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McCain Cross Challenge Final and World Cross Trials preview

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James Wilkinson at Gateshead Cross Challenge

11 March 2010

Defending senior champions Andy Vernon and Stephanie Twell (both Aldershot, Farnham & District/Hampshire) will be targeting repeat performances in this year’s McCain UK Cross Challenge Final - incorporating the IAAF World Cross Country Trials - when they line up in Birmingham’s Cofton Park this Saturday (13 March).

Vernon, with two cross country victories from two in February at the British Universities (BUCS) and English National Cross Country Championships, has once again been in fantastic domestic form over the winter period and leads the Cross Challenge standings. He also clocked a lifetime best for 3000m indoors (7:49.84) when finishing fifth in a high quality field at the Aviva Grand Prix on 20 February.

Also expected to line up in Birmingham are 2009 European Cross Country Championships representative Mike Skinner (Blackheath & Bromley/Kent), winner of the opening two McCain events and joint series leader with Vernon going into the Final, and European Cross silver medallist Mo Farah (Newham & Essex Beagles). Farah, former European Cross Country champion (2006) and twice silver medallist (2008 and 2009), has opted to focus on cross country this year in spite of his proven ability indoors with European Indoor Championships gold over 3000m, 12 months ago. While he should start as favourite to win the Trials, he has been defeated over cross country domestically in 2010, finishing third behind Ricky Stevenson (New Marske) and Steve Vernon (Stockport/Greater Manchester) the BUPA Great Edinburgh International (4k) in January.

Although not currently eligible to compete for Great Britain & Northern Ireland, Moumin Geele (Newham & Essex Beagles), second in the English National behind Vernon and second in the Liverpool leg of the Challenge will also be in the mix for a podium finish.

Scott Overall (Blackheath & Bromley/Middlesex), who finished eighth in the European Cross Country Trials in Liverpool, will represent the Aviva Great Britain & Northern Ireland team over 3000m at the World Indoor Championships also this weekend (12-14 March), but has asked to be considered for selection for the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Bydogszcz (Poland) on 28 March.

In the absence of European Cross Country champion Hayley Yelling-Higham (Windsor, Slough, Eton & Hounslow) in the senior women’s race, Steph Twell has a fantastic opportunity to secure back to back victories in the showcase cross country event of the season.  Having been disappointed with her performances at both World and European Cross Country Championships in 2009, she has already posted two major domestic cross country wins in 2010 with victory in the BUCS cross country and English national following an impressive fifth place in the strong elite field in the BUPA Great Edinburgh International.

Her greatest challenge was likely to come from Vale Royal’s Stevie Stockton – one of the favourites for the overall McCain Cross Challenge series – but following her second place finishes behind Twell in both the BUCS  (British University Colleges and Sport) and the English National she’s opted to conclude her cross country season.

Freya Murray (Chester-le-Street/Scotland East), fifth in 2009 but then unfortunate  to miss out on the World Cross through injury, will also be in the mix and has shown she’s in the form required to secure her first UK Inter Counties senior victory 12 months after taking the senior women’s team title. Prior to a dominating victory in the Scottish National on 20 February where she won by almost two minutes, Murray was the impressive winner of the South African World Cross Trials by 45 seconds and has since confirmed her high class credentials with a second place finish in the Fukuoka International in Japan (27 February).

Based on current form, Hatti Dean (Hallamshire/Yorkshire), third in the English National and currently third in the McCain UK Cross Challenge with one series victory to date (Cardiff), should also be battling for a podium finish, while Jess Sparke (Woodford Green with Essex Ladies/Essex ), seventh in the English National, will be looking to recapture the form which saw her finish third in the McCain UK Cross Challenge/European Trials in Liverpool (first under-23), going on to take bronze (under-23) in the European Cross Country Championships.

Yelling-Higham, the overall Challenge winner in 2004/05 and current leader for 2009/10, is returning to full fitness following illness and wishes to be considered for selection.

Given the IAAF ruling on age groups which is different to that of UK events, European junior medal duo Nick Goolab, runner up to Andy Vernon in the BUCS cross country and defending UK Inter Counties champion, and James Wilkinson – first and second respectively in the English Nationals (under-20) - are too old to be considered for the under-20 age group at World level, and as such, are ineligible to compete as juniors in the Trials.

With that in mind, European Cross Country Trials winner Richard Goodman (Shaftesbury Barnet/Middlesex) GB & NI representative in the 2009 European Cross Country Championships, is one of the favourites for victory along with European Youth Olympic Festival 3000m gold medallist Callum Hawkins (Kilbarchan AAC/Scotland West) and Jonny Hay (AFD/Surrey).

Goodman, who won the English National (under-17) convincingly on 27 February, steps up an age group on this occasion to challenge for a GB junior team place for the World Cross. He won the European Cross Trial race in Liverpool before going on to finish fifth in the European Cross (under-20) - less than ten seconds outside of the medal positions.

