European cross-country trials, Sefton Park, Liverpool

The crème de la crème of Britain’s best mud-larks descended on Liverpool’s Sefton Park last Saturday, with aspirations of securing national selection for next month’s European cross-country Championships in Dublin and running for England in Brussels, writes Nicola Bamford.

The most impressive and surprising performance of the day came in the senior women’s race; as former European cross-country bronze-medallist, Hayley Yelling came out of retirement to storm to a comfortable and majestic victory.

The 35-year-old Windsor, Slough, Eton and Hounslow UK cross legend stole the show after only three-weeks’ intensive training and was equally as shocked as the spectators; “Maybe relaxing is the way forward! I had no pressure so I just wanted to enjoy running really. I didn’t expect to do well so it’s a bit of a shock. I’m really happy so just want to keep enjoying it and put no pressure on myself.”

With triple European junior cross-country Champion and hot favourite for senior gold; Steph Twell (20, Aldershot, Farnham and District) missing the event on medical advice – although pre-selected for the continental Championships – it was Chester le Street’s Freya Murray who many had their eye on for an expectant win.

The 26-year-old Scot who lives in England put in a sterling effort to cope with Yelling’s determined endeavour from the gun and the BUPA Great Yorkshire and Capital international run winner this autumn did well to keep the winning advantage down.

21-year-old Woodford Green with Essex Ladies athlete; Jessica Sparke performed superbly to finish third overall and first under23. Runner-up on times in the English cross-country relays, she said; “I felt pretty strong the whole way. I was a bit disappointed I let the front two women go but I’m definitely pleased. In Dublin, my aim’s to go and run hard and hopefully get into the top-10.”

Bedford County’s 24-year-old Katrina Wootton capitalised on her fine 9th place in the Great South Run with third place in the senior category.

In the absence of European Cross-Country silver-medallist; Mo Farah – who is currently preparing for Dublin with a six-week stint of altitude training in Kenya, recent Gateshead cross international winner when representing England, Mike Skinner provided a thrilling victory in the senior men’s event.

The 30-year-old Blackheath and Bromley runner – quickest in the cross relays in Mansfield last month – dominated the leading pack for the entire race before unleashing a devastating finishing kick to break training partner; Ben Whitby.

Skinner revealed; “I tried to settle into a nice rhythm in the middle of the leading pack then found myself quite comfortable in the top-three. I was surprised how strong I felt on the home straight; it was quite muddy but I had the strength to keep kicking. I’m on about 100-miles per week at the moment and I’m really fortunate to have a great training group of guys – they bring out the best in you.”

Closely behind 32-year-old WSEH athlete; Whitby, was Newham and Essex Beagles’ 23-year-old Moumin Geele. The BUPA Great Yorkshire 10km runner-up however, does not hold a full UK passport despite being a UK resident; leaving the third automatic selection spot to Aldershot’s Andy Vernon; the 2008 European under23 cross-country silver-medallist.

In the under23 women’s race, Holly Rowland and Stevie Stockton took the second and third automatic spots; behind Sparke. Rowland – 21 representing Norwich – was 7th quickest senior in Mansfield and Stockton – 20 from Vale Royal AC – was 7th senior in the Gateshead international recently.

Rowland said; “I think I went off too fast so I was dying in the second half of the race, so I’m so pleased I managed to stay there. It’s such a bonus to go to Dublin.”

Akin to Sparke, under23 Ricky Stevenson made a big splash in the senior race. The 21-year-old New Marske Harrier followed up his impressive Gateshead 2km victory and long-course fourth-place by replicating the latter position in the senior event and said; “As a track runner, I don’t really like the mud but when I got into it, I felt really strong and enjoyed it all the way around until the end. Hopefully I’ll get a medal in Dublin.”

22-year-old Lewis Timmins (Gosforth) and 20-year-old Norwich runner; Ashley Harrell took the second and third spot, respectively.

Further proving that age is no barrier; two under17 athletes took the under20 events. With reigning European junior cross silver-medallist; Charlotte Purdue (18, AFD) missing the event – but like Twell, also having been pre-selected for Dublin – club-mate; Emelia Gorecka took advantage.

The 15-year-old; who was fastest in Mansfield, performed brilliantly to upstage her older contemporaries and shock even herself; “I tried to give it my all. I’ve been ill all week so I just wanted to see how I could run. I didn’t think I’d win it at all! I felt a bit down still with my cold but I just got stuck in, that’s all you can do. I’m going to the World School’s next week so I can’t wait for that.”

First under20 was Shildon’s 18-year-old Kate Avery; little surprise following her Birmingham cross-country win and Gateshead second-spot, whilst 19-year-old Stockport Harrier; Jess Coulson made a superb return from two injury-ravaged years to claim the runner-up place. With Gorecka too young for selection, Victoria Park’s 17-year-old; Beth Potter gained her chance for an automatic GB&NI vest.

Avery said; “The race went really well but I didn’t think the mud would be as bad as it was. I just want to see how I go in Dublin.”

Coulson added; “The race went off like a rocket so I just settled in on the first lap and started to come forward. The finish was so muddy and really much longer than you think it is. Coming into the race, I was feeling good but the finish was so hard. It’s great to be running after 2-years of running so I’m looking forward to Dublin and the banter.”

The happiest winner of the day was another unexpected victory; as 16-year-old Richard Goodman overcame the shock and desperation of realising his missing front number just before the starting gun, to steal the under20 show. Fastest junior in Mansfield, Goodman evidently used the fast-pumping adrenaline to good effect. He said; “These lads are so much older than me and I haven’t raced for 4-weeks. Training’s been solid and I’ve stepped my mileage up to sixty-miles per week. Training’s been amazing and this week, I’ve just been relaxed – took a day off school (don’t tell my teachers!) and I just believed I could win. I was crying on my way up that last hill. I look up to these lads so to beat them…”

Leeds City AC’s 19-year-old James Wilkinson - quickest in Mansfield and third in Gateshead, another who represented England that day – took the under20 title ahead of Aldershot’s 17-year-old Jonathan Hay (the Gateshead winner).

Six athletes from each age group (U20, U23 and senior) will represent GB&NI at the European Cross Country Championships in Dublin and full teams will be announced on Tuesday 1 December. While the England, Team Managers will select there Teams when they see how the GB&NI Teams shape up.

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