Scoop up a bucket full of snow and dump a generous portion of iced mud into the mix. Allow the snow to thaw slightly, before giving it all a good stir. When it settles to the consistency of partly mixed concrete, but still has that “Slush Puppie” feel, stand both feet in it and stay there for up to an hour. If you chuck in a few hills and a gentle but piercing wind and you will have a general idea of the conditions faced at Knowsley Safari Park on Saturday for the Northern Cross Country Championships!
A heavy snowfall across the region on Friday night coupled with a jump in temperatures on Saturday resulted in a hideous mix of thawing snow on top of a well churned substrate of proper Northern mud! Secret hopes that the event would suffer the same fate as its southern equivalent last week were dashed by slick organisation and an army of volunteers who turned out to make sure the event went ahead. Andy Eccles was fielding a series of tentative text messages checking that the race was still on and no doubt issued the news that it still was with no shortage of glee.
Teams from all over the North of England had braved the conditions to travel to Knowsley. With such a significant fixture as the Northern Championship taking place only a couple of miles down the road, it would have been an embarrassment to the town if Wigan had failed to turn out a decent squad. A magnificent total of 23 runners from Harriers turned out, (16 Senior runners and 7 juniors), along with 2 stalwarts from Phoenix to make sure Wigan was well represented amongst the best in the North.
First to brave the frozen wastes of Knowsley were the U17 girls with Natalie and Danielle Thompson representing Harriers. The girls finished 76th and 85th respectively on the 5.3k course. Mid Lancs League regulars Kim Baptista and Alice Rowe flew the flag in the U13 girls race with Kim recording a very creditable 33rd from 145 finishers. Alice had a good run to come home in 94th. Harriers best result of the day was delivered by Nathan Dunn in the U13 boys race.
Nathan was up against some top class competition and did himself proud with a 15th place. Also showing good form was Scott Thompson with 79th from 125 runners. Rachel Sidebotham was our sole representative in the U15 girls event and came home in 100th place to round off a super showing from the Juniors.
Senior Ladies Start
The Senior Ladies warmed up as best they could in the arctic conditions. Alongside regulars Julie Plat and Jayne Taylor was Nina Fisher who chose a wonderfully tough race to mark her debut cross country with the club. At this point it seemed the ladies would be one short of a full squad until the appearance of Melanie Wayne. Melanie had arrived sensibly wrapped up for a day standing in the cold and loyally supporting husband Gary in the Men’s event. Unfortunately for her, a quick stock take of spare kit amongst the ladies had her pressed into service as 4th Team member. Within minutes of nervously agreeing to her cross country debut she was shivering on the start line in a Harriers vest still trying to figure out what happened!
Jayne Taylor lead the way for the ladies setting a fast pace in the early stages. It seems Jaynes’ tactic centred upon getting the pain over as quickly as possible! Looking strong in second place for Harriers was Julie Platt, followed by the two debut runners. Nina Fisher was boosted with words of encouragement from Dave Collins to which she cheerily replied. His support was then quickly qualified with the follow up: “If you can still talk you’re not trying hard enough”.
Next up was Melanie Wayne, still wondering how a day trip to the Safari Park had turned into a endurance slog through frozen slush. Melanie impressed us all not only with her team spirit but the fact that she still managed to run the race with a smile on her face!
Jayne stormed her way through to a 38:35 min finish for 75th overall. Upon returning to the Harriers tent she did little to boost the morale of the mens team with her declaration through chattering teeth that it was “horrendous, relentless and freezing” out on the course. Next to finish was Julie in a superb 89th place.
Julie had been holding a bit in reserve before realizing too late how close the finish was and felt she could have bettered her result had she pushed for the line a little earlier. Nina Fisher covered the 8k course in a fabulous 48:54 for 173rd and Melanie Wane completed the team with her 54:28 for 199th.
A cavalry charge of over 500 male competitors set off up the snowy hill to start the final race of the day. It was a steady start as so many runners tried to keep their footing in the now well churned icy mire. As things settled down over the first lap, almost all our runners reported that their first thoughts were of frozen feet and the seemingly real prospect of frostbite. Kevin Edwards summed it up when he said “you could have amputated my toes and I wouldn’t have felt a thing”.
Chris Smullen took the lead for Harriers closely followed by Mark Rogers as the race headed out into the country. Dave Collins and Chris Burgess followed. Chris had declared on facebook that he planned to “unleash the beast” on Saturday, but thankfully clarified this statement when questions of public decency were posed. Instead he decided to “let loose the Kraken” which may have given Dave Collins a bit of extra impetus to stay ahead in the early stages with a clearly unhinged Burgess having “Wrath of the Titans” delusions behind him.
Kevin Edwards and Andy Eccles came next. Andy hasn’t admitted as much but we all know how much he relishes these heavy conditions that most runners despise. Even Harriers own “Tough of the Track” didn’t get away unscathed though; Andy finished the day with a foot so badly frozen that the loss of feeling and nerves damage in his toes will last for at least a month according to the Doc: yes- it was that bad on Saturday!
Darren “Reaper” Middleton came next running a steady race in the mud and finding himself untroubled by fellow Harriers all the way round.
Darren Jackson is famed for his love of cross country and obviously couldn’t wait to make his return to racing after 6 months off and a knee operation. He set off at a rapid pace showing the speed is quickly coming back in his legs.
