11th March 2023
CARSON AND MAHAMED TAKE THE SENIOR HONOURS AT THE CROSS CHALLENGE FINAL / INTER-COUNTIES
The 2022/23 British Athletics Cross Challenge series came to an end at the Final at Prestwold Hall in Loughborough, in an event which also incorporated the UK CAU Inter-Counties Championships.
Grace Carson (coach: Bill Foster, club: Northern Ireland) and Mahamed Mahamed (Idris Hamud, Hampshire) were the senior winners on the day, while Megan Harris (Hayley Hemmings, Essex) and Luke Birdseye (Shireen Higgins, Berkshire) claimed victories in the U20 races.
Carson dominated the senior women’s race from the early stages as she became Inter-Counties champion for the first time, and also won the Cross Challenge series overall to complete a successful winter season for the Northern Irish athlete.
She moved away from the field on the opening lap, and had a 15 second lead before the halfway point, such was the control she had over the rest of the field.
As the European Cross Country U23 team gold medallist moved away, Gemma Steel (Leicestershire & Rutland) and Julie Emmerson (Tony Houchin, Warwickshire) were embroiled in a battle for the other podium positions, both athletes exchanging positions throughout. In the end, the 2014 European cross champion, Steel, earned second spot with Emmerson reaching her first podium at the event.
Carson, who became the first Northern Irish athlete to win the senior women’s event for several years, said, “I am delighted to win today. I did not know what to expect coming into this race. I wasn’t sure who would be here, but I was focused and I’m really happy to get the win.
“My coach had told me not to go off too fast, just stick in there and go when you felt ok. And I did feel ok. It was getting a bit bunched up and I was worried about falling. I didn’t want to get caught up in that, so I decided to go for it.
“It’s a really special moment for me. My dad is here today to watch, so it was nice that he could watch me do that. I wouldn’t be able to do all of this without their [family] support, so I am so pleased he was here today.”
In the senior men’s race, Mahamed showed all his experience as he navigated an increasingly muddy course to secure another Cross Challenge Final win at Prestwold Hall.
The GB & NI international was always a major player in this race, and asserted his authority on his opponents at the key stages of the race. His lead extended on the final lap as he glided across the muddy sections, and such was his lead, he had time to high five the crowd in the final few metres before the line.
With Tom Evans (Andrew Hobdell, Leicestershire & Rutland) outsprinting Jack Gray (Mark Vile, Warwickshire) in the final 200m, a valiant effort from the pair, they secured second and third place overall, ahead of Zakariya Mahamed (Idris Hamud, Hampshire) who faded in the final run-in for the line.
Mahamed spoke post-race, “I felt fairly strong from the beginning. The guys went off too quick so I felt comfortable just following early on. I felt good up the big hill, so I just went. It is a nice feeling to take the win.
“I think this is one of my favourite races of the year. This is the last one of the cross country season, so I tend to focus, and get things done! I like the course and I like the mud. The mud is hard because it is sticky; it felt like my shoes were coming off. But they didn’t and I am happy with the result.”
After representing GB & NI in Bathurst at the World Cross Country Championships a few weeks ago, Megan Harris (Hayley Hemmings, Essex) returned to racing in style as she won the U20 women’s race to secure the overall Cross Challenge title in the age group, and also seal the Inter-Counties title on behalf of Essex.
She settled into the group over the opening laps, but once she reached 3km, she put her foot on the gas and made her move which would prove decisive. She sprinted clear of her opponents in the final 300m with Hannah Ryding (Scotland West) coming home in a clear second, and Eve Whitaker (Yorkshire) – a medallist in mountain running for GB & NI – in third.
Soon after crossing the line, she commented, “I just took the first 2km out nice and easy, that was the plan. Because it is a muddy race, I didn’t want to go out and lead it early and get tired. When we got to 3km I started to pick it up. I felt really strong up the hills. At that point I just said to myself ‘this is my race, go and win it.’ I felt good so I went and took the lead.
