Andy Vernon (coach: Nic Bideau, club: Aldershot Farnham & District, county: Hampshire) stormed to victory to become both British Athletics Cross Challenge champion and the Inter County champion at the British Athletics Cross Challenge incorporating the Inter-County championships and IAAF World Cross Country Championship junior trials at Prestwold Hall, Loughborough.
After entering the race as Cross Challenge series leader by 6 points, Vernon tackled the 12km senior men’s course with an aggression and determination that saw him lead the race from gun to tape, with the 2016 Olympian increasing his gap as lead runner over the course of the race to take the win in just under 25 seconds.
The victory signals the fourth time that Vernon has claimed the Cross Challenge crown as a senior, and is his first since he completed a hat-trick of consecutive titles back in 2010-11.
Speaking on where the race was won, he said: “I managed to stretch out a lead on the first lap and from there it was quite comfortable. By the second lap I was able to switch off a little and get round safely without doing anything stupid – there were a few tight corners and steep downhills, so to get round comfortably for the win is really pleasing.”
On what cross country still offers him by way of challenges, he added: “When it’s a course like today’s – one that was very undulating and sapping on your body – it serves as a different test for your body, and having to run through fatigue is something you can always apply to different styles of racing.”
In the women’s senior race, Jess Judd (Mick Judd, Chelmsford, Essex) continued the fine start to the year which saw become English National Cross Country champion two weeks ago, as a gutsy run in the mud saw her break the tape to be crowned senior Inter County cross country champion for the very first time, with victory also sewing up the Cross Challenge title.
After a scrappy start to the race which saw a number of different athletes take up the lead, the quartet of Judd, Louise Small (Mick Woods, Aldershot Farnham & District, Hampshire), Gemma Steel (Rob Denmark, Charnwood, Leicestershire) and Claire Duck (Mike Baxter, Leeds City, Yorkshire) pushed on to distance themselves from those behind them.
As the end of the race neared Judd made her decisive move, with an advance away from the trio hot on her heels allowing her something of a comfortable finish down the home straight.
Post-race, Judd said: “It was a bit lonely out the back [of the course] – it stretches out so far that I don’t think many people managed to get out there, but in a way that helped me; I managed to get hold of my breathing and begin to control it.
“The race was similar to English Nationals in a fashion, but this time I found myself at the front a lot more and pushing it on. On the last field I thought ‘don’t hold back, just push for it and go’ and it worked and I managed to round it up. Back to back wins at English Nationals and now here have been really amazing, I can’t quite believe it.”
Duck, Steel and Small finished in second, third and fourth respectively behind Judd, with 2014 European Cross Country champion Steel running the second half of the race shoeless due to her footwear falling victim to the increasingly boggy and difficult conditions.
In the opening race of the day – the men’s U20 – an intriguing race saw Jonathan Shields (Michael Thompson, Sheffield & Dearne, Yorkshire) come through strongly to take the tape to become Inter-County champion as well as British Athletics Cross Challenge champion.
Heading into the race it was he and Hugo Milner (Derby, Derbyshire) tied on Cross Challenge points, but having tucked into a pack of around ten that distanced themselves from the rest of the field, the Yorkshireman drove through the mud to kick clear for the victory following two ‘long’ laps of their winding 8km route.
Speaking afterwards, Shields said: “I just stuck in the group for the first couple of laps – quite honestly I didn’t really know where the route would take us – so I stuck in and then managed to pull away from Scott [Beattie, second place finisher] near the finish. I’m surprised I had the strength in me, but I’m delighted with it.”
Joining Shields on the podium were Scott Beattie (North East) and Luke Prior (Avon & Somerset), with all three athletes securing automatic qualifying spots on the British Athletics team for the IAAF World Cross Country Championships, should they wish to take them.
In the women’s junior equivalent, also a trial race for the IAAF World Cross Country Championships, the title of Inter County champion went to Anna MacFadyen (Forres, Scotland North) after a controlled and mature showing over 6km*.
With the conditions underfoot deteriorating with every passing race, the Scottish National champion kept her cool to navigate her way into the lead ahead of compatriot Gillian Black and Liverpool’s Cross Challenge victor Victoria Weir (Bud Baldaro, City of Plymouth, Devon). As the home straight beckoned, MacFadyen opened up the lead on her competitors to seal the victory.
Reflecting on the race while giving an insight into her journey to Prestwold Hall, MacFadyen said: “It was tough going out there and it took everything I had. I had a ten hour journey yesterday; it was three and a half hours in a car and then six or seven hours on the bus, so to come through and win the race is great and obviously I’m really happy with it; to come first in a race like this is huge.
Adding her thoughts on qualifying for the British Athletics team for the IAAF World Cross Country Championships, she said: “I’ve never competed for Great Britain before, it’s exciting and it’ll be great.”
Claudia Lance Jones (Sue Goode, Guildford & Godalming, Surrey) pipped Alex Brown (Herne Hill, Surrey) to the Inter County crown following a thrilling finish down the home straight in the women’s U17 race. With the strain visible on the faces of both, it was Lance Jones who had kept just enough in reserve as she moved away from Brown to take the win after tackling 5km.
Zak Mahamed (Peter Haynes, Southampton, Hampshire) left it late to take the win in the men's U17 race, with victory coming near enough on the line for the Hampshire representative as he pipped Matthew Willis (Wrexham, North Wales) to the title by 20:00 to 20:01. Willis’ second place finish was enough, however, to take the Cross Challenge series win.
The girl’s U15 race saw Olivia Mason (Graeme Mason, Border, Cumbria) make if four victories from four races in 2017, as she won in highly impressive fashion to add another title to her fast growing collection. Mason’s winning margin - 13 seconds - carried her away from second place finisher and 2016/17 Cross Challenge champion Lily-Jane Evans-Haggerty (Victoria Park City of Glasgow, Scotland West).
Joshua Dickinson (Ian Wilcock, City of York, Yorkshire) dealt with the twists and turns of the tricky course to win at a canter in the boy’s U15 race ahead of Cross Challenge leader Hamish Armitt (Giffnock North, Scotland West).
Bethany Cook (Bodyworks, Sussex) continued her unbeaten streak in 2017 with a fine showing to claim victory in the girl’s U13 race ahead of Cross Challenge regular Anna Hedley (Fife AC, Scotland East). Cook’s winning margin of nine seconds over the 3k course saw her top the podium as Inter County champion, while Hedley’s second place was more than good enough for her to sew up the Cross Challenge title after victories in the previous four 2016/17 series meetings.
The boy’s U13 race was won by the fast-finishing Jaden Kennedy (James McDonald, Herne Hill, Surrey), with the recently crowned English National U13 champion claiming the title of Inter County champion by some eight seconds.
Full results can be found under the 'Loughborough' tab via this link: http://www.britishathletics.org.uk/competitions/the-british-athletics-cross-challenge/
*Amelia Quirk broke the tape after leading in the U20 women’s race, but unfortunately she went off course towards the final stages of the race, meaning her first place finish wasn’t classed as legal.