In horse racing terms the going at Pontefract Racecourse would have been described as ‘good’ which certainly proved an advantage to the 10 newly-crowned Northern Athletics cross-country champions.
After an absence of seven years, the Start Fitness-supported championships returned to the Yorkshire venue under the guidance of event manager Steve Gaines whose meticulous understanding to what makes a successful championship was put into place once again. The weather stayed kind throughout the day with only the course dismantlers having to contend with the promised showers but by then the bulk of the 2,200 competitors had already set off for home and a well-earned rest.

The programme opened with the under-17 women’s championship over 5k and it proved to be a good start to the day for North East athletes as India Pentland (Darlington) strode home to an eight-second victory over Yorkshire champion Esther Rowe-Towle (City of Sheffield and Dearne) with Vale-Royal’s Holly Smith completing the podium placings – she also finished in bronze medal position last year at Harewood House – a further 27 seconds adrift. Despite supplying the winner, Darlington had to be content with the silver medals in the team standings with victory going to Salford who packed their four scorers inside 37, led home by 10th-placed Samantha Mason, to total 105 points. Darlington scored 149 with Houghton receiving the bronze awards with 154.

Next up was the junior women’s contest over a distance of 5.7k which attracted just 55 to the start line.
However, despite the lack of competitors, it still turned out to be an exciting contest.
European Cross-Country Championship representative Tiffany Penfold set out her stall from the gun and quickly opened up a sizeable gap over her rivals. The Liverpool Pembroke and Sefton athlete held a comfortable lead throughout until on the final incline leading up to the finishing straight was reeled in by Ribble Valley’s Eleanor Bolton who went on take the title by a matter of three seconds. It was a huge improvement by the Oxford University student after finishing 15th in last year’s under-20 championship.
City of Hull’s Becky Briggs also closed in the leader in the closing stages to finish in third place just six seconds adrift of Penfold.┬áIn the three-to-score team race victory went to Sale Harriers Manchester with 12th placed Aine Cunningham leading them home to total 46 points. Holmfirth, with 62 points, finished second with the bronze medals going to Hallamshire who totalled 74.

The under-13 girls were next in action contesting a distance of just over three kilometres and it was Yorkshire champion and runner-up Imogen Wolff and Martha Jackson, together with Cheshire gold medallist Carys Roberts, who were ahead in the early stages over a field of 200. The trio were locked together until the final 600 metres when Jackson made a decisive move which earned victory by seven seconds and revenge for her Yorkshire defeat. In a close battle for the runner’s-up spot Roberts just prevailed to head Wolff by a matter of a few strides to claim the silver medal. Middlesbrough, who had Eden Creasey in fifth place, won the four-to-score team gold medals after totalling 70 points. Rotherham finished in second place with 103 points with Stockport picking up the bronze awards with 129 points.

An extended six kilometres course faced the under-17 men and once again current county champions were in ascendancy. A quartet of Yorkshire champion Josua Dickinson (City of York) and fellow Yorkshireman Ethan Hussey (Leeds City) were joined by North East and Lancashire gold medalists Sam Charlton (Wallsend) and Matthew Mackay (Rossendale) respectively with the four athletes pulling away from the chasing pack. Hussey was the first to lose contact as the quartet moved into the second part of the contest. There was still nothing between the leading trio until Charlton upped the tempo going into the final kilometre which proved to be a decisive move as he moved quickly ahead which saw him extend his advantage to 13 seconds at the line as Dickinson claimed the silver medal ahead of Mackay.
Charlton’s success was Wallsend’s second Northern individual gold medal at the Pontefract course after Paul Morgan won the under-20 championship 26 years ago! Good packing by Morpeth, led home by 14th place Ross Charlton, saw them claim the team title with 93 points, City of York finished in second place on 105 points with the bronze medals going to Warrington who held off Rossendale by one point to finish with 135 points.

The closest finish of the day came in the under13 boys championship where just two seconds separated the three medalists. Racing over the same distance as the under-13 girls, victory went to Sale’s Jack Spark – Spark finished 13th last year – who crossed the line one second ahead of Cumbria champion Thomas Renwick (Eden Runners) with Merseyside champion Liam McCay (Liverpool) crossing the line one second further adrift in third place. Spark picked up his second gold medal of the day as Sale came out on top of the team contest finishing with 124 points with Renwick also receiving his second silver medal in helping Eden Runners to second place (136 points). Third place medals went to Wakefield and District who totalled just two points more than Eden Runners.

