crabtree, fresh from a U17 indoor 3000m record this month in Sheffield, will be aiming to thwart him.
The U17’s women’s race sees European U20 fifth-placer Annabel Mason start as a favourite. Mark Shaw, last year’s U20 champion is entered, despite little recent form. If running, he will have a tough time defending his title, with rivals such as Charlie Hulson.
Jennifer Walsh is not entered to defend her U20 women’s title but contenders for the title include Georgia Taylor Brown, Hannah Tarver and Laura Riches.
In the Midlands James Walsh and Juliet Doyle will aim to mount successful defences of their respective senior titles when the Championships return to Stafford Common.
If Walsh were to stretch his victories to four in succession and seven in total since 2005, the Birmingham-born runner would get within touching distance of Jack Holden’s historic eight wins.
However the Leeds AC athlete is unlikely to be at his best because, “I missed a fair bit of training through illness over the Christmas period,” he says.
Medal contenders could include the South West champion Tom Merson and his Gloucestershire counterpart Tom Russell. Neither Phil Nicholls, who went down with a virus over New Year, nor Tom Humphries who will race for England in an indoor 3000m race in Austria after his plucky fourth place in the Bupa Great Edinburgh Run will face the starter.
The men’s team competition is likely to be keenly contested by the defending champions Notts AC, Tipton Harriers and Coventry Godiva.
Ten years after she won her first Midland senior cross-country title at Alton Towers, Charnwood AC’s Juliet Doyle will line up in the women’s race after convincingly winning the Nottinghamshire county title by more than a minute and a half. Similarly, Sian Edwards looked impressive in retaining her Northamptonshire crown.
Notts AC’s 34-year old marathon runner Amy Whitehead, who has the distinction of accomplishing a top 15 finish in the World Junior Cross-Country Championships, could feature in the medals having narrowly missed out last year; as could Gemma Steel providing she has recovered from a troublesome tendon injury. Veteran Claire Martin can also always be relied upon to run as hard as she can for as long as she is able.
In what may be her last ever race as a junior, Annabel Gummow is likely to start as the pre-race favourite but the Staffordshire
champion Kate Holt and Becky Straw, who won recently at Antrim, both have the pedigree to mount the medal podium.
Team Bath AC’s Alex Carter, who has previously won both the Midland under-15 and under-13 titles has the potential to add the under-17 title to his growing medal collection.
Unfortunately the South of England AA and City of London Corporation made the decision to cancel the South of England Cross Country Championships earlier this week, with the Parliament Hill event rescheduled for February 16.
» Read more about the wintery conditions causing calendar chaos in the January 24 issue of Athletics weekly, out now