Saucony English National cross-country Championships REPORT – Saturday 27th February, Roundhay Park, Leeds

The Saucony English National cross-country Championships staged its’ 134th edition in Roundhay Park, Leeds last weekend; where cold, muddy and hilly conditions greeted the nation’s best mud-larks in a thrilling days’ action of distance-running, writes Nicola Bamford.

Returning to the north Yorkshire city for the first time since 2004, the event witnessed plenty of surprises as well as results following the rule-book. Here are the pick of the day’s performances…

Senior men

Aldershot, Farnham and District’s Andy Vernon put in a dominating display to show his varied credentials, following a short yet impressive indoor season. The 24-year-old recently took the UK indoor 3,000m title in Sheffield and clocked the qualifying time for the World indoor Championships and his equally-impressive form on the country saw him improve on his bronze medal-winning run from last year, here in Roundhay Park.

To the fore of the field from the offset with Steve Vernon, Moumin Geele, Neilson Hall, Pete Riley and Ricky Stevenson, Vernon forged on with only Geele for company in the second half over the testing 12km route and showed a comfortable turn of speed in the final 800m to sprint away for his first senior national title, with a nine-second winning margin.

The victor revealed: “I’m been keeping up with the high mileage so the indoors has been a bonus for preparation to go to America this summer. I definitely came here to win – I thought I’d have the upper hand with my speed for the finish and in the end, I managed to cruise in, so now I’m hoping for another gold at the UK Inter-Counties (March 13th in Birmingham).”

Geele; the 23-year-old Somalian-born Newham and Essex Beagles runner, surprised the field to return to competition in such top form, after not competing since finishing second in the European trials last November.

Fifth in last year’s event, Geele said: “The race went off very slowly but it was very good for me. I’m very happy to get a medal. I’m going to Kenya for a month’s training tomorrow (Feb 28th) to prepare for the track season. I want to make the GB team for the 10,000m at the European Championships.”

Stockport’s 29-year-old Steve Vernon was hoping to cap off his fine comeback season since injury but following an untimely cold in the lead-up, he found himself on his own for much of the race as it progressed but still comfortably finished only ten-seconds adrift in third place, ahead of Neilson Hall and training partner, Pete Riley.

Runner-up last year and third in 2009, Vernon explained: “I didn’t feel great to be honest. I felt fast from the start but when Andy and Moumin went off at the first Hill 60, I just couldn’t go with it. I tried to battle back but couldn’t close the gap on my own. I’m disappointed but I ran as hard as I could and that was only good enough for third. I’d like to make the World cross so let’s see what happens.”

Senior women

Three-time European junior cross-country Champion and Olympic 1500m runner, Steph Twell collected her first senior national title with consummate ease. The 20-year-old AFD athlete followed up some fine performances on the European international circuit with an easy fifteen-second victory here.

Joined by Stevie Stockton, Faye Fullerton, Hatti Dean and Victoria Wilkinson for the first half of the race, Twell then stretched out in the latter stages to prevail over Stockton and Dean, respectively.

Twell said: “I’m thrilled to win my first senior national – it’s an amazing feeling and the support was great. I felt dominant and strong – I raced sensibly and started steadily to respect the course and my opposition so that worked for my advantage. I made a gap and stayed controlled through the mud and then got an added lift when I passed the AFD supporters. I want to win the Inter-Counties and make the World cross team.”

An equally-elated Stockton (20, Vale Royal AC) revealed: “That race was really unexpected. I’ve been saying for ages that I can’t manage 8km. I felt really rubbish this week with a cold so I had to really ease down on the training so I think that really helped. I took my time and felt really comfortable and came through strongly – I smiled all the way across the line, as it’s my first senior cross.”

Reigning champion Hatti Dean (28, Hallamshire Harriers) ran strongly for third place, following her victory in the Northern Championships; coming in five-seconds behind.

Dean said: “I’m really happy with my race – how I ran and how much I got out of myself. It was a really tough race and good to be involved with other girls running really well. It was good to race closely with Stevie and Faye and I’m looking forward to the Inter-Counties now.”

Junior men

European under-20 cross-country silver and bronze medallists, Nick Goolab and James Wilkinson went head to head over the 10km junior men’s event, with Belgrave’s 20-year-old Goolab; the 2009 winner, prevailing by sixteen-seconds.

Pulling clear of Wilkinson, Ronnie Sparke, Jonny Hay and Ben Norris, Goolab strode out to a 100m-lead at the half-way stage which he never relinquished.

After retaining his title, Goolab said: “My tactics were spot on and when I hit the front, I pushed it as hard as I could to make it hurt. I just managed to relax and open up a good gap and stretch out comfortably. I was looking at the trophy the other day and I realised only five people before me have managed to retain this title. It’s good to end my cross season and junior races on a high.”

Leeds AC’s nineteen-year-old Wilkinson; the Northern Champion revealed: “It went well but I was on my own for two of the three laps. I let Nick get away and I couldn’t catch him no matter how hard I tried. I am a bit disappointed but I still ran well. I didn’t run it smart. I’m hoping for top-15 in the senior race at the Inter-Counties.”

