Morpeth Harriers Rory Leonard and Mhairi MacLennan were both members of a team of 24 athletes that represented Great Britain with distinction at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships held at Aarhus on the Jutland peninsula of Denmark on Saturday 30th March 2019.
Pre-race, much of the talk had understandably focussed not so much on the teams from 62 different nations but on the course itself, designed by Jakob Larsen, director of the Danish Athletics Federation and immediately nicknamed The Beast. ‘This course has been about turning people’s heads’ he had announced, and the 2000 metre circuit certainly did that, including as it did such eye-catching features as a water splash, a mud pit, a beer tent through which competitors had to run somewhat ironically named ‘Runner’s Valhalla’ , and perhaps the piece de resistance, a lung and leg sapping ascent of the 10% grade grass roof of the host venue’s Moesgaard Museum.
Variously described in BBC commentary by twice world cross-country silver medallist Tim Hutchins as ‘unrelenting’, ‘a rollercoaster’ and ‘almost too tough’, it certainly made for captivating viewing on a day of near perfect conditions.
Having tweeted only a few days before ‘time to get it right in the GB vest’, KEVI sixth former Rory Leonard took place in the third of the day’s five events, the Junior Men’s (Under 20) race which followed the mixed relay and Junior Women’s races, and was one of six athletes representing GB, with four to count for the team.
Billed beforehand as very much a showdown between Norwegian tyro and rising star of world athletics,
Jakob Ingerbrigtsen - who had completed a stunning 1500m and 3000m double on the track at the 2018 European Championships - and the collective strength of a host of fine African talent from the traditionally strong nations of Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda, the race was started by Danish royalty in the form of Crown Prince Fredrick
and included four circuits of the 2k course. While in the early stages the race very much went to form,
as the event went on the gruelling course saw the Norwegian drop off the leading pack after half way
and he had finally to settle for 12th place, the race itself won by Milkesa Mengesha of Ethiopia
in a time of 23 minutes 52 seconds from his compatriot Tadese Worku in 2nd
and Ugandan Oscar Chelimo in 3rd.
Leonard meanwhile, who had struggled with a cold in the week beforehand, ran a very consistent and sensible race, finding no doubt that the local circuit of Rothbury hills over which he trains stood him in good stead and showing that he was in no way out of place in the very tough company. He finally finished in 37th place in a time of 26m 33s and was 2nd GB counter for the team, who while finishing in 8th place had the satisfaction of being 1st European outfit.
Edinburgh University student Mhairi MacLennan was to follow Leonard in the Senior Women’s race; like Leonard, she too had shared her justifiable pride in selection in the weeks beforehand, tweeting ‘so excited for this amazing opportunity’, and then, at the sight of herself in a GB vest, ‘just pinch me’.
In an exhausting race over five laps and just over 10,000m (that saw some slower runners from the 41 countries competing actually lapped), MacLennan, twice a winner of Northern Cross Country titles, applied herself with huge determination over the five laps and more than justified her selection, coming home like Leonard as 2nd GB counter in 32nd place only 10 seconds behind Shildon’s Kate Avery in a time of 39m 5s.
At the front of the race, a titanic tussle between Kenya’s Helen Obiri and Ethiopian’s Dera Dida
and Letesenbet Gidey saw Obiri finally triumph in 36 14s. While the team prizes for the event went
to Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda, GB’s women, for whom Jennifer Nesbitt and Jess Piasecki
were 3rd and 4th counters, did carry off a tremendous team performance by finishing in 4th place.
While both Leonard and MacLennan will certainly feel Denmark in their legs as they return to school
and university respectively, they can take enormous pride in their splendid achievements.