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UK Athletics

UK Inter-Counties Cross Country Championships preview

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Inter-Counties Cross Country

Defending champions Dominic Bannister and Hatti Dean will face stiff opposition at the UK Inter-Counties Cross Country Championships, incorporating the UK Cross Challenge Finals and the World Junior Trials, at Nottingham’s Wollaton Park on Saturday 24 February.


Bannister (North East) will line-up in the senior men’s 12km against Frank Tickner (Avon and Somerset), who is seeking to complete a hat-trick of major domestic victories, plus four of the Norwich Union Great Britain and Northern Ireland team that will be racing at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Mombasa, Kenya, on 24 March – Alan Buckley (Nottinghamshire), Ben Noad (Avon and Somerset), Mike Skinner (Kent) and Phil Wicks (Surrey).


Tickner, aged 23, has already won the European and World Trials this winter but is not racing in Kenya. He is unable to join the GB team at their acclimatisation camp in Durban, South Africa, from 5 March because he will be taking his finals at Birmingham University, where he is on an English and French degree course. If he succeeds in Nottingham, he will be the youngest Inter-Counties men’s champion since Christian Stephenson (South Wales) a decade ago.


Marriage is of significance to both Buckley, 32, who will return to the park on which he ran many races as a child, and Noad, 30, who is striving to add a gold medal to two Inter-Counties silver medals won in the past few years.


Buckley and his wife Jo, a fell running champion who will be in the Yorkshire women’s team on Saturday, spent their delayed honeymoon in Ethiopia last year to get a taste of running in Africa just in case he made it to the World Championships.


Noad will marry his fiancée, Stacia Winchester, in New Jersey, USA, a fortnight after the Worlds.


In the senior women’s 8km race, Dean (Oxfordshire), the reigning UK Cross Challenge champion, lines up against several of the athletes who will be Norwich Union GB team-mates in the Worlds including the 2005 Inter-Counties and European cross country champion Hayley Yelling (Middlesex), who has won more UK Cross Challenge races (18) than anyone else, and World Trials winner Kate Reed (Avon and Somerset), who was inspired to “see how high I could go in the sport” by watching the inaugural Cross Challenge meeting at Bristol in 1997.


The significance of the Inter-Counties Championships was best articulated by Dean, who was the Under 17 champion in 1998. She said: “As soon as I crossed the line in the World Trials and realised I’d be going to the acclimatisation camp, my first thought was, ‘I hope we don’t leave before the Inter-Counties!’ But it comes at just the right time. It will be ideal preparation for the Worlds.” The meeting is considered of such importance that the organisers, the Counties Athletic Union, has secured sponsorship from National Express Group and support from Nottingham City Council plus the organisers of the world’s two biggest races of their kind, the London Marathon and the Great North Run. The entire meeting is also being televised live again by Sky TV.


There is even greater significance for the Under 20s, who will be racing to impress the selectors sufficiently to join in Kenya the trio who have already earned pre-selection – European Junior cross country champion Steph Twell (Aldershot, Farnham and District AC), European Junior 5000m champion Emily Pidgeon (Gloucester AC) and the Inter-Counties Under 20 champion of the last two years Sian Edwards (Kettering Town Harriers), who went on last winter to finish 10th in the Junior Women’s race at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Japan, the best by a GB teenager since 1992, when Paula Radcliffe (Bedford and County AC) won and Jenny Clague (Liverpool Harriers) was fourth.


Coincidentally, Clague is now one of the Norwich Union GB team coaches, passing on her experience to the next generation.


