Andy Vernon (coach: Nic Bideau, club: Aldershot Farnham & District) and Pippa Woolven (Luke Gunn, Wycombe) took the spoils in the senior races at the first British Athletics Cross Challenge of the 2016/17 season in Milton Keynes.
Vernon, who has missed the last couple of cross country seasons due to injury, endured quite a battle in a strong field over the undulating course at Teardrop Lakes. The Olympian started well, going with the pack which included the likes of Ben Connor (Derby), Jonny Taylor (Gordon Surtees, Morpeth), Adam Hickey (Eamonn Martin, Southend) who were still close together after around 6km. However, the leading three pushed on the pace midway through the last lap and dropped Hickey out of contention.
As they headed into the final 2km, Taylor took on the pace after Connor had led in the hilly section but once they emerged from the trees with 800m to go, it was the recognisable figure of Vernon who had a clear margin on his rivals.
Vernon spoke afterwards: “I wanted to control the pace at the start and that is why I was at the front. Once we were down to the top eight guys, I was happy to just see how the race would unfold. I did suffer on the first long lap – I had a bit of a stitch which I think was from the sharp downhills. I probably affected me for four or five minutes but I just had to relax and keep working.
“I’m pleased to have won – it’s great to be back in good form again. It’s a good runout before Liverpool (Cross Challenge incorporating the European XC Champs Trials) and hopefully the European Cross.”
The senior women’s race included two individual European cross medallists from 2014 in Gemma Steel (Rob Denmark, Charnwood) and Jessica Judd (Mick Judd, Chelmsford) but it was steeplechaser Woolven who built upon her impressive display at the English National XC Relays last Saturday to take a number of scalps for the victory.
Woolven, who struggled with glandular fever over the summer months, showed good technique over the course. Despite as she admits, a lack of focus during the middle part of the race when Judd opened up a small advantage, she pushed on to win. She won by a few seconds ahead of Judd in the end with Katrina Wootton (Harvey Rose, Coventry) holding off Steel in a frantic sprint to the line to take third and fourth respectively.
The winner said after: “I was quite surprised; it was a tough course – up and down, and not just your normal hills, these were steep. My tactic these days is to care as little as possible about who is around me and not to compare myself to other athletes. It’s nice to know I have taken some scalps but I wasn’t too aware during the race, I was just concentrating on what I was doing.
“I had a tough summer struggling with illnesses but that probably helped to give me a bit more time to get ready for the cross country season. I have been really sensible in the last few months thanks to Luke’s (Gunn) guidance and those around me – I have managed to build it up really gradually so I am conscious of not over doing it.” Woolven added: “I think I have my eye on it (European Cross Country Championships) now – I’m certainly now more hopefully of a good shot at it.”
The joint U20 & U17 women’s race preceded an impeccably observed minute silence in memory of Aldershot, Farnham & District’s Lucy Pygott and Stacey Burrows who sadly lost their lives earlier this week.
Harriet Knowles-Jones (Paul Roden, Warrington) won the U20s race with relative ease, showing signs of the form that won her silver in the junior race at the European Cross Country Championships last year.
Amelia Quirk (Beverley Kitching, Bracknell AC) was one of three Scottish winners of the day, running a solid race to beat last year’s event winner Khahisa Mhlanga (Mick Judd, Chelmsford) to the U17 win. Both finished directly behind Knowles-Jones showing signs of their form this winter.
Another convincing display came from James Gormley (John Wood, Sheffield & Dearne) who enjoyed a strong last lap to finish ahead of Sam Stevens (Leicester Corinthians), fastest at Berry Hill last weekend. Elliot Dee (Shaftesbury Barnet) was triumphant in the U17 men’s race.
2015 U15 boys winner Hamish Armitt (Dudley Walker, Giffnock North) replicated his result this year, eventually coming through in the closing stages to outkick Joshua Dickinson (Ian Wilcock, City of York) who had led the field for much of the race. It was another good contest in the girl’s equivalent, with Shannon Flockhart (Robert Pocklington, Huntingdonshire) coming out on top after a number of athletes pushed to the front in the opening stages.
Fife’s Anna Hedley and Wharfedale’s Sam Smith must have both had long journeys to compete in Buckinghamshire but made the most of travel by taking the U13 girls and boys races respectively.
Eleanor Strevens (Eastbourne Rovers AC) and Isaac Morris (Cambridge & Coleridge) were the early winners in the U11 races.
Full results will be available at www.britishathletics.org.uk