WRITTEN FOR ATHLETICS WEEKLY MAGAZINE
REPORT - McCain Liverpool Cross Challenge inc. European cross-country championship trials – Sat 27th November, Sefton Park, Liverpool
Four athletes gained revenge as well as prestigious GB vests on an epic day of thrillingly-close finishes.
In one of the few places in the UK to escape the snow, both senior winners and two medallists from the two under-20 races gained redemption in glorious, nail-biting style in Liverpool’s Sefton Park last Saturday, writes Nicola Bamford.
Senior men’s winner Andy Vernon bounced back from Commonwealth disappointment to clinch the 9.8km event whilst Louise Damen sped to a surprise senior women’s victory following two-years of injury woes.
John McDonnell meanwhile, answered the sceptics to capitalise on his fastest stage at the national cross-country relays a fortnight earlier by taking the under-20 men’s title, as Emelia Gorecka made up for missing the 2009 continental championships for being too young by placing runner-up to ensure not to miss out again.
Although the weather was cool and frosty underfoot, the day’s action was as hot as the destination every athlete wanted to be selected for – Portugal, for the European
cross-country Championships in a fortnights’ time.
Vernon prospers in tight call
In arguably the tightest race of the day for plane tickets, Aldershot’s Andy Vernon claimed the top spot by a mere second over under-23 contestant James Wilkinson of Leeds City AC.
Battling down the home straight like men possessed, Vernon, Wilkinson and Bedford’s Mark Draper fought to the line with every last gasp of breath to excite the crowds and book their automatic spots to Albufeira.
Evidently refreshed since finishing tenth in the Commonwealth 10,000m last month, the 24-year-old Vernon remained close to the head of the pack throughout the proceedings as the 26-year-old Draper stuck close.
With 800m to go, Vernon – only fifth here in the 2009 edition – strode out to create a one-metre advantage on Wilkinson and Draper before launching for the line to clinch the win in scintillating fashion by a single metre.
Twelfth in Dublin at last year’s European championships, Vernon revealed:
“It went pretty well, I’m pleased that I won. It went to plan and I wanted to make a statement by putting the boot down.
The guys were really strong as well and stuck on me but I tried to make it a true-run race and I wanted to test myself heading into the European’s.
I was used to being ahead of most of the Brits last year so I thought I’d get a bigger gap today so people have really stepped up. I’m really impressed with James - he’s one to look out for. I’d like to get into the top seven or even five in the Euro cross.”
Frustrated to lose the victory by such a close margin, 20-year-old Wilkinson remained gracious in defeat and looks set to improve on his third place from the under-20 event in Dublin, albeit in the under-23 category this time around.
The Birmingham University student explained:
“It went well and I knew no-one was beatable, I thought it (the win) was there but never mind. I surrounded myself with the experienced guys then kicked on from the lead group.”
Two-seconds adrift in third, Draper – who registered the fastest stage in Mansfield –
vastly improved on his sixteenth position from 2009 and showed a no-fear approach:
“I felt really good early on and I’m happy to make the team. I’m not the best at cross-country but I felt really fit and strong and dug in on the last lap. I wanted to give top-three a go. Portugal’s a bonus and I’m not scared of anyone, they’re all human so we’ll see what I can do.”
2009 national cross-country champion Tom Humphries returned to form, finishing fourth just ahead of 2008 European tenth-placer Frank Tickner, who has this season returned from an injury-plagued couple of years and Ryan McLeod, whose recent training stint at the UKA endurance camp in Kenya evidently helped him improve on eighteenth last year.
Runner-up in the under-23 category and eighth overall, New Marske Harrier’s Ricky Stevenson finished clear of third-placed Mitch Goose (City of Norwich) in eleventh overall to book their spots on the national squad for next month.
Fourth overall in 2009, the 22-year-old Stevenson hopes to now better his eighth position from Dublin:
“I took a gamble running off high mileage so I was running tired. I felt a bit sluggish but it’s a matter of toughing it out before easing down for the Euro’s. I’m not pleased but the job’s done and hopefully Portugal will suit me, being a track runner – I hope to challenge for a medal.”