The Under 20 women’s 6km could be a battle between two of Norwich Union GB’s team champions at the European Championships pre-Christmas and two more of the Aldershot, Farnham and District AC coaching squad made famous by Twell. The golden girls are Jess Coulson (Greater Manchester) and Olivia Kenney (Warwickshire). The Hampshire duo coached by Mick Woods, the performance manager at the UK Athletics Endurance Performance Centre at St Mary’s University Twickenham are Charlotte Purdue and Emma Pallant. Purdue, the Inter-Counties Under 15 champion only two years ago, Pallant, the South of England Junior champion, has inflicted recent defeats on Coulson and Kenney. Also expect a strong challenge from Stevie Stockton (Cheshire), who won the North of England Junior title by almost 40 seconds a few weeks ago.


The Under 20 men’s 8km will feature Lee Carey (Warwickshire) seeking his third successive Inter-Counties title. He has won both of the UK Cross Challenge races since Christmas, in Belfast and Cardiff, but will take nothing for granted after the way in which he upset the odds against the pre-race favourite, Adam Hickey, last year. Hickey has been injured for much of this winter but spies report he is now fit again and could be in shape to seek revenge. With six GB places up for grabs, their main rivals are expected to be South of England junior champion Jon Pepper (Belgrave Harriers) and Ricky Stevenson (North East), who both ran in the Europeans pre-Christmas; Nick Swinburn (North East), the Morpeth fell runner who was a surprise fifth in this race 12 months ago, earning a place in the Worlds team in Fukuoka, Japan; Conor McNulty (Scotland West), agonisingly seventh last year and aiming to become the first Celt this winter to win an international place; Andrew Livingstone (Essex), who ran well for England against older athletes in an Under 23 match in Germany on 3 February; and last year’s Under 17 champion Greg Billington (Suffolk) who has dual GB and USA nationality.


Down the age groups, as with the Seniors and Juniors, these Championships are the climax of the UK Cross Challenge season, which epitomises the UK Athletics policy of encouraging the best athletes to compete against each other regularly in an attempt to drive up standards in every age group in every region on the way to London 2012.


The Under 17 men’s 6km could be a battle between Matt Withey (Gloucestershire), who has dominated the Cross Challenge since Christmas, and Chris Harvey (Staffs), who won both Cross Challenge races pre-Christmas.


The Under 17 women’s 5km always loses some ambitious athletes to the Under 20 Trial. Laura Alexander-High (Hampshire), the Cardiff Challenge winner, could have a great battle with Heather Timmins (Warrington AC), the North of England champion who prevailed in Belfast and currently heads the Challenge rankings.


The Under 15 boys’ 4.5km gives John Bird (Suffolk) the chance to complete a wonderfully consistent season in which he was fifth in Birmingham, second in Liverpool and first in both Belfast and Cardiff.


The Under 15 girls’ 4km will feature North of England champion Sarah Barker (Greater Manchester) seeking to add to her Cross Challenge victories in Birmingham, Liverpool and Belfast – though she was edged into second place in Cardiff by Melissa Hawtin (Oxfordshire), who was the Under 13 bronze medallist at the Inter-Counties 12 months ago after looking invincible in the preceding races. In other words, predictions are always subject to how the athlete feels on the day!


The Under 13 boys’ 3km looks like being dominated by Mark Shaw (North East). He took the silver medal 12 months ago and is unbeaten in the Cross Challenge this winter.


The Under 13 Girls’ 3km could be even more of a lottery than ever. Emelia Gorecka (Surrey) won the pre-Christmas Cross Challenges and is the South of England champion. Amber Watson (Gloucs) was second in Birmingham and first in Belfast. Emma Gilmore (Hampshire) won in Cardiff. If Wollaton Park is firm and flat, probably track form will be important: in last summer’s Power of 10 1500m rankings for Under 13 girls, Gorecka was fifth, Watson 16th and Gilmore 20th.


Even if it’s muddy, everyone will be a winner. All athletes and spectators will be able to get their hands on a range of free samples to help them clean-up afterwards. For UK Athletics are using the meeting to officially unveil their new sponsorship with Original Source. In an initial two-year deal, parent company PZ Cussons will work with UK Athletics to help promote their Original Source and Charles Worthington brands.