Report – 2023 English National XC

Sarah Astin and James Kingston both took maiden National titles in the senior races on the Bolesworth Estate in Cheshire yesterday.
The 6000-acre site treated thousands of runners across the 10 races to a hard and fast course with a few undulations on a dry if slightly chilly day. The venue is well used to hosting spectacular events such as equestrianism and music, and the entertainment here at the 147-year-old championships was no less inspiring.

Both senior winners enjoyed a great advance on their showings in this event 12 months ago, although there were predictable wins further down the age groups from the likes of Innes Fitzgerald and Will Barnicoat. Astin, who was 13th last year, improved on her best of third in the National from 2015 by crossing the line in 29:28 — five seconds in front of Gemma Steel. Niamh Bridson-Hubbard was third in 29:43.

A group of around eight had edged away by 2km and this was down to four by the sixth kilometre. Lauren McNeil was the first to drop off, leaving Astin, Steel and Bridson-Hubbard to battle it out. At the end of the eighth kilometre, the eventual first two started to break away. Astin then led but was not able to pull away until the long finishing straight.
“I didn’t know who had the better kick,” Astin told AW afterwards. “We’re both fairly endurance-based. With 200m to go I had no idea who was going to get it. It’s probably the hardest I’ve ever finished.” The Belgrave Harrier intends to run the Trafford 10km next week before making the Night of the 10,000m PB her first big race of the track season.
For 37-year-old Steel this race represented another step back towards her best. The Charnwood athlete had won this event in 2014 — the year of her European Championships victory — and 2016.

Kingston, who was 15th last year in his first year as a senior, continued his excellent season by breaking the Saucony-branded tape in 36:01 in the last race of the day ahead of Jack Gray (36:07). Shaftesbury Barnet Harriers’ David Stone was third in 36:32.
A large lead group of around 12 were still intact after four of the twelve kilometres. By halfway, it was down to three — Southern champion Kingston, Midland champion Jack Gray and Leeds City’s Richard Allen. From here it was Kingston who did most of the leading as the two broke away, but Gray, with his distinctive running style, refused to let him go. There was still nothing in it with half a kilometre to go, but it was from that point that Kingston created the six-second gap.

Tonbridge Harrier Kingston, who said he had been hoping for a top-10 placing beforehand, said afterwards: “I just wanted to get myself in the race and see how it went. In the last 1500m, it started to be like ‘who’s going to get this?’ He tried to kick around the corners but, every time he kicked, I thought ‘I can stay with him. I’ve got this.’ When it came to that last straight, it was ‘just go.’”
Cambridge & Coleridge’s Gray, who was visibly delighted on crossing the line, had improved from 14th in this race last year and a best ever of sixth in 2019.
Barnicoat, who won the European junior title in December, ended an excellent cross-country season in his last race as an under-20 by finishing a massive 47 seconds clear in his 10km in a time of 31:40. Ben Brown of Southampton AC was second in 32:27 and Joe Ponter of Taunton AC third in 32:36.
For the Aldershot, Farnham & District athlete, it was a third National win in a row. He admitted he was confident beforehand of taking the win and just wanted to enjoy himself. He says he will be looking this summer to improve his times over 1500m and 5000m and take a medal at the European Athletics Under-23 Championships.

Bea Wood, competing in the National for the first time, prevailed by four seconds in 23:18 in the under-20 women’s 6km. Megan Gadsby (City of Norwich) was second and Lily Neate (Winchester & District) was next, another 10 seconds back.
The City of Salisbury athlete, who had been second and fourth respectively in the Milton Keynes and Liverpool legs of the British Athletics Cross Challenge this winter, pushed away up the final long incline. That was after a breakaway group of 10 went through the first of the two laps together. Wood will probably end her winter here and says she is hoping for a better track season after a few interrupted summers.
In the under-17 women’s race, Innes Fitzgerald took the biggest win of the day, crossing the line after 6km in 17:11 — 53 seconds in front of runner-up Zoe Gilbody (Wreake & Soar Valley). Rebecca Flaherty (Bingley Harriers) was third in 18:15. The Exeter Harrier, who was fourth at the European Cross in December, had been the biggest pre-race favourite of the day — especially being fresh after missing the World Cross Country Championships last weekend, turning down the place in Australia for environmental reasons.

Wolverhampton & Bilston’s Owen Ulfig came out on top of four a close four-way scrap down the finishing straight in the under-15 boys’ 6km, clocking 14:40. George Wilson (Cleethorpes), Matthew Drummond-Clark (Preston Harriers) and Noah Scott-Donkin (Hunts AC) were next in that order, each separated by a second on the official results.
Shaikira King improved from fourth last year to take gold in the under-15 4km. The Wreake & Sour Valley athlete, who won the Midland title last month, finished in 16:15. Eleven seconds behind was Isla McGowan (Banbury Harriers) with Lyla Belshaw (Colchester Harriers) third in 16:33.
In the under-13 girls’ 3km, Jorjia March (Barnet & District) stepped up from just seventh in the Southerns to take what was for her a surprise gold. After starting with ambitions of just a top-20 finish, she crossed the line in 10:59, two seconds in front of Kitty Scott (Aldershot, Farnham & District). Kara Gorman (Chiltern Harriers) was third in 11:05. In the boys’ equivalent, Thomas Thake (Hallamshire Harriers) finished 13 seconds clear of his rivals to continue his unbeaten 2023 and add to his Northern title. Last year’s runner-up was followed by Noah Homer (Wreake & Soar Valley) and Adrian White (Trafford), who was another 11 seconds behind.