Alastair Hay believes the National XC could feature one of the closest Senior Men’s races in recent years – as Callendar Park hosts the biggest entry field since 1994 on Sunday.
It will be a tenth year in a row at the popular Falkirk venue, as runners from U13 to Seniors and Veterans and the full athletics family in Scotland gathers in their hundreds for eagerly-awaited cross country showdowns.
Hay himself won the coveted Men’s gold in 2009 and 2010 and, with winning margins of one second and five seconds respectively, he knows a thing or two about tight finishes down Callendar Park’s final straight . . .
Callum Hawkins of Kilbarchan defends his title on Sunday seeking to give his family a fourth individual win in five years (brother Derek won in 2011 and 2012) but his fellow GB international, Central AC’s Andrew Butchart, has been in fine form and clearly would love to improve on last year’s silver.
Predicting podium places is a dangerous game but form suggests others in contention may include Tewolde Mengisteab, Murray Strain, Alex Hendry, Craig Ruddy, Luke Traynor, Max McNeill, Michael Crawley and Callum McKenzie.
In the Senior Women’s race, Commonwealth Games marathon runner Susan Partridge will seek her second title under likely threat from GB international Rosie Smith and Grand Prix points leader Morag MacLarty. Jennifer Wetton and Megan Crawford are currently second and third in the Grand Prix.
Unfortunately, injury has ruled out title holder and Euro Cross U23 champion, Rhona Auckland, as well as Olympian Freya Ross. In a classy gesture, Ross has volunteered to helped marshal races around a course where she has won no fewer than six Senior Women’s titles.
The U20 women’s race is combined with the U17s and should see the likes of holder Rachael Dunn, Mhairi Maclennan, Stephie Pennycook, Kathryn Gillespie and Catriona Graves be in contention for U20 places.
In the U20 men, there’s a clutch of contenders with GB Junior internationals Jonny Glen and Euan Gillham set for what could be quite a battle with the likes of Dale Colley, Michael Ferguson, Ryan Thomson, Aidan Thompson and Gavin McArdle.
Right across the age group spectrum, of course, anticipation is rising for Callendar Park challenges and while there are occasionally questions about moving to an alternative venue, Hay believes Falkirk has more than just a geographically-central location advantage.
‘I didn’t realise it was 10 years at Callendar Park but, when I look back now, I think I maybe only ran one before that and that was at Irvine,’ he said.
‘I think it is a course with good variety and can present a good challenge. There are wooded areas, the loch, some hills and some parkland bits as well as the run out along the Antonine Wall.
‘The course has changed this year, but I’ve run it similar to that before and I think it will be good for spectators – they are going to see a bit more of the race than in the past few years.
‘I like the finishing straight, too. I think that’s one of the Callendar Park features with the House quite spectacular as you run down the ‘avenue’ towards the Finish. The years that I won it, the finish was quite tight and we might see something special on that straight again this year!’
‘I think almost at any age, and certainly for U20 and Seniors, I think you probably need a good, consistent winter of training and competition behind you to be winner,’ he said.
‘You want to come into it feeling ready and the way it is set-up, towards the end of February, means it is a great target deep in the middle of winter.
‘I can certainly remember many a training run in awful conditions in December and January which have only been done because Falkirk has been firmly in mind! I think for a lot of people the National XC is a great motivation.
‘If people are preparing for the London Marathon, too, it is well-placed for training schedules and, equally, if you do well in the National XC I think it sets you up for the summer track and field season. You start looking forward in a positive way.
‘Maybe the only people it does not really suit are those who undertake an indoor season. But I think one of the beauties of the National XC, certainly in the younger age groups, is that it brings people together from different strands of the sport and people have a go. Kids can compete there and take it as a marker for how they measure in Scotland for cross country.’
With the 2213 entry list numbers almost exactly 25 percent of the numbers for the English National this weekend, the enduring appeal of cross country is obvious.
‘The growing numbers are good for the sport and encouraging,’ added Alastair.
‘I’ve not thought about it all that much, but there probably are not too many sports where you can enter straight into a National championship and be on the start-line with the best. It is inclusive in that way and that’s another good aspect to the day.
‘It was special to win the National because of the status and the history of the race and the names of those who have won it before. I think it is similar with the team race. It just feels significant.
‘At Central AC, we look to the National and the English Road Relays and really try to build strength and depth for those events.
‘But it is never easy and Corstorphine have worked hard over recent years to assemble a good group. You never write off Shettleston Harriers for this event and of course Inverclyde won the 4k team title; it is a pity for Kilbarchan they don’t have more depth but maybe in a couple of years if their good U20s come through.’
Ronhill Cambuslang Harriers also have a remarkable record of perpetual success in the Men’s race in recent decades and won’t relinquish medals easily while Hunters Bog Trotters are another club mustering a strong squad – with six to count. Central AC, though, are looking for five-in-a-row.
But Hay said: ‘Central would love another crack at the European Clubs, though. We were there a couple of years ago in Spain and getting back to that is definitely a target.
‘It helps when people can feed off each other’s performances and that makes the group stronger.’
So, what about that Men’s race? Will it be a ‘high noon’ shootout at 2.30pm?
‘It is a tough one to call and you would probably have Callum and Andrew as ‘joint favourites’,’ said Hay.
‘It seems to have swung back and forth between them in a couple of races this season, so who knows what might happen on Sunday?
‘I don’t know Callum all that well but train regularly with Andrew. We joke with him that he was actually training quite a bit a year or two ago when he himself said he was ‘lazy’. But there isn’t any doubt that he has applied himself more and felt the improvement. It is compliment to him that we are bracketing him with someone who did so well at the Euro U23s.
There’s probably been a clear favourite in the past few years (Derek or Callum Hawkins) so it is quite exciting that it looks tight this year.
‘Probably the first thing I will do when I cross the line is ask ‘who won?’ Although I suspect the body language of Derek Easton (Butchart’s coach) when I come down the finishing straight might tell me what I need to know!’