Winning medals in four out of the five competitions – three of those medals gold – Morpeth Harriers were a dominant force at the Signals Relays on Saturday afternoon.
The sunniest conditions anyone could remember at the event for a long time greeted the several hundred competitors representing clubs from all over the North East at the traditional venue of Hetton Lyons Country Park, Hetton-le-Hole for the 2021 fixture, moved from its traditional place in the Spring calendar after being cancelled altogether in 2020.
As is customary, Race 1 featured Veteran Men Over 50, Senior Women and Veteran Women, with teams of four all completing two laps (some 2.22 hilly miles) around the picturesque lake.
Morpeth were to the fore from the gun, with Guy Bracken, running leg 1 for a change instead of the customary leg 5 he has run for many years, soon at the front and Cat Macdonald leading the Women’s race.
Bracken was first home in 12 minutes 19 seconds with his old club, North Shields Polytechnic Harriers, chasing in second. Meanwhile Macdonald had run an impressive 12:31 not far behind to put the Women also in front.
Rob Hancox, some way off full fitness but keen to give himself a hard run out, was challenged all the way by the NSP leg 2 athlete, but did well to hold him off, finishing in 12:28, and with Alistair Macdonald, who has been in good form on the track in the last few weeks, clocking 13:13 the lead to the Poly was extended further.
The outcome of the Over 50s race was put out of any doubt when a flying Lee Bennett, who had won his age category at the Watergate Trail Race less than 48 hours previously, clocked an impressive 11:56. (Bennett was in fact the only athlete in Race 1 to record a time of under 12 minutes.)
The team’s cumulative time was 50:56 and the final margin of victory over NSP well over a minute at the end, with Sunderland Harriers having to settle for third.
In the Senior Women’s race Macdonald had passed on to Under 18 Kate Gaffing, one of two Mike Bateman coached teenagers stepping up to represent the club at senior level for the first time. Sticking purposefully to her run, Gaffing was overtaken by the vastly experienced Alex Sneddon of Jarrow and Hebburn, but finishing in 14:31 did enough to keep the team in contention, handing onto in form triathlete Millie Breese.
Still a few days short of her sixteenth birthday, Breese showed herself in no way overawed by the task ahead and set about reeling in the Jarrow and Hebburn athlete ahead of her. This she did in some style, her leg time of 12:43 the second fastest overall women’s time of the day which restored Morpeth’s lead and put the club in pole position on leg 4.
Rachelle Falloon was always in control on this leg, holding off the Jarrow challenge of Steph Patterson without too much difficulty and in fact increasing the margin of her lead by the finish.
With a final leg of 13:09, the team’s total time was 52:54., some 45 seconds ahead of second place Jarrow and Hebburn with Gateshead Harriers in third. (In fact the Senior Women’s time was only bested by the first three Men’s Over 50s.)
Two further Morpeth women’s teams were represented, with a mix of Senior and Veteran (Over 35) athletes.
The Senior team of Michelle Thompson (14:01), Claire Calverley (16:14), Lindsey Quinn (15:15) and Laura Shaw (17:30 in her first ever relay for the club), included in fact three Veterans and still placed a highly respectable 9th (1:03:00).
Determined that the club’s Veteran Women were also represented, Jill Bennett (18:50). Sue Smith (17:40), Margaret Macdonald (19:14) and Jane Kirby (18:26) stepped up, some at short notice, and finished 15th in the Female Vets (1:14:10). New Marske were first team home here in 58:13.
The only disappointment for the club in Race 1 was the incomplete Over 50 B, with the missing runner who’d gone awol somehow managing to get the day wrong… he was profusely apologetic later but has received several offers of calendars for 2022.
Gavin Bayne ran 13:43 on leg 1, Andrew Dippie 16:05 on 2, and Gordon Dixon, there to watch Joe, returned to competitive action in blue and white for the first time in a long time with 16:02.
While overall numbers were definitely down for Race 2, the Senior and Over 40’s Men’s race, the competition at the sharp end was as feisty as ever, with Morpeth up against traditional rivals Sunderland and Gateshead Harriers.
Matthew Briggs got the club off on a tasty leg 1, with home town club Houghton Harriers also very much to the fore in the form of Luke Pickering. Pickering in fact ran the day’s fastest time, coming home in 10:39 with Sunderland’s Liam Taylor in 2nd. Briggs however ran the club’s second fastest time of the day, 10:56 and then handed on to Ali Douglas.
Despite having focussed his efforts on much shorter distances over the Summer – notably the NECAA 800m which he won the previous weekend – Douglas got the club into first place with a clocking of 11:08 and thereafter the lead was never really challenged.
Dan Melling ran 11:11 on leg 3, a resurgent Tommy Straughan 11:02 and Phil Winkler made sure his journey from Leeds was worth it with the fastest leg of the day - 10:53.
By the time Ross Floyd went out on leg 6 the lead had gone out to over a minute, and with a final leg of 11:08 Floyd was able to extend this further.
The team’s cumulative time was 1:06:18 with Sunderland Harriers a distant second in 1:08:43 and Gateshead third (1:08:52).
The Senior Men’s race was also notable for a complete team of Mike Bateman coached Under 17 and Under 18 athletes (and nicknamed ‘Bateman’s Babes’ by Mark Davies).
With Will de Vere Owen on leg 1 (11:10), Bertie Marr on leg 2 (11:35), Joe Dixon (11:26) on leg 3, Liam Roche (12:05) on 4, Joe Anderson (11:50) on 5 and James Tilley (12:15) completing the team, this was a highly impressive outing by the teen tyros, who even got themselves up in to second at one point, and shows the future remains bright for the club. Their final overall time of 1:10:21 put them in 5th place, a tremendous achievement.
A further Morpeth Senior team featured Richard Johnson on leg 1 (11:32), Tom Innes on 2 (11:34), Mark Snowball on 3 (11:55) – having been unable to resist completing the Carlisle Park parkrun at 9 the same morning - and Jake Parmley on 4 (12:38). It was made up with a couple of Vets, Andrew Richardson in his first ever Signals, 13:47 on 5, and O/60 Paul Bellingham (14:49), who willingly stepped out of the Over 50s to make up a complete team.
Finishing in a respectable 1:16:15, the team still placed just outside the top ten in 11th place overall.
The Over 40s competition is run in conjunction with the Seniors over six legs, and was won by Darlington Harriers in 1:15:36 with John Clifford running the fastest O/40 leg of 11:26.
Sunderland Harriers were pipped by Darlington into second place, but there was a further medal for Morpeth with an excellent bronze in the competition despite the absence of some of the club’s leading Vets.
After early legs by Eric Adams (14:05) and Jamie Johnson (13:39), John Butters, another athlete in excellent shape having, like Bennett, won his category at Watergate, got the club into medal contention with a flying 11:42, the second fastest O/40 time of the day.
Back competing for the club after a number of years watching sons Dylan and Ryan, prosper, Mark Davies ran 13:42 on leg 4 with O/50 Jason Dawson another runner stepping down on leg 5 (13:18).
Graeme Thorpe finished the count with 12:55 for a cumulative total of 1:19:21 and a medal that was very much the icing on the cake.
With nine teams out across all five competitions, Morpeth were only matched on the day for numbers by Sunderland Harriers. On top of the medals won, perhaps most pleasing however was the willingness of so many to fill spaces in teams, often at short notice, particularly older runners who were happy to compete elsewhere.
An excellent day at the office for the club then, and something to build on as the Northern Relays and the cross country season approaches. Well done to all.