Derek Hawkins, 2009 European silver-medallist Nick Goolab and Ashley Harrell completed the top six in the age group.
Glimpse of the past excites
Following almost two years of injury hell, 28-year-old Louise Damen returned to top the domestic battle for places at the championship where she finished a fine ninth two years ago.
The Winchester AC runner, who is self-coached concentrated on the roads during the early part of the winter, finishing a surprising seventh in the Bupa Great North Run
and stole the show here in equally surprising fashion.
With Steph Twell missing the trial to concentrate on training after being pre-selected for Portugal and Freya Murray on the sidelines with injury, the women’s 8.1km race was fairly wide open so two former GB pals decided to take advantage of the opportunity.
One place ahead in Brussels two years ago, Hatti Dean - who herself had been under the radar until the trials - relished the chance to battle it out with Damen once again, but the 28-year-old Hallamshire Harrier was no match for her rival on the final circuit, finishing fourteen-seconds adrift.
Charnwood’s Gemma Steel and Aldershot’s Emma Pallant, meanwhile, had the race of their lives to finish third and fifth, respectively – the latter claiming the top under-23 spot in one of the shocks of the day.
Commonwealth 3,000m steeplechase fourth-placer, Helen Clitheroe, 36, was an early leader and returned from Kenya to claim fourth whilst reigning European champion Hayley Yelling-HIgham failed to repeat her 2009 heroics as the 36-year-old conceded to a lack of race experience and a cold of late.
The winner meanwhile, explained:
“It (the win) means so much more as it’s my first cross-country race in 21-months. I split a tendon in my ankle last summer so I’ve been slaving away in the gym like a Trojan and the thought of this really kept me going – it’s given me such a buzz and a high.
I was conscious to sit back early on – I know I’ve got the endurance but my speed’s not as good. I’ve had so many great ding-dong’s with Hatti so it was really great to battle it out with her again. I hadn’t thought of the Euro’s and the course probably won’t be very much to my suiting but I’ll give it my best shot.”
Dean, the 2009 national champion and fourth in the European 3,000m steeplechase back in July, revealed:
“I think my taper and sharpening with a good group in Birmingham really brought me on. I went too early with Helen and Louise but it was good enough.
I got back from Kenya a month ago so I got a good base over there and the last month has gone well. I’m really excited about the European’s – my minimum would be top ten – I’m in as good shape from when I was eighth so I hope for top six.”
Keeping warm in the camper van she travelled in overnight, 25-year-old Steel showed the same vein of form that saw her whisk to a classy 53:44 10-mile best last month, as she collected her debut GB vest in third.
“I didn’t expect to get third – I hoped for top-six but kept fighting. I’m in shock, I stuck behind Hayley then the race panned out well. It’s my first GB vest and I just hope to see how the race (Euro’s) progresses.”
Better known as a track runner and middle-distance specialist, 21-year-old Pallant caused another surprise by sticking with the lead pack for much of the race and coming out on top of the under-23 pile.
She explained: “It went ok – I was pleased but didn’t finish as strong as I’d like but I made the team so that’s good. The last month’s been really encouraging – I’m finally pain and injury free, getting consistent training in so I hope to do really well (in the u23 race in Portugal).”
Behind her, 21-year-old duo Emily Pidgeon, the European 5,000m bronze-medallist and English u23 5,000m runner-up Elspeth Curran took the second and third automatic spots to come home clear of Sarah Waldron, Imogen Ainsworth and Lauren Howarth, respectively.
McDonnell no flash in the pan
Proving his fastest leg performance in Liverpool was no one-off, John McDonnell took control of the 6.7km junior men’s event when it mattered most – at the business end.
Based at St Mary’s University, the 19-year-old Luton athlete created fireworks in the finishing straight to once again conquer his rival Jonny Hay of Aldershot by three-seconds.
Derby’s 18-year-old Ben Connor - eighth in the U17 race last year - ran strongly for third after leading for much of the race with his team-mate Tom Bishop, who faded to eighth.