Hawkins, the Scottish National Cross Country champion, has won three cross country races from four starts in 2010 to date - a statistic matched by Goodman - and was the dominant winner of the penultimate McCain UK Cross Challenge race in Antrim in last January, while Hay, most recently third in the English National, is currently second in the McCain UK Cross Challenge behind Welsh National Cross Country champion Dewi Griffiths (Carmarthen/Wales West).

Of those athletes unable to compete in the junior trials, US-based Tom Farrell (Border/Oklahoma State) is likely to be considered for World Cross selection based on his current indoor form - most recently clocking 7:58.68 for a new British under-20 3000m record – and his and past cross country performances which included GB & NI representative honours.

The junior women’s field in Birmingham is likely to be led by Aldershot’s Emilia Gorecka who, like Goodman, was the impressive winner of the English National (also under-17).

Gorecka (Surrey), who steps up to the under-20 trial race in Cofton Park, has already proven her credentials at senior level with under-17 victories in the two opening McCain series races – including a joint under-17/under-20 victory at the European Trials in November – and is unbeaten in individual cross country events since she started racing.  She was too young to be considered for the GB & NI team for the Europeans, but should be a certainty for selection for the World Cross in Bydgoszcz.  European Cross Country Championships (junior) team silver medallists Kate Avery (Shildon/North East), Beth Potter (Victoria Park City of Glasgow/Scotland West) and Lily Partridge (AFD/Surrey) are the most likely to challenge Gorecka’s unbeaten run.

Avery in particular has been impressive in recent months, her European Cross individual bronze backed up in 2010 with victories in the Durham Schools Cross Country and Lotto Crosscup and a second place finish in the English National. She leads the McCain UK Cross Challenge series going into the Final ahead of Potter.

In the non-Trial races, the focus is on the McCain UK Cross Challenge series leaders.

At under-17 level, Ross Matheson (Lasswade AAC/Scotland East) – with three wins from three in that age group - and Gorecka (AFD/Surrey) are the respective leaders, but both are stepping up an age group this weekend for the purpose of the Trial.

In their absence, current third placed under-17 Melissa Courtney (Poole/Dorset) heads the under-17 entries ahead of Imogen Wolsey (Bath/Wiltshire) and Georgia Peel (AFD), but English National bronze medallist Emily Wallbank (Bedford/Bedfordshire) and Welsh Nationals victor Ffion Price (Brecon AC/West Wales) – sixth in the McCain series going into the final – will be key contenders for the UK Inter Counties title.

In the men’s McCain series, Joshua Grace (AFD/Surrey), Morgan Davies (Bridgend/South Wales) and Scott Green (Central AC/Scotland East) are second, third and fourth respectively behind Matheson, but it’s Davies, the Welsh National champion, who starts as one of the favourites for the Inter Counties title alongside Tom Curr (Stroud & District/Gloucestershire), English National runner up behind Richard Goodman (who steps up to under-20).

Benedict Westhenry (Weymouth St Pauls/Dorset), most recently second in Cardiff, leads the McCain under-15 series going into the final event. James Lamswood (Kingston Upon Hull/Humberside), the Liverpool winner is currently second, while Finlay Rae (Ayr Seaforth/Scotland West), with his second place finish in Gateshead his best series result to date, is third.  Rachael Dunn (Edinburgh AC/Scotland East), runner up in the Scottish National, leads the girls’ series while Abbie Hetherington (Carlisle Aspatria/Cumbria), the 2009 Inter counties runner up is currently second. Rebecca Mills (Scarborough/Yorkshire), with top ten finishes in Gateshead, Liverpool and Cardiff, is third.

Jack Crabtree (East Cheshire/Surrey), winner of the McCain UK Cross Challenge meeting in Cardiff, leads the under-13 McCain Cross Challenge. He was second in the English National behind George Duggan (Tonbridge) with both athletes likely be in the mix for the overall Inter Counties victory.  Liam Turner (VP-Glasgow/Scotland West), second going into the final round, won the McCain series opener in Gateshead while Gavin McArdle, fifth in the Scottish National, finished second in Antrim and is currently third.

On the girls’ side, Megan Bates (Eden Runners/Cumbria) has consistently performed well with top ten finishes in every race in the 2009/10 McCain Cross Challenge and leads the current series. Kathryn Gillespie (Central AC/Scotland East), Scottish National Champion and unbeaten since the opening event in Gateshead in November 2009 is second, with Katie Rowe (Guernsey/Hampshire) third.

UKA is committed to selecting and taking athletes to the World Cross, but not committed to taking full teams.  There is no automatic selection, although the first three athletes past the post in each of the trial races will be selected providing they have met two of the five guideline criteria listed. If the selectors feel that a team can challenge for a top eight position, a scoring team of at least four athletes will be selected.

The full selection policy is on the UKA website: http://www.uka.org.uk/world-class/winter-selection-policy-2009-10/

Selection will take place on Tuesday 16th March with the team to be announced on Wednesday 17th March.