England National Champion Peter Riley and 2004 European Champion Hayley Yelling restored some semblance of sense to the endurance running formbook at the end of an afternoon littered with upsets at the UK Cross Challenge meeting in Senneleys Park, Birmingham, on Saturday 28 October.
Yelling defied her latest cold to register her 5th victory over this course and establish herself as the most successful athlete in the history of the Cross Challenge, which is entering its 10th year.
Riley lived up to his tag as favourite in the Senior Men’s 10km by storming to victory ahead of his training mate and fellow Norwich Union GB international Steve Vernon. But the surprises weren’t far behind them.
In third place came Andy Vernon (no relation to Steve), 10 months after he won the Junior Men’s Silver medal at the SPAR European Cross Country Championships in the Netherlands and now determined to bypass the newly-created Under 23 rung and step straight up to the Norwich Union GB Senior Team at the Euro Cross in December.
He knows that it will be a tough ask, but did nothing in Birmingham to suggest he cannot fulfil his ambition as he overtook Mike Skinner – winner over this course for the last two years – with about 2km to go and stormed home.
Indeed, Skinner – a consistently successful performer in the Challenge over recent years – was edged into fifth place in the closing stages by 28-year-old Kevin Heywood, who exported his good early season in the West Country successfully enough to suggest he, too, will be a force come the European Trials, which are incorporated into the UK Cross Challenge meeting at Sefton Park, Liverpool, on Saturday 25 November.
It was Heywood’s first appearance among the Cross Challenge prize-winners, whereas the three ahead of him are no strangers to using this series, which has developed a fine and growing reputation for honing European medal-contenders for Norwich Union GB.
Riley and Vernon are determined to repeat the successes they enjoyed as Juniors in Europe. And they treated this race as an important stepping stone. Vernon pushed the pace in mid-race but it was Riley who prevailed conclusively in the end – his winning margin was 18 seconds – to shrug off his below par performance at last weekend’s BUPA Great South Run.
Not too lost in the hordes behind him, leading Junior Kevin Deighton (Bridlington Road Runners) registered arguably the biggest surprise of the day. After 10 months on the sidelines with a stress fracture and related injuries, he has been back in training for only 9 weeks – but finished 26 seconds ahead of pre-race Junior favourite Lee Carey (Nuneaton Harriers).
Deighton, who has just begun studies at Loughborough University, credited his personal coach, Eddie Knapp, with his success after finishing 18th among the Seniors, barely a stride behind former Junior international Kelvin Hardy (Ipswich Harriers) with last season’s National Silver medallist Keith Gerrard (Newham and Essex Beagles) only 13 seconds ahead.
The Women’s 6km was dominated by Yelling, though she says she cannot seem to get in a cold-free week now she is back in full-time teaching. This probably explains why her winning margin was cut in the closing stages to 12 seconds by Susan Partridge, although another factor will be the steely Scot’s increased strength after her tough series of road races in the last few months.
The big shock in this race was caused by little Jo Wilkinson, who was a comfortable third to celebrate her upcoming Norwich Union GB debut (whisper it, at the age of 33 and 18 months after giving birth to son Callum) at the Chiba Ekiden Relay in Japan on 23 November.
She was always towards the fore and finished 20 seconds clear of the reigning UK Cross Challenge Series Champion Hatti Dean (Hallamshire Harriers Sheffield) with Chiba-bound Wendy Jones (Cirencester) a close-up fifth and Vicky Gill (Chorley Harriers) sixth after a particularly strong second half of the race.
In the age group races…
Sian Edwards (Kettering Town Harriers) turned on the world-class style in romping to victory in the Under 20 and Under 17 Women’s 4km race. But she confessed she found it “scary” that it took her so long to shake-off first-year Under 17 Charlie Purdue (Aldershot), who not only had the bravery to go with her from the gun but also found the stamina to comfortably hold on to second ahead of the athlete most likely to be her arch-rival in her own age group this winter, Jess Coulson (Stockport).
Craig Murphy cheered the Irish contingent by popping over from his Cork base and winning the Under 17 Men’s 6km. He sprinted clear in the last 400m to open an 11 seconds advantage over Chris Harvey (Cannock and Stafford) with Andrew Rooke (Ipswich) in third, a further 6 seconds down. Fourth place went to Ross Millington (Stockport), winner of a couple of races two winters ago when these athletes were at the top of the Under 15 Boys’ age group.
The closest finish came in the Under 15 Boys’ 3km, when Zac Randall (Wycombe Phoenix) caught long-time leader – and pre-race favourite – Nathan Young (Mendip) on the line. Randall stormed through from sixth place with less than 1km to go, and then revealed that he studies at the school at which Yelling teaches maths. “She doesn’t actually teach me,” he hastened to add. “But I think she’s pretty strict – lots of my friends get detentions.”
The Under 15 Girls’ 3km went to Sarah Barker (Sale Harriers Manchester), who finished 4th in last winter’s National but had never previous defeated Katie Holt (City of Stoke), who had to settle for second today though, to her credit, she chased all the way to the line. Third place went to Melissa Hawtin (Oxford City), moving up smoothly from the Under 13 Girls’ age group, in which she won the UK Cross Challenge title last winter.
The Under 13 Boys’ 3km went to last year’s Inter-Counties Silver medallist Mark Shaw (New Marske Harriers), 8 seconds clear of another North East starlet, Cameron Boyek (Shildon).
The Under 13 Girls’ 3km was won by Emelia Gorecka (Aldershot, Farnham and District), who was second here last year. “I like the hills,” she said. That’s a prerequisite for all Birmingham Challenge successes!
Results from the event can be downloaded below: