Twelve months ago we were handing out plaudits to the brave band of Harriers who endured 5 inch deep frozen slush on their circumnavigation of Knowsley Safari Park. The 2013 Northern Cross Country Championships have gone down in folklore with tales of frost-bitten finishers and frozen runners. With a frost free Winter so far we were looking forward to more benign running conditions at this years event. A bit of rain was forecast for ther afternoon but this wasnt expected to trouble the hardened veterans of the 2013 campaign. How wrong were!
Last year it was snow, but this year we wouldn’t have been surprised to see the Safari Park residents lining up two by two for a short trip aboard the Ark as rainfall of biblical proportions greeted runners assembling from across the north of England. Gusts of up to 50mph saw many of the early arrivals in the tent village blasted flat, and the Start Fitness tent apeared to lost its roof at some point.
Our junior runners didnt even have the sanctuary of the tent to shiver inside. Jack Dee Ingham did himself and the club proud with a fantastic race for 5th place in the U13 boys event. We are in danger of getting accustomed to seeing quality performances from Jack, but it is worth considering the context of his run in the best field of cross country runners in the North of England. His 11:38 was just 19 seconds behind the winner. Also doing us proud in the U13 event was Scott Thompson who had a blistering run for 67th from 161 runners in 12:58.
Next out, and just in time for the worst squall of the day were the U15 girls who were greeted with gale force gusts and a horrendous downpour. Alice Rowe was the first to head for shelter after crossing the line in 18:27 for 87th overall, chased all the way by Rachel Sidebotham in 19:31. Emma Wheatley posted an impressive 20:09 as 3rd Harrier home. All 3 girls deserve huge credit for continuing to compete in conditions that reduced some juniors to tears.
Wigan was represented in the U17 ladies event by Danielle Thompson who came home in 24:32 for a fine 63rd place. Our final junior runner Natalie Thompson was our sole representative in the Junior Ladies race with a 30:05
The Senior runners valiantly fought to erect our battle weary tent against a decidedly unco-operative gale force wind and finally provide some shelter. Darren Jackson was prised out of the Bird House where he had been practising his impression of a foil wrapped oven ready Turkey, still emphatically declaring that he would not be running. Chris Burgess was displaying the early signs of hypothermia with team mates wrapping him in various layers of spare kit. Various battle hardened cross country veterans were eyeing the dark skies and mud trampled conditions with a wary look and considering how much face would be lost by executing an about turn and heading off home instead.
A few of our number hadn’t even made it as far as the gates to the safari park with Richard Noone declaring an overwhleming desire to spend some quality time with his wife, before accidentally letting slip the matter of a televised football game and a can or two of lager. We do hope Mrs Noone enjoyed the match….. Tim Pilkington interrupted his racing comeback due to a pressing engagement with a China Town restaurant from where he shamelessly posted images of convivial dining on Facebook. Given his meal wasnt booked until the late evening we can only assume Tim couldnt make the 3pm start at Knowsley due to the time he needs these days to apply his make up, style his hair and pick out a nice cardigan for the evening.
There was a merciful break in the weather in time for the Senior Ladies race in which we were well represented by Jayne Taylor, Nina Fisher and Sarah Morton. With the course beginning to cut up after the Junior Races the ladies were treated to 2 large laps of increasingly heavy ground. The Championship races are held over a full 4 mile course rather than the shorter 5k events we normally see in the Mid Lancs League. That’s enough to make a big difference to tired legs forced to tackle the deceptively punishing gradients around Knowsley.
Jayne Taylor was first home in 79th place overall in 37:54 followed by Nina Fisher in 42:08 for 146th. This event was Ninas baptism of fire into cross country 12 months ago and it is a sign of her progress that she took huge 7 minutes off her time despite slower conditions this year. Sarah Morton started the race with a gleaming pair of neon pink spikes which turned a delicate shade of mud brown after her strong two lap effort gained her 211th place in 47:04.
The ladies had braved the day and left no excuses for any Senior Men looking to bow out with honour. Fifteen hardy souls dutifully lined up for the final race of the day. Such were the conditions that barely a word of critcism was heard about the odd baselayer or thermal comfort that may have crept under the black and white vests.The atmosphere crackled as the men huddled together like arctic penguins hiding from the cutting wind. Gary Fitzpatrick and Gary Wane looked equally wild eyed as they prepared to go “over the top”. With battle cries ringing in the air over 600 men charged up the hill of mud that represented the first few hundred yards of the 3 lap course, quickly turning whatever firm ground was left into a slimy bog.
