The New Year was barely a week old when cross country action resumed in the North East Harrier League at Thornley Farm, just South of Peterlee, on Saturday afternoon.
Always one of the most challenging courses of the season, heavy rain and snow in the preceding week had left fields where the going could at best be described as ‘soft to heavy’ in racing parlance, with an added overnight frost leaving some sections also frozen. Throw in a generous dollop of cow pats and some of the biggest molehills this side of Morpeth Common, and you have to take your hat off to everyone who turned out.
Numbers were down on the day, although this was as much due to a rise in Covid infections in the region as the challenge of the course, with every club reporting athletes having to isolate. Nonetheless, Morpeth were able to claim four team wins and one individual win, along with three fastest times of the day.
The day’s action started with two young athletes having their first experience of cross country. Running in the opening Under 11 fixture, Daniel Vermaas took part in his first race for the club, coming home in a very respectable 11th place. Thomas Roche was another young Harrier having his first outing for the club, finishing in 22nd place in the Under 13 Boys.
The day’s first victory came in the Under 13 Girls event with a squad who have gained in confidence and ability over the season moving to the top of the team division. Led home by Emma Tomlinson (15 minutes 54 seconds from Fast Pack) in 8th place, there were counting runs from Charlotte Marshall, 10th from Slow (17:53) and Molly Roche (16:18 from Fast). Further supporting runs came from Iris Dungait, 15th (16:27) and Megan Potrac, 16th (16:48), both from Fast.
The following Under 15 Boys saw the day’s only individual win for Morpeth, with an in-form Oliver Calvert winning in a time of 12:24 from Fast Pack. He was backed up by Oli Tomlinson also from Fast in 3rd (12:31) and Elliot Mavir, 4th from Slow (14:20). Joe Close was 7th (13:04 from Fast), and Stephen Craske 14th (15:19 from Slow) with Stephen Glennie, competing in his race for the club, 32nd (18:42 from Slow). The team count of only six points puts them comfortably at the top of their division with a whopping four victories and one second this season.
The Under 17 Boys are another age group who have been enjoying a remarkable dominance, with what proved to be also their 4th team victory. Led home this time by Bertie Marr, 5th in 15:24 from Fast Pack with Will deVere Owen one place behind (15:28), Ryan Davies completed the scoring count in 11th (15:59) with James Tilley 15th (16:30). Like the Under 15s, they will be looking forward to collecting team Golds at the final fixture at Alnwick in March.
Illness and Covid meant that Millie Breese was sadly the club’s only representative in the Under 17 Girls/Under 20 Women’s event, but once again the Alnwick-based triathlete had one of the day’s most eye-catching runs in a fastest time of 17:32 - in fact the only runner in the race breaking 18 minutes. Despite not closing a team, there remains a good chance of a team medal at Alnwick if a full complement of runners turn out.
The day’s final two races, the Senior Women and Senior Men, featured the day’s biggest fields on what was by now an increasingly churned up course, although the weather had as a whole improved and the last of the frost cleared.
The Senior Women’s event saw perhaps the most remarkable Women’s team result for the club in a good few years, with the club’s scoring team of four only recording a parsimonious 14 team points in total and the count for the next four putting them in 3rd team position.
One of those four who had perhaps the gutsiest run of the day was Morpeth veteran Helen King who chose the toughest of courses in the middle of winter to make a return to competitive action after a number of years out. She made light of her difficulties when chasing after early leader and race winner Melissa Turner of Jarrow and Hebburn AC (28:50) from Slow Pack. Reeled in only by club colleagues, Helen finished in a tremendous 5th place in 33:06 and it is to be hoped she can now stay injury free and able to go on competing in the sport.
Cat Macdonald turned in the fastest time of the day, 27:09, when finishing in 2nd place. She was chased all the way by Jane Hodgson, who was 3rd in 27:26, and Gemma Floyd 4th from Medium in 30:40.
Behind these four, Julie Vermaas had an excellent run to finish 9th from Slow in 33:54 with Sarah Lawson 20th from Medium in 32:34. Lizzie Rank, also running from Medium, was 26th in 32:57 and Lindsey Quinn 73rd from Fast in 31:42.
Anna Wright, in only her 2nd XC, was 85th in 34:44 from Medium, Shuna Rank 129th in 38:26, Mhairi Line 163rd in 39:45, Sarah Routledge 192nd in 40:51 and Sue Smith 216t in 42:05 (these last four all from Slow Pack).
With Elswick finishing in 3rd place overall, Morpeth’s Senior Women moved up the team division but are likely, barring a complete disaster for the Newcastle outfit, going to have to settle for what will still be a well-deserved team Silver at Alnwick.
Final race of the day saw just short of 400 finishers in the Senior Men’s, a number down by almost a third on the season’s biggest fields, with once again Morpeth vying with Tyne Bridge and Sunderland Harriers for dominance.
With youngster Jake Dorman a clear winner for Tyne Bridge in 38:42 out of Slow Pack, the challenge for the Morpeth Men was to get as close to the grey and white vests as they could and stay top of the division.
With the fastest run of the day coming courtesy of a guest, James Scott-Farrington of Horwick RMI Harriers in an impressive 36:15 from Fast Pack, Morpeth’s first two finishers, Connor Marshall and Tom Innes, were just outside the top ten but neck and neck for most of the race. Marshall had another fine run for 11th in 37:21 with Innes only one place and some five seconds behind.
Next home was returning veteran Gary Jones, 17th out of Slow Pack in 42:54 and a dogged run despite pain from plantar fasciitIs.
One place behind was Sam Hancox, who rather paid the price for setting the early pace out of Fast Pack with a time of 38:07. Ironically it was Sam’s dad Rob who came home next counter, rolling back the years with a fine run in 30th place (44:01 from Slow).
Team victory was all down to sixth counters, and with Shaun Land running strongly as the final counter in 66th (45:13 from Slow), Tyne Bridge still just sneaked an 82 to 88 point victory. Nevertheless, Morpeth remain comfortably top of the team division and must look to a strong turn-out at Alnwick to win back the title they lost to Sunderland Harriers, 3rd on the day, in season 2019-20.
There were some seven other Men finishing. Jake Parmley had an improved run, 46:20 for 106th, with Jamie Johnson only one place behind but given the same time. Richard Glennie was 120th in 46:49.
It was good to see Adam Pratt back also after a couple of years away. Having to run nevertheless from Fast Pack, he was 141st in 42:32. Eric Adams was 150th from Medium in 45:18, Lee Bennett 159th from Fast in 43:06 and Dave Nicholson 257th in 52:31. Hats off to all who braved the conditions wherever they finished.
The next cross country is the combined Sherman Cup/Davison Shield fixture at Temple Park, South Shields on 12 February. The final Harrier League is at Alnwick on 5 March. We now have teams at the top of four of the eight divisions, with two other teams in medal positions - so put the date in your diary!
Images below courtesy of Stuart Whitman. Check out his full gallery of images from the event.