Six-seconds adrift in third-place was Notts AC’s 18-year-old Ben Norris: “I started steadily and I enjoyed it by working my way through. It was a proper cross-country course and great to get stuck in. I thought I may have gone off too steadily at first but I kept working my way through and had lots to give. I would have been satisfied with top-ten so I’m glad I’ve finally proved I can get a medal. Now I’d like to give the World trials a serious crack.”

Junior women

In the first edition of the Championships with the junior women separated from the under-17 category, Exeter’s Jo Harvey went one better than in 2008 to capture the title. The 20-year-old took a four-second victory over European under-20 cross-country bronze-medallist, Kate Avery.

Sprinting away from the 18-year-old Shildon AC athlete in the final 200m, Harvey said after contesting the 6km course: “I started really slow and stuck in the group and felt really good. It’s my last junior race so it’s nice to come back after injury and I hope to consolidate last years’ form in the Inter-Counties in two-weeks’ time.”

Avery; runner-up in 2009 also said: “It went very well but I just couldn’t close the gap near the end. I felt strong and was happy with my tactics. I hope to make top-6 in the trials but who knows, as there’s so many great girls.”

Another four-seconds separated silver from the bronze-medallist; Hannah Walker (18, Dacorum and Tring AC).

Under-17 men

Southern Champion, Richard Goodman blasted away to a thirty-four second victory over the 6km route in the under-17 men’s race. The 16-year-old Shaftesbury Barnet Harrier capitalised on his magnificent European trials under-20 win and fifth-place in the continental Championships at the end of last year with victory here; making up for second place in the 2009 event.

Running with Tom Curr (17, Stroud and District AC) for company for the first half of the race, third place went to Robbie Farnham-Rose (16, Tonbridge AC) – a mere one-second behind.

A satisfied Goodman explained: “It was a superb race. I really enjoyed it. I was so nervous before as there was so much pressure on me. Mostly I’ve been running as an under-20, like in the European trials and then Championships. I was thinking to myself, ‘do I want to get the train back down to London without the gold medal?’ so that really inspired me to kick on. That hill was really disgusting, it’s almost vertical. As they say, it sorts the boys from the men. My coach got my training bang on; 95% of my success is down to him. My main target in life is to run in the World cross-country so we’ll see how the trials go.”

Under-17 women

AFD’s 16-year-old Emelia Gorecka continued her imperative form to retain her under-17 women’s title and gain her third-consecutive national victory.

The Southern cross and World schools’ 3000m Champion sped over the 5km course to win by half a minute from team-mate Ruth Haynes (16) and Bedford and County’s Emily Wallbank (16) fifteen-seconds further back.

Gorecka revealed: “I really enjoyed it; it’s an awesome course. I felt great so kept pushing. I’m really lucky to be surrounded by such a great training group; it’s a fantastic set-up down there. I’m looking forward to the Inter-Counties and hopefully my training will help me there, but it’s more for experience, as I haven’t had much against the under-20’s. I don’t want to get my hopes up too high for making the junior GB team.

Under-15 boys

St Albans AC’s 15-year-old James McMurray prevailed by two-seconds in the 4.5km contest over Matthew McLaughlin (15, Shaftesbury Barnett Harriers) and Adam Howard (14, Oldham and Royton Harriers AC) six-seconds adrift in an exciting contest.

McMurray said: “It went well and to my plan. The start was quite fast but then we slowed for the hill but then I kept my speed until the finish. My main rivals were from the south today. I now want to keep fit for the English schools’ and Inter-Counties.”

Under-15 girls

Fifteen-year-old Jessica Judd (Chelmsford AC) created a 15m-lead on the first lap which she extended over the 4km event to improve on last year’s third-place by winning here.

The Southern Champion won by twenty-seven seconds from Winchester and District AC’s Rebecca Knapton (14) and Chelmsford’s fourteen-year-old Sophie Riches, who was two-seconds further back.

Judd said: “I kicked only a minute into the race then wondered whether I’d gone off too fast so I think I might have died. I knew it would be a tough race so thought I’d go off fast to get away. I really went for it. I hope to figure in the Inter-Counties and English schools next.”

Under-13 boys

Tonbridge AC’s thirteen-year-old George Duggan took the under-13 boy’s race by six-seconds from Jack Crabtree (13, East Cheshire) and Isle of Wight’s Tom Newnham (13); the Southern Champion coming home three-seconds adrift.

The winner revealed: “That was the hardest race of my life! It was an amazing race! I just tried to relax and stride out into the finish. My aim was top-five and today was my first time doing the nationals. Next, I’m doing the English schools and Inter-Counties.”

Under-13 girls

One of the most over-awed winners of the day was Bracknell AC’s eleven-year-old Hope Goddard. Fourteen in the Southern Championships and with an aim of finishing in the top-20, she started off in around 150th yet took the win by four-seconds.

Surrounded by her ecstatic mother and coach, Goddard; whose sister, Grace finished fourth, won from Northern winner, Bethany Donnelly (12, East Cheshire AC) and Becca Croft (12, WSEH); the Southern victor.

Goddard gasped: “I’m very happy. I just tried to catch up people and I kept my pace until I heard my coach and family shout when I had 200m to go so I sprinted.”