The field began to settle itself out over the first of the 2 mile laps with various battles forming up between our runners up and down the field. Towards the end of the second lap the wind had returned with a vengance and a brief spell of hailstones added to the trials. On the boggy bottom field the ground was so soft, and the headwind so powerful that occasional gusts came close to halting all progress. Racing became a context with the terrain and lactic acid as much as it did against fellow runners, particularly on the tortuous uphill climb to the tower before the course turned back on itself for a short downhill charge.
This switchback affords an opportunity to see both who is creeping up on you from behind as well as a fleeting glimpse of the elite runners in front. This year the eagle eyed runner may have spotted Olympic hero Jonathon Brownlee on his way to 7th place overall. Most of our Harriers runners would have been more focussed on which of their team mates was in pouncing distance though.
Gary Fitzpatrick saved his push for victory until the very end of the race when he pulled a reaping manoeuvre on Mark to snatch to spot for Harriers on the run in. Gary finished in 50:26 for 156th place with Mark chasing him home in 50:38. Chris Smullen was fresh from his massive PB run at Inskip less than a week earlier but still managed a 52:13 for 3rd placed Harrier. Crazy Horse Burgess had recovered sufficiently from his flirtation with pre-race hypothermia to follow in 53:32 for another of his all or nothing runs.
Mike Harris has been managing his way through niggling injury of late but saved up his stores of energy to score as 5th Harrier in 55:22. Dave Collins was final member of the A-Team over the line. Dave spent our previous cross country fixture engaged in some experimental cross training involving a paint roller and a ceiling. It seems to have paid off for a 56:46 finish.
Steve Nicholls is another runner on his way back from injury and would normally expect to have been swifter than his 57:42 as first over the line for the B Team. His run does represent a significant improvement over last year though in that he managed to complete all 3 laps this time.
Kevin Edwards and Barry Abram had battled it out all race for 7th place with Barry tracking Kevin throughout the last lap. With little between them Barry resorted to wily tactics on the final bend by positioning himself in Kevins blind spot before making a move on the downhill stretch. With only 6 seconds separating them on the line, (59:29 and 59:35), those few vital yards made the difference.
Darren Jackson had cast off his baco-foil superhero suit to put in a solid 101:48 for 4th place in the B-Team. Darren benefited from the motivation of being passed by an ex-team mate in the final stages as he was spurred on to one final effort. With Graham Millington and Andy Eccles approaching fast from behind his effort was timely!
Andy Eccles had started steady before putting a blistering 2nd lap to sweep up a trio of fellow Harriers and snatch 5th B-Team spot from Graham as they entered the final loop. The pair then slogged it out step for step until Graham found firmer ground on the final bend to propel him down the hill with a few seconds advantage. Graham finished in 102:11 with Andy chasing him down in 102:19. As Graham lost his number the results show Tim Pilkington as 5th B Team runner home, but Tim was still waxing his bikini line ahead of his night out at the time of the mens race.
Our barefoot specialist Colin McEvoy was one of the runners left spinning in Andys wake, but he kept his composure to soldier on for an impressive 103:19, (although he did have spikes on for the race this time!).
Gary Wane arrived at Knowsley with his usual scary race face on and was barely bothered by the inclement conditions. This is a man who approaches each race as a galdatorial battle to the death, taking personal insult at every runner with the gall to pass him. Gary has conquered the mightly mountains of the Lakeland 50 and battled his way through many a mile of cross country mud without fear, but not this week. Our newly crowned Athlete of the Year was brought to his knees not by the challenges of Knowsley or the vicissitudes of the weather. Gary Wane was brought down by a 2 month old babe in arms and an average 3 hours unbroken sleep per night!
Fatherhood caught up with Gary somewhere near the end of lap 2 and firmly elbowed him in the ribs as it ran past laughing in his face. He can be proud of both his 103:48 and staying awake till the finish.
Still learning the ropes in his first cross country season is Dean Atherton who gamely wore the back to front smiley vest once more. As spare vests go, this one has seen its fair share of action on the back of various new club members until they were able to get their hands on their own item. It has seldom seen such a valiant slog through hellish conditions as it did with Dean on Saturday, and he did the vest and the club proud with a 104:18.
Bringing it home for Harriers was Pete Mills who managed to invoke the fury of his old foe the slipped disc just moments before the start of the race. Despite his back going immediately into spasm, Peter still toed the line and fought his way round to an agonizing 106:15.
With none of the Ladies team offering their muffins to comfort the shivering finishers no-one wanted to hang around for long after the race. So keen were Harriers to get off home that the tent was being packed away with the odd runner still inside it. Each and every runner can be proud of themselves for turning up and competing at this years’ Nationals. as a group we did the town proud amongst the best in the North of England. All of us who ran were also delighted to hear that Tim enjoyed his meal.