Emelia Gorecka (coach: Chris Thompson, club: Aldershot Farnham & District) earned a remarkable and popular victory in the senior women’s contest, whilst Ben Connor (Steve Vernon, Derby) sealed a maiden win in the senior men’s race.
In its 15th year as the location for the European Cross Country Trials event, the Liverpool leg of the British Athletics Cross Challenge at Sefton Park proved to be entertaining once more, with one of the most significant stories of the day coming in the senior women’s race. After a couple of years of battling injuries, Gorecka showed her ability in abundance and rightly received the praises of the cheering crowd as she crossed the line.
There were a mixture of emotions as she took the tape; joy, relief and possibly disbelief. Gorecka – a U20 champion at the championships in the past – headed the field for the majority of the 8km contest, but faced a strong battle with Jess Judd (Mick Judd, Chelmsford) and Gemma Steel (Liz Nuttall, Charnwood), the latter dropping slightly off the intense pace as they headed into the final lap. Gorecka used her experience and knowledge of the Sefton Park course, attacking in the muddier sections, to make the vital move. In the closing 250m, she powered away from her opponent, throwing her arms in the air with joy as she crossed the line.
Gorecka spoke afterwards: “I’ve said all year round, I just wanted to get back racing and be healthy. Me and Chris (Thompson – her coach) have been talking about getting here happy and healthy, and we managed that, so we thought ‘why not’. He told me to use my instinct and I hoped it would still be there. He empowered me to believe in myself. I didn’t know what would happen as I’ve hardly raced against those girls this year, but he was right and I managed to win.”
She added: “The last time I raced 8km was here three years ago, so there were so many unknowns coming in. So I just had to enjoy it, which I did. It was only in the last bit that I was realised I was having a sprint finish with Jess Judd, and no one wants to do that! It doesn’t matter what the distance because she’s running so well. I have so much respect for her so I knew I would have to fight hard.”
Judd was the first U23 finisher across the line after another strong showing during this cross country season. Steel held on for third with the resurgent Elle Vernon (Steve Vernon, Stockport) claiming the fourth automatic slot for the senior women’s team in Samorin, Slovakia.
Lily Partridge (Aldershot Farnham & District) and Phoebe Law (Mick Woods, Kingston & Poly) were just two seconds further back from Vernon – the latter an U23 counter – followed by U23 Amy Griffiths (Rob Denmark, AFD), Katie Bingle (Woods, AFD) and Steph Twell (Woods, AFD). Mhairi MacLennan (John Lees, Inverness) was the fourth counter in the U23 standings, taking some notable scalps.
Ben Connor ran one of the best races of his career to seal the senior men’s title, and earn a place once again on the British team for the European cross country championships; last year he was part of the gold medal winning squad.
He emerged from the woods half way around the final lap with a significant lead, pulling away from Alex Teuten (Roderick Lock, Southampton), Dewi Griffiths (Kevin Evans, Swansea) and Sam Stabler (Rob Denmark, Leicester) who were his nearest challengers. With the bit between his teeth, Connor maintained his advantage through to the finish, gliding over the wet and muddy sections which caught many runners out on the day.
Teuten brilliantly surprised many by taking the second automatic place, whilst Stabler – victor in the opening Cross Challenge in Cardiff – overcame the battling Griffiths with seconds of running to go. Andy Butchart (Terrance Mahon, Central AC) was ten seconds further back in fifth place.
Connor commented after his breakthrough win: “I really wanted to win it. I wanted to push it on and make it an honest race and I did that. It was tight and I knew Alex (Teuten) was closing me down over the last bit but I managed to hold on. It is great to win this race – I have won here as an age group runner in the past so it is nice to add a senior win.”
On making the European cross country championships team again: “Last year was a surprise for me to make the team but I finished in 16th. Hopefully I can improve on that this year.”
