Injury at the cruellest time of the summer prevented 24-year-old Gareth Balch (University of Bath) bidding seriously for a place in the Norwich Union Great Britain and Northern Ireland Team at the IAAF World Championships in Osaka or even getting in a full set of four decent times in the UK Challenge series.
But he is determined to make a massive impact at the BMC Nike Grand Prix Final, which will incorporate the UK Challenge endurance events finals, at Crystal Palace on Saturday evening, 25 August (from 5.30pm).
For a lifetime best of 1:46.75 in the Netherlands last Saturday night provided swift and dramatic proof that he is fully over the hamstring injury he suffered in July. It earned him third place in a race won by Osaka-bound Bram Som (Netherlands) in 1:46.29.
It was a B-standard for Osaka that elevates him from eighth to fourth place in the year’s Power of 10 standings behind Michael Rimmer (Liverpool Pembroke and Sefton) and Andy Baddeley (Harrow AC), who are preparing for the World Championships, plus James McIlroy (Windsor, Slough, Eton and Hounslow), whose season’s best of 1:46.69 came at the Norwich Union World Trials. The time takes Balch just ahead of UK Challenge points leader Richard Hill (Notts AC), whose best of 1:46.90 was achieved at the World University Games in Thailand.
And Balch’s burst is a massive reminder of how important it is for home-based competition providers to offer late-summer opportunities for athletes who have not reached the major senior championships.
Balch, who began the season by winning the UK Inter-Counties 1 mile title, missed five weeks of action from 7 July, returning on 11 August to take second place in the 800m at the fourth BMC Nike Grand Prix inc. UK Challenge at Stretford.
He says: “I am looking forward to running at Crystal Palace. It has been good to find a few competitions late season after a hamstring injury wrecked my July. Onwards and upwards now!”
His Palace rivals include Ben Green (Warrington AC), who finished fourth in the points table with 580 points, and Ian Lowthian (Sale Harriers Manchester), who accumulated 527 points from his ‘Fantastic Four’ races to qualify for the Final.
The Women’s 800m should be a cracker even though Stretford winner Jennifer Meadows (Wigan Harriers) is in Osaka along with Marilyn Okoro (Shaftesbury Barnet Harriers) and Jemma Simpson (Newquay and Par AC) while Becky Lyne (Hallamshire Harriers Sheffield) is sadly injured. In the start list are four of the five highest points scorers in the UK Challenge series – Vicky Griffiths (Liverpool Harriers), who led the qualifiers for the final with 779 points; European Under 23 silver medallist Lizi Brathwaite (Herts Phoenix), who was third in the points accumulators with 743; Claire Gibson (Kilbarchan AAC), who ranked fourth with 686; and Joanna Ross (Victoria Park City of Glasgow), who ranked fifth with 683.
The BMC Women’s 1500m will pit Norwich Union World Trials winner Katrina Wootton (Bedford and County AC) against Rachael Ogden (Worthing and District AC), teenager Emma Pallant (Aldershot, Farnham and District), GB Senior Kate Reed (Bristol and West AC), Kelly Reid (Lisburn AC) and former GB Junior Hannah Whitmore (Charnwood AC). Heading the UK Challenge Final qualifiers over this distance are Nicola Gauld (Aberdeen AAC), who has a best of 4:14.20 and scored 715 points from her ‘Fantastic Four’; Rachel Felton (Shaftesbury Barnet Harriers), who has a best of 4:16.01 and scored 694 points; and Whitmore, whose best of 4:13.72 makes her the quickest but who scored 659 in her ‘Fantastic Four’ races.
The UKA Endurance Initiative Women’s 5000m field includes Emily Pidgeon (Gloucester AC), who has won gold and silver medals over the distance at the last two European Junior Championships, and Vicky Gill (Chorley AC), battle-hardened on the USA collegiate circuit and this summer one of only six athletes to fulfil the UK Challenge criteria of scoring in four races over 3000m / 5000m / 10,000m. Her rivals for the UK Challenge title are Victoria Webster (Shaftesbury Barnet Harriers), whose PB of 16:21.17, and Emily Adams (Aldershot, Farnham and District AC), who will be aiming to improve her PB of 17:03.48.
The Women’s 3000m steeplechase features Claire Entwistle (Wigan Harriers), the favourite to complete a hat trick of UK Challenge Final victories in a field that includes Sonia Thomas (Sale Harriers Manchester) and Jessica Sparke (Woodford Green with Essex Ladies).
Stretford 800m winner Tom Lancashire (Bolton United Harriers) opts for the BMC 1500m, in which he faces two of the top four points scorers in the UK Challenge series, Matt Barnes (Altrincham and District AC) and Bruce Raeside (Notts AC), plus Ross Toole (Kilbarchan AAC), who made his Norwich Union GB&NI debut at this summer’s European Under 23 Championships in Debrecen, Hungary. The chase for the UK Challenge title promises to be close: of the qualifiers, Barnes lowered his PB to 3:42.41 this summer on his way to accumulating 619 points, Raeside’s PB is 3:42.89 while Tom Carter (Vale Royal AC) is the fastest in the field with a season’s best of 3:42.10.
Jermaine Mays (Kent AC), winner of both the 1500m and 3000m steeplechase at last summer’s UK Challenge Final, opts this time for the steeplechase and the Nike Mile, in which there is a £1,000 bonus available to the leading UK finisher providing he runs sub-4 minutes.
The UK Challenge 5000m contestants are led by Antony Ford (Blackpool and Fylde AC), who has a PB of 13:56.61 and scored 597 points during the series. His rivals are Belgrave Harriers duo Phil Wicks, who made his Norwich Union GB&NI debut in this year’s World Cross Country Championships, and Steve Sharp plus Dave Norman (Altrincham and District AC) and Ben Fish (Blackburn AC).
The BMC Final begins at Crystal Palace at 5.30pm, following the remainder of the UK Challenge Final, which starts at 11.30pm.
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For the BMC Final timetable, please click here
For the BMC start lists, please click here