Trophies find new homes at the 135th National Cross Country Championships

Now that the dust has settled on another superbly competitive 135th English National Cross Country Championships and the amazing collection of trophies on offer have found their new homes for the year, it’s time to reflect on a great day for English cross country running.

It’s a hugely important date in the diary for clubs up and down the country, providing everybody the opportunity to experience tradition and to hear tales of superb performances from the past, but more importantly toe the line with the best athletes this winter has to offer.

Journeys to the race involve recalling characters and epic battles; remembering the mud of Alton Towers or for some with long memories, the snow of Sutton Coldfield while the drive home is all about analysis. How did it go? Who were the surprises packages? What was the course like?

Gemma Steel, Lauren McNeil and Sarah Austin competing in the senior women’s race at the English National Cross Country Championships, Bolesworth Castle, Chester, England UK 0n Saturday 25th February 2023. Photo by Gary Mitchell

As ever, it was the age group races that really stood out, partly because of their intensity - just three seconds separated the first four, for instance in the U15 boys’ race, but also that without question there were future greats racing. Past winners include Olympians, gold medallists, and British record holders so there’s no doubting the pedigree required to take home a gold medal.

But let’s start with that epic U15 boys’ 4km, easily the best race of the day.

As they entered the final straight it was still anybody’s race as four fought it out to the line. In the end it was Owen Ulfig (Wolverhampton and Bilston) who used his 1500 speed to good effect to ease into the lead with just 100metres to run. Owen has been in good form all winter but nonetheless it marked a major step forward for the member of the resurgent Wolverhampton team which like Owen has made superb progress in the past few seasons.

“I was thinking top 10 or 20 before the race and it was tough, but I felt good 600 metres out and knew I had a good finish, but I wasn’t sure of all the others and then when the leader pushed near the finish, I tried to kick on. I hope now to do the English Schools but I’m not sure of the Inter-Counties yet,” he said afterwards.

George Wilson (Cleethorpes) missed out on the gold on this occasion, but one thing is for certain, this age group is full of promise (George has a 15:04 parkrun to his name) and there are still some epic battles to come in the form of the English Schools in Nottingham and a week before that, the Inter-Counties in Loughborough.

Video: 2023 Saucony English National Cross Country Championships at Bolesworth Castle. Watch on YouTube.

The first race of the day, the U17 women’s event highlighted the other path to gold – in the form of a runaway victory.

As early as the first half mile, Innes FitzGerald (Gav Pavey, Exeter Harriers) demonstrated why she has been the name to watch this winter as she eased to the front and never looked like being headed.

“I felt strong going up the hill the first time and then knew I was away, and I wanted to hold something back for the second half but not sure I did!” she said.

But don’t think it was ever going to be a foregone conclusion as chasing her was Zoe Gilbody (John Skevington, Wreake and Soar Valley), 33rd in the World Cross Country in Australia last week. FitzGerald had given that race a miss, but like many running she still has plenty to aim at.

“There was a great atmosphere, and it makes it so nice and motivating and I really enjoyed my first National and can now look forward to my first Inter-Counties,” she said afterwards.

European champion Will Barnicoat (AFD) won his third successive English National title to claim the U20 men’s gold medal.

“I’ve had a great season and just want to carry that form on to the track,” he said afterwards, while following the footsteps of Mo Farah no less was Henry Dover (Shaftesbury Barnet) who won the U17 men’s title (as Mo has done).

The other medals went to Beatrice Wood (Dave Amey, City of Salisbury) in the U20 women, Shaikira King (John Skevington, Wreake and Soar Valley), in the U15 girls, Thomas Thake (Hallamshire Harriers Sheffield) and Jorjia March (John Clarke, Barnet) in the U13 boys’ and girls’ races, respectively.

Let’s get ready to rumble!

While there’s no doubting the drama and excitement the age group races provided, it’s difficult – no impossible – to ignore the start of the men’s race. To watch the 2000-strong field charge off the start line is a real goosebump-inducing occasion. The women’s race gets you ready as around 1000 runners do that an hour or so beforehand, but there really is a rumble as the larger men’s field charges by.

“Does it get any better than that,” said former UK 10,000 record holder and the last Englishman to win the London Marathon Eamonn Martin, also twice winner of this race.

It’s difficult to describe and a real ‘you have to see it to believe it’ occurrence. Thinning the field out so effectively is remarkable so hats off to the organisers at Bolesworth Castle. As for the course, everybody agreed: it was deceptive and testing. For once there was no mud, or severe climbs, but as plenty discovered the long drags on the sapping parkland had a significant effect on results.

James Kingston crossing the finishing line to win the senior men's race at the English National Cross Country Championships, Bolesworth Castle, Chester, England UK 0n Saturday 25th February 2023. Photo by Gary Mitchell

Eamonn Martin said beforehand that the men’s race was wide open and impossible to call, so no surprise that few considered James Kingston (Mark Hookway, Tonbridge) a likely candidate to inherit the English crown given he was a distant 15th in the U20 men’s race last year. But win it he did!

“I was hoping for top five or 10 as there are potentially so many great runners,” he said. “Me and Jack [Gray, the runner-up] worked together once we were clear but with 1500m to go it became cat and mouse and a race and he tried surges, but I seemed to cover them okay and I went away near the end.”

The women’s race was very similar in that it ended up a two-way battle between Sarah Astin (Geoff Watkin, Belgrave) and Gemma Steel (Liz Nuttall, Charnwood). It was Astin, who represents the Isle of Man who prevailed.

“When it got down to me and Gemma, I didn’t know who had the better kick and with 200 metres to go I had no idea who was going to get it. It was probably the hardest race I’ve ever finished,” she said.

Congratulations to all those who took part in the National Cross Country Championships, the organisers who put on a brilliant spectacle, and the friends and families who came out to show their support.