Pulling clear with a mile to go, the 18-year-old Hay was reeled in by McDonnell - who here vastly improved on his fifteenth position from the 2009 event - with 800m remaining to cause another upset.
Shocked and in his usual modest manner, the victor revealed:
“It feels good (to win) – I sat in the group to save energy then the confidence I got from Mansfield made me go for it. It worked out ok and I got my first GB vest – I just want to do the best I can.”
Applauded for his brave front-running tactics, Hay explained:
“I made a mistake in trying to break him too early but I needed to try it out and it backfired, but I got selection and the big one is in two week’s time.
I was ill a couple of weeks ago but training’s got better so I’ll focus hard on the Euro’s now. The medal’s been in my head since the last European’s but I tried to stay calm and relaxed today.”
Ryan Saunders, Robbie Farnham-Rose and Andy Combs completed the top-six.
Business as usual for AFD duo
As expected, Charlotte Purdue was a class apart in this 4.4km race, as the 19-year-old Aldershot runner bided her time before unleashing her usual dominating display to cruise to a 100m victory over her younger team-mate Emelia Gorecka, as AFD boasted an impressive four runners in the top six.
Following fourth and sixth-place in the 10,000m and 5,000m at the Commonwealth Games, Purdue sat in the leading pack for the first half of the race before kicking away with relative ease en route to her goal of a third-consecutive under-20 medal at the continental event.
Already with a silver and bronze to her name, Purdue explained:
“I wanted to put in a dominating display before the Euro’s and I’ve been training hard and I haven’t tapered for this race.
I didn’t want to go off too soon so I made my break decisive. I feel refreshed – I only started my track season in May after the knee operation. I’ve got a bronze and a silver medal so we’ll see what’s next.”
Sixteen-year-old Gorecka, meanwhile, made up for last year’s sweet yet sour episode with a commanding performance in her first major event as an under-20.
The prodigious youngster led the field on various occasions before explaining:
“I’m absolutely over the moon, as I know Charlie’s a class act so. I wasn’t sure of
my form as I had a virus and I had some problems but I gave it my best shot.
I put myself on the line and I’m looking forward to my first European’s. I’ll go out there with the same mentality and try to run strongly against those girls.”
Shildon’s 19-year-old European bronze-medallist Kate Avery showed the benefits of her Kenyan adventure by placing third ahead of Lily Partridge, Georgia Peel and Annabelle Gummow.
In the u17 category, Worchester AC’s Alice Wright and Chelmsford’s pre-race favourite Jessica Judd battled right to the wire to clock the same time, with Wright given the verdict.
The 16-year-old, in only her fourth season in the sport, surprised 15-year-old Judd - the quickest in Mansfield - as the Midland cross-country runner-up scored the finest victory of her young career to date.
Another to burst onto the domestic radar was third-placer Beth Swords.
Dixon follows the form-book
Despite placing only twentieth last year, Aldershot’s Harvey Dixon put the memory behind him to comfortably take the 5.5km event.
The 17-year-old English School’s cross-country champion finished fourteen-seconds clear of runner-up Grant Muir of Giffnock North and Windsor’s Bradley Goater in third.
Muir’s improvement was equally-impressive following seventeenth place in 2009, whilst 16-year-old Goater – fourth in the English 1500m championship - was the surprise package.
Younger Age Groups:
Oldham and Royton’s Adam Howard took the 3km under-15 boys’ race from Matt Shirling in a tight two-second finish, with Kyran Roberts in third.
The 2009 under-15 girls’ winner, Abbie Hetherington of Carlisle led until the half-way stage in this 3km event but conceded defeat to Aldershot’s Harriet Preedy in another two-second victory. Bronwen Owen was third a further second back.
In another tight finish, City of Norwich’s Ashley Waterson prospered in the under-13 boys’ event over George Butler and Samuel Elliot in this 3km race.
Again, over 3km, Blackburn’s Elizabeth Greenwood took a five-second under-13 girls’ victory over Elisabeth Hood of Poole AC. Sophie Tarver was third.