Google+ Running in Cork, Ireland: Guest Post : THE ENGLISH NATIONAL CROSS-COUNTRY... by John Walshe

Wednesday, February 27, 2019


The English National Cross-Country Championships attracts thousands of entrants and this year was no exception. With a start line as wide as a field, the assembled field eventually thins out as shown in the above photo... if you could call that 'thin'! :o)

(Videos of this years races)

In this guest post, John Walshe of Ballycotton looks at this years event and reflects on the same event 40 years ago.

(By John Walshe)

On Saturday last the Saucony/English National Cross-Country Championships took place on the grounds of Harewood House on the outskirts of Leeds. At what was regarded as one of the best venues in recent years, the 10-race programme attracted over 9000 entrants, culminating in the 131st senior men’s championship over 12km which had over 2000 finishers.

It was a great day for the local Leeds City club as they took both senior titles. Their women defeated Aldershot, Farnham & District (who had the individual winner in Emily Thornhill-Hosker) by three points while the Leeds City men had a clearer victory, finishing 81 points ahead of Tonbridge. Last year’s junior champion, Mahamed Mahamed from Southampton, won an exciting senior race by just one second from Emile Cairess of Leeds.

Less than three-and-a-half-minutes covered the top 100 finishers. An indication of the standard can be seen from the performance of Sean Fitzpatrick from Kent AC. After finishing third in 25:58 six days before at the Carrigaline five-miler, the 2:28 marathoner could only manage 282nd at Leeds.

The standards may have been high, but then this has always been the case with the event, once regarded as ‘The Greatest Cross-Country Race in the World’. That was back in the day when it took place over nine miles and served as selection race for the World (and before that, International) C-C Championships. It was reputed that unless you were capable of covering the opening half-mile (800m) in around two minutes, you could wave goodbye to any chance of mixing it with the leading contenders.

A case in point was the ‘National’ of 40 years ago which took place at Luton. The record-sized field boasted a line-up which would have been the envy of any track promoter of the time, although there was certainly no appearance fees on offer for the array of talent assembled that day. Just the honour of striving for individual and team glory and, for the first nine, selection for that year’s World Championships in Limerick.

Before we take a deeper look at some of those giants of distance running who graced the fields of Luton that day, these were the top 25 finishers:

 1 Mick McLeod (Elswick)         47:10
 2 Bernie Forde (AFD)        47:12
 3 Nick Rose (Bristol)            47:13
 4 Steve Kenyon (Bolton)        47:16
 5 Julian Goater (Shaftesbury)    47:34
 6 Steve Ovett (Brighton & Hove)    47:41
 7 Barry Smith (Gateshead)        47:45
 8 Tony Simmons (Luton)        47:56
 9 Ken Newton (Sheffield)        48:03
10 Nick Lees (Derby & County)    48:11
11 Andy Holden (Tipton)        48:26
12 Roy Bailey (Sheffield)        48:28
13 Graham Tuck (Cambridge & Col)    48:36
14 Nigel Gates (Bristol)         48:40
15 Nick Brawn (Invicta)        48:42
16 Dave Clarke (Hercules Wimb)    48:46
17 John Wheway (Wolverhampton)    48:58
18 Pete Standing (Windsor, S&E)    49:00   
19 Brendan Foster (Gateshead)     49:03
20 Mike Kearns (Tipton)         49:04
21 Peter Baker (Shaftesbury)        49:07
22 Richard May (Airedale & Spen)    49:12
23 Karl Harrison (Stretford)         49:13
24 Charlie Spedding (Gateshead)     49:17
25 Joe Patton (Portsmouth)        49:19

As can be seen, in one of the closest finishes in the event’s history just 31 seconds covered the first six. Mike McLeod, fifth two years before, finally added his name to the illustrious list of former winners. A man at home on the track, road or cross-country, McLeod would go on to take Olympic silver in the 10,000m five years later in Los Angeles. He had a personal best of 13:23.26 for 5000m (achieved at the Cork City Sports in 1980), ran 27:39.76 for 10,000m and was the inaugural winner of the Great North Run. Like most of his contemporaries, he raced at all distances and held a unique streak of 17 consecutive victories in the Saltwell 10km in his native North-East.

Two seconds behind McLeod came Bernie Ford, winner of the 1976 ‘National’ and who had track bests of 13:26.0 for 5000m and 27:43.74 for 10,000m. In third was Nick Rose, one of the few British athletes of that era to go down the US scholarship route at Western Kentucky University. As a result, this was only his second ‘real’ cross-country race since winning the International Junior title in 1971. Remarkably, again showing the versatility of the day, he had finished fifth in the European Indoor 3000m the previous week in 7:46.7. He would go to win the ‘National’ in 1980 and also take the bronze medal at that year’s World C-C Championship. It’s also worth noting that a year ago last November Rose was first in the M65 age-group at the British & Irish Masters C-C.

Fourth came Steve Kenyon of Bolton, probably best known for his performances on the road which included  winning the Great North Run in 1985 (the last British winner until Mo Farah) and also for a 10-mile clocking of 46:43 achieved in America.

Julian Goater would go on to win the ‘National’ of 1981 by over two minutes – still the largest margin in history – and also claimed a fourth place at the same year’s World Cross.  Neither was he a slouch on the track, with a 5000m best of 13:15.59.

And then we come to the sixth finisher, and a performance that was, to use today’s overused vocabulary, ‘awesome’. Steve Ovett was only 22 at the time and the previous autumn had defeated Eamonn Coghlan to win the European 1500m title, along with a second place in the 