The under-15 girls faced a course of 4k and it was last year’s under-13 champion who claimed a comfortable victory. Vale Royal’s Holly Weedall, the Cheshire gold medallist, came home 33 seconds clear of Humberside champion Ella Greenway (Cleethorpes and District) with Southport Waterloo’s Olivia Logan completing the one-two-three a further five seconds adrift. Weedall also received a second gold medal as Vale Royal came out on top in the team section finishing with 75 points. Chorley finished runners-up (129 points) with Hallamshire finishing third with 141 points.

The under-15 boys contested the same 4k course as the girls and it finished a Yorkshire one-two with county champion Alexander Thompson (Wharfedale) claiming victory ahead of Richmond and Zetland’s Kyle Rabjohn. Thompson showed a huge improvement on last year’s championship where, competing in the same age group, finished in 51st place The pair had finished first and second in the county championships earlier in the year with a similar result again this time round with 10 seconds separating the duo on this occasion. The bronze medal went to Cumbria champion Fraser Sproul who crossed the line four seconds behind Rabjohn. Rabjohn however, was on top of podium minutes later as he led his Richmond quartet to team victory (149 points) as Kendal, with Sproul adding a team silver to his individual bronze, finishing second on 157 points. Merseyside outfit Wirral AC were the next best club, celebrating by finishing third with 225 points.

The under-20 men’s contest was over an extended 8k course and it was a smiling Rory Leonard who claimed a comfortable victory by 10 seconds. The Morpeth athete, who warmed up for the championship with a fifth place finish in Spain earlier in the month, was content to sit in the leading group before making his bid for glory midway through the second of two circuits. Leonard was joined in the early stages by Yorkshire champion Euan Brennan (Ilkley) who had finished second in Elgoibar, and Lancashire champion Nathan Dunn of Preston. However, it was Leonard, last year’s under-17 Inter-Counties champion, who was to claim a notable victory after breaking clear with just over a kilometre to go, Brennan beat off the challenge of Dunn by three seconds to claim the silver medal. The only disappointment on an exceptional day of cross-country sport was that only one club managed to field four competitors which left Preston Harriers to claim victory.

Once again the senior women’s championship was the penultimate event on the programme and it proved to be a superb exhibition of cross-country running. Morpeth’s Mhairi Maclennan was the in-form defending champion and went into the race after winning the Scottish Inter-District Championships in Stirling two weeks earlier. However, it turned into a real battle to hang onto her crown after an intriguing contest with Leigh’s Lauren Heyes (formerly Howarth) and Northern Athletics cross-country debutant Jesica Judd of Blackburn. The trio had broken away from the rest of the 400-strong field and were still locked together entering the final half-mile but it was the Edinburgh-based athlete who proved the strongest hitting the front at the top of the final hill in the run to the finish. At the line Maclennan, who admitted later that her victory was much tougher than her previous win 12 months earlier, had run herself into the history books with a back-to-back victory joining the likes of Leeds pair Angie Hulley (1995-96) and Claire Duck (2016-17), Sale’s Sonia Samuels (2002-03) and Kendal’s Gemma Miles who won in both 2008 and 2009. Heyes finished runner-up for the second year while Judd, recently crowned Essex champion, claimed the bronze medal at the first time of asking after enjoying success through the age groups competing in the South of England Championships. Leeds City, who had their four counters inside the top 12, were led home by fifth placed Claire Duck, to claim a comfortable team victory with just 31 points followed by fellow Yorkshire outfit Rotherham (67 points) and Morpeth who had 125 points.

The senior men’s extended 12k championship also had a Morpeth athlete looking to defend his title in Carl Avery. And what a brave attempt the Northumbrian made to claim his second Northern crown but unfortunately he found one athlete in last year’s junior champion Emile Cairess (Leeds City) just too good on the day and had to settle for second place. The duo, together with Liverpool’s Dejene Gezimu, had made an early break before Jack Martin (Stockport) managed to regain contact during the second of three circuits. At the start of the last lap Cairess upped the anti and Avery was the only one to respond
Avery managed to stay in touch until the final 500 metres before Cairess managed to confidently ease away to come home nine seconds clear of the defending champion. Gezimu took the bronze medal ahead of Martin with Nigel Martin, in fifth place, leading Sale to retaining their team trophy. Leeds City finished in second place with Liverpool picking up the bronze awards.

A major championship would not be successful if it wasn’t for the hard-working volunteers who, once again, did a sterling job which is no doubt greatly appreciated by all who took part.

Report Bill McGuirk
Photos Eileen Ingham