Following Darren were Graham Millington and Barry Abram who ran in formation for much of the race. Despite the shocking conditions there hadn’t been a hint of a Harriers man breaking ranks and kitting up beyond the customary vest and shorts, (and with no Mike Harris or Andy Kaufman in attendance – not a mention of the word “baselayer” either). However Mr Millington did flirt with disgrace by donning a pair of socks that were described as being “almost long enough to count as tights”.
Gary Wane almost won the day as the runner showing greatest dedication to the cause when he had to specially purchase his first ever pair of x-country spikes from the on-site vendor. Running with a dodgy ankle over such nasty terrain as well as forking out considerable funds for footwear would normally have earned him “man of the match” status. Unfortunately for Gary he had already been completely overshadowed by the efforts of Mrs Wane as previosuly documented. Get used to it Gary – its called married life.
Heading into Lap 2 there was no sign of the “good quality grassland” promised on the website with runners desperately looking to pick a firm line for some traction through the mush. In most cross country events there will be a section of gloop providing some heavy going. Experienced runners will moderate their effort through such sections and pick up the pace on the firmer sections. At Knowsley on Saturday the gloop was unremitting: the entire 12k was an ankle deep morass of slush with the grip of quicksand and little traction. As Chris Smullen reports, muscles that never normally come into play during a run were suddenly asked to perform heroics as each step forward involved a twist or a lurch or a stumble to stay upright. Chris isn’t the only one suffering aches and pains over 48 hours on.
At the front of the field Mark Rogers had overhauled Chris Smullen at the start of Lap 2 after the pair of them had battled it out throughout Lap 1. Mark then ran scared for the rest of the race, not daring to look over his shoulder with the expectation of seeing Chris poised to re-take top spot. That seemed to given him the drive to open a 1 minute gap by the end of the race at which point he discovered the heavy breathing and encroaching footsteps belonged to another runner and not Chris.
In 3rd and 4th for Harriers it was an epic and almost mythical battle between Captain Awesome and the Kraken himself. On this occasion Dave “Captain Awesome” Collins took his revenge on Chris “Krakpot” Burgess after losing out to a turbo charged Burgess at Hyndburn a few weeks earlier. After a series of stellar performances over recent weeks, Chris was happy to finish 14 seconds behind Dave in the end.
Kevin Edwards had only one target on Saturday and that was to complete the race without repeating his swan dive at Hyndburn a few weeks ago. For 3 laps he battled frozen feet and treacherous conditions but stayed upright all the way…. all the way to the final 100 yards where he face planted magnificently in front of the crowds assembled on the final run in. Kevin doesn’t take great comfort from the words of a Marshall who stifled his amusement to remark that, “you’d be amazed how many have done that today!”
Several runners admitted that if it hadn’t been for the team, and knowing that every runner over the line mattered they would have considered stepping off the course on Saturday. Andy Eccles’ commitment has never been in doubt, but running with feet so frozen that we now know he suffered lasting damage must have given even him cause to consider calling a halt to the whole daft process! Andy powered home as 6th man for the A Team and spent another half hour or so struggling to get his shoes off without the help of scissors!
Darren Middleton realized towards the end of lap 2 that he was in danger of being lapped by the incredible Steve Vernon of Stockport who was on his way to a 5th straight victory in this event. That prompted a sudden spurt of energy and the Reaper narrowly avoided being reaped himself. It does offer some insight to the talent of those at the front end of this race to see them close up and, in Chris Smullens words, “dancing over the surface like it was freshly cut grass on a summers day”.
Graham Millington got a closer view than most as he couldn’t avoid being lapped at the end of the 2nd circuit. Barry and Graham had overhauled Darren Jackson part way round Lap 1 and settled down to their own race for the next couple of miles. Barry edged in front shortly after the race leaders had passed them both, only for Graham to find a good line down the hill after the start straight and pull away a little.
Similar to Mark Rogers at the front of the race, albeit at a more sedate pace, Graham then “ran scared” expecting Barry to appear again at any moment, and not daring to glance behind to check. A final surge over the last mile saw him finish in front by 60 seconds dead.
They both then waited to cheer home Darren and Gary who had been locked together in their own struggle throughout the race. Darren was struggling with a lack of hill training after his long lay off and conceded his position to Gary on the drag uphill at the end of the second lap. Gary was finding it impossible to take advantage of the downhill sections due to his dodgy ankle and gave up his place in turn on the drop down towards the end of the loop.
It was Gary who eventually prevailed, putting his strength into the soggy climbs and making the best of those brand new spikes! For Darren this was a display of sheer grit and endurance and on a day when giving up would have been easily justified, he stuck it out to the end to finish just a minute behind.
Somewhere en route Harriers lost Steve Nicholls to a calf injury. Given the conditions it can be considered fortunate that the crocked runners list wasn’t a lot longer! Unfortunately this meant Harriers were one short of getting two complete senior mens teams across the line with the heroic B Team being just one short.
Back at the gazebo none of the ladies were offering their muffins this week, but despite the cold Julie still had some lovely donuts up for grabs. Mrs Wane then confirmed her claim for performance of the month by producing her own delicacies to the delight of everybody – and lovely scones they were too! Cross Country just doesn’t get harder than this.
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