Andy Butchart (coach: Derek Easton, club: Central AC) and Gemma Steel (Rob Denmark, Charnwood) produced special
performances on a bumper afternoon of cross country action at the Liverpool Cross Challenge incorporating the European Cross Country Championships Trials, one of the highlights on the domestic calendar.
Butchart produced an exceptional piece of endurance running to take victory at Sefton Park for the very first time ahead of fellow Olympian Callum Hawkins (Robert Hawkins, Kilbarchan). The Scottish duo opened up a lead over the first lap showing their intent early on, with Butchart hitting the accelerator as they started the second lap, opening up a 50m lead on the marathon specialist.
The duo did battle in 2014 with Hawkins coming out on top on that occasion; however, the tables were turned this time around with Butchart maintaining the 50m gap on the final lap, with time left in the closing stages to receive the adulation of the noisy crowds on the finishing straight – finishing in a time of 28:37.
Butchart commented after his victory: “It was fun – the conditions suit me, being cold and hard underfoot. It would have been totally different if it had been cold and wet. I was really happy to pull off the win today; I’ve never won here before. It is great to get a win over Callum (Hawkins) because he is a phenomenal athlete.
“It was great to see four Olympians competing in this race; that’s massive. It just shows how important this race is. Hopefully future Olympians will stay true to where they came from and keep racing at events like this.”
There was quite a contest behind the pair, with Andy Vernon (Nic Bideau, Aldershot Farnham & District) finishing strongly to move through from sixth to third over the final lap. Fellow 10,000m Olympian and last year’s winner Ross Millington (Steve Vernon, Stockport) was fourth this time around, with Dewi Griffiths (Kevin Evans, Swansea) and Ben Connor (Derby) fifth and sixth respectively.
In the U23 contest held within the same race, Charlie Hulson (Steve Vernon, Sale Harriers) just pipped Jonny Davies (Rob McKim, Reading AC) as they finished 10th and 11th overall respectively.
The senior women’s race saw Steel secure a remarkable fourth successive victory at the event to ensure maximum Cross Challenge points alongside a spot on the British Athletics team for the Euro Cross.
On a day where every field received record entries at Liverpool’s meeting, the serene cross country specialist ensured she maintained her strong record on Merseyside, showing her experience on the final lap to overcome her competitors. After settling in the pack over the 5km, Steel made her move to the front of the field as they headed into the final lap and looked favourite for the title, holding on over the home straight and running twenty seconds faster than in 2015.
Speaking post-race, the 2014 European cross champion said: “I’m formidable I think – to make it four in a row is surreal. I didn’t expect to come back and run this way after Milton Keynes (Cross Challenge) – that was a real eye opener for me.
“Every time I run this race, it is like déjà vu – they seem to have all panned out in the same way. I go on auto-pilot for the first lap then tuck in behind whoever leads the race. It was very important to win this race and I believe I belong in this team and am looking forward to racing at the Euro Cross Championships.”
However, she did not have it all her own way as it was an intriguing battle with Charlotte Arter, coached by James Thie with assistance from programme specialist Chris Jones, claiming a magnificent second following a strong year of form on both the track and road.
Behind Arter came U23 entrant Rebecca Murray (Alex Stanton, Bedford & County), 2012 Euro Cross team member Katrina Wootton (Harvey Rose, Coventry) and Georgina Outten (Andrew Walling, Birchfield Harriers). Each of the trio posed serious threats to Steel throughout; however, none could displace the now four-time Sefton Park champion.
The women’s U20 race – the first event of the day to see athletes battle it out for spots on the British Athletics team for December’s Championships – saw Victoria Weir (Simon Anderson, City of Plymouth AC) cause something of an upset as she came through strongly to pip 2015’s European U20 silver medallist Harriet Knowles-Jones (Paul Roden, Warrington AC) to the tape in a race of high quality.
Afterwards a stunned Weir commented: “I just can’t believe it, I’ve never been near Harriet before so to win the race is unbelievable. To earn a spot on the team for the championships is unbelievable too; I’ve never represented my country before so this is quite something. “
Hannah Nuttall (John Nuttall, Charnwood), Phoebe Law (Mick Woods, Kingston & Poly) and Amelia Quirk (Beverly Kitching, Bracknell AC) joined the pair in ensuring a spot on the team for Italy’s championships as the trio came home in third, fourth and fifth respectively.
In the men’s U20 race it was the impressive Alex Yee (Kenneth Pike, Kent) who topped off a fantastic week individually with victory within a talent-stacked field. The 19-year-old spent much of the race shoulder to shoulder with last year’s Sefton Park victor Mahamed Mahamed (Peter Haynes, Southampton AC) before kicking strongly in the final stages of the race to take the tape and secure a team spot.
Yee – who was awarded SportsAid’s ‘One-to-Watch’ award earlier this week ahead of 1100 other nominated athletes – spoke after the race, saying: “I came here to win today, it was the first step of the process to get on the team for the championships; I’m over the moon to come out of it with the victory.
Speaking on how the race played out, the 5000m IAAF World Junior finalist added: “I wanted to go out there and make it as hard race as possible; ideally I wanted to create that gap between the front and the pack alone but Mahamed came with me and made it difficult, so I had to kick towards the latter stages in order to see the victory through. It definitely took a lot of mental strength in those later stages, but I’m delighted with the result.”
Strong performances from Josh Kerr (Joe Franklin, Edinburgh AC), Paulos Surafel (Craig Winrow, Enfield & Haringey) and William Fuller (George Gandy, Blackheath & Bromley) saw the trio claim the remaining automatic team places.
Joseph Pollard (Vince Wilson, Charnwood) won the U17 men’s race which was full of drama with the lead changing hands several times in the closing stages with the Charnwood athlete sprinting to the triumph. Amelia Quirk, highly placed in the U20/U17 race, incidentally won the U17 women’s race.
The U15 races saw English Schools cross country champion Harris Mier (John Knowles, Cornwall AC) make the long journey up from the south worth his while with a commanding win in the boys race, whilst in the girls race Olivia Mason (Graeme Mason, Border) repeated her victory from 2015 over the 3km course.
In the girls U13 race it was Anna Hedley (Fife AC) – race winner at Milton Keynes’ series opener two weeks ago – who came through impressively to take maximum Cross Challenge points once again. In the boys equivalent Alexander Thompson (Wharfedale Harriers) dug in deep over the final straight to pinch victory from Joseph Currie (Chesterfield & District AC) and Ethan McGlen (Gateshead Harriers & AC).
In the opening race of the day, the U11 boys, it was Alex Poulston (Our Lady of Pity, Greasby) who took victory comfortably, whilst the girls U11s Freya Murdoch (Stockport Harriers & AC) was the first Cross Challenge finisher over the line behind Liverpool Harriers’ Harriet Bain, the overall race winner competing within the Liverpool District League.