“It has been a great winter season for me. To go to Euros and then Worlds, and to have two golds at the Cross Challenge, it just goes to show all the hard work is paying off.”
In the first race of the day, Luke Birdseye (Shireen Higgins, Berkshire) earned a solid victory in the U20 men’s race as he overcame the quick start from George Couttie (Joanne Day, Yorkshire) who led for long periods.
The Yorkshireman took on the pace in the early stages and even opened up a gap on the rest of the field as they headed into the second lap. Birdseye, fifth at the European Cross in December, bided his time and overhauled several athletes then Couttie over the final few kilometres to take the victory for Berkshire. With it, he also won the U20 Cross Challenge series for 2022/23, adding to his win in Milton Keynes last year.
Couttie was second, and Ethan Primett (Andrew Hobdell, Hertfordshire) came through superbly to earn a podium place ahead of Samuel Hodgson (Higgins, Berkshire).
Birdseye said, “I knew it was going to be a fast start, so I relaxed going into the first corner. So I was sat quite far back so I just slowly worked my way through on the first lap. On the second lap, George (Couttie) had already made a move. I followed a move to close the 20m gap. I caught him up and I thought I had dropped the others, but they were still there in a group behind me.
“Coming down the final downhill, I knew I wanted to be ahead, so I got in front of George and kicked on home.”
“Every year I am improving”, he added, “Last year I came fifth in the U17 race, so to come here and win is a big achievement for me.”
In the U17 women’s race, Innes Fitzgerald (Gavin Pavey, Devon) was a clear winner as she sealed victory by over a minute from her nearest opponent.
After winning the combined U17/20 race in Liverpool in November and a fourth-place finish at the Euro Cross, she went into the race as the clear favourite and she lived up to the billing, finishing clear of Zoe Gilbody (John Skevington, Shropshire) and Rebecca Flaherty (Yorkshire), both GB & NI internationals, to take the top prize.
There was also a fascinating battle in the U17 men’s race as Craig Shennan (Dudley Walker, Scotland West) got the better of Sam Plummer (Essex) in the dying embers of the race, coming through strongly to secure the victory.
Shennan, securing the first Scottish victory of the day at the time, had his arms aloft as he entered the last few metres as he knew he had done the work to make sure of completing the job and taking the silverware back to Scotland.
Plummer held on for second, and next across the line in third was Henry Dover – another Essex athlete – who edged the podium place by just two seconds ahead of Jake Stevens (Kent).
Earlier in the day, there was another exciting climax to the race as George Wilson (Joanna Evans, Lincolnshire) overcame Matthew Drummond Clark (Andy Bibbey, Preston) in the closing stages of the U15 boys race to take the Inter Counties win for Lincolnshire.
Clark went into the race as the Challenge leader – a title he would secure here – and looked set to take top points again as he duelled with Wilson. However, in the final sprint for the line, Wilson took it from Clark with Tristan Robin (Scotland West) narrowly in third ahead of Oliver Calvert (North East) who was just two second behind.
The second Scottish win of the day came in the under 15 girls’ race as Zara Redmond (Scotland West) won the battle with Shaikira King (John Skevington, Leicestershire & Rutland) to take the honours.
As they turned the corner in the final straight, they were neck-and-neck, and it was a case of leaving it all out on the course as Redmond got the upper hand to take the win ahead of King by the tightest of margins. Bethany Trow (Colin Lancaster, Shropshire) was embroiled in an equally close race with Olivia Forrest (Paul Forrest, Essex) for third place, and held her line to book her spot on the podium.
In the U13 races, Kara Gorman (Nick Hughes, Buckinghamshire) was a clear victor as she won by ten seconds from Isabella Buchanan (Sussex) and Kitty Scott (Mick Woods, Surrey).
Later in the day, Yorkshire were on top as Thomas Thake went clear to win the U13 boys race with Caspian Holmes (James McDonald, Surrey) and Noah Homer (John Skevington, Warwickshire) the next to cross the finish line.