Mahamed Mahamed (Peter Haynes, Southampton) – a British medallist in the junior men’s category in Chia last year – has progressed well since joining the senior ranks, earning his place as the first U23 finisher and sixth overall. Patrick Dever (Andy Bibbey, Preston), Chris Olley (Mark Hookway, Tonbridge) and Daniel Jarvis (Woods, Liverpool Harriers) sealed the three further automatic spots in the U23 age group.
Billed as one of the leading races of the day, the U20 / U17 women’s race did not disappoint. Harriet Knowles-Jones (Paul Roden, Warrington) ultimately overcame the stacked field to earn her first victory in Liverpool after two consecutive second places. It was a professional performance by Knowles-Jones who has won medals at the last two European cross country championships in the junior women’s category. In her final year as an U20, she’ll be hoping to make it a hat-trick on the podium.
As the Warrington athlete stormed ahead, a battle ensued behind, with one of the standout performers from the cross country season so far, Khahisa Mhlanga (Mick Judd, Chelmsford), racing well for second place. Swansea’s Cari Hughes (Andy Walling) ran an exceptional race to place twelve seconds further back, followed by Niamh Brown (Woods, AFD) and Erin Wallace (Dudley Walker, Giffnock North) who were fourth and fifth respectively – the top five earning automatic selection should they accept their places. Last year’s winner, Plymouth’s Victoria Weir (Bud Baldaro), came home in sixth.
Within that race, Eloise Walker (John Lees) was the first U17 across the line – the Edinburgh athlete ahead of Border Harriers’ Olivia Mason (Graeme Mason).
He was favourite prior to the event and Ben Dijkstra (Leicester) delivered in supreme style, once again celebrating a race win in Liverpool. He ran solidly after Will Richardson’s (Peter Stewart, Birchfield) early attack on the first lap opening up a 100m gap between himself and the rest of the field. That was reeled in eventually with the latter hanging on for second position. But it was the Leicester athlete who was triumphant on this occasion.
Wrexham’s Matt Willis, who has had success in the U15 race in Liverpool back in 2014, surprised everyone for third place, ahead of European Junior 1500m gold medallist Jake Heyward (James Thie, Cardiff) who confirmed his place on the team, and Scott Beattie (Mike Bateman, Morpeth).
Cambridge & Coleridge athlete Thomas Keen showed composure during the U17 men’s contest, executing a fine home straight finish to move away from Morpeth’s Rory Leonard for the win.
In one of the closest battles of the day, big-hitters in the U15 girl’s age group Sian Heslop (Alison Hartopp, Macclesfield) and Lily-Jane Evans-Haggerty (Victoria Park City of Glasgow) traded places throughout, but as the course became slippier and muddier in the final few metres, Heslop managed the terrain more convincingly, taking maximum Cross Challenge points.
Easing around the undulating 3km course, Ealing Southall & Middlesex’s Mohamed Ali (Steve Mann) held on for an impressive win in the U15 boys contest, taking his foot off the pedal in the home straight as the course started to cut up after the first few races. Liam Rawlings (Colin Lancaster, Owestry Olympians) and Ethan Hussey (Andrew Henderson, Leeds City AC) chased hard, but could not reel in the leading man.
Cornwall to Liverpool isn’t a journey for the faint hearted but Maisy Luke (Christopher Jeffery, Cornwall) made the long trip worth it, sealing a magnificent victory in the U13 girls’ race. Pulling away before the final turn, the Cornish athlete sprinted away from Valencia Wright (Victoria Park City of Glasgow) to take a maiden Cross Challenge win.
Poole’s William Rabjohns (Mark Pauley) earned his third Cross Challenge win on the bounce, comfortably opening up a margin at the half way mark and holding on to lead the way in the overall series.
The crowds were out in force for the U11 girls’ and boys’ races in the first action of the day, with Stockport’s Freya Murdoch (Pete Torrance) and Border Harriers’ Sebastian Mason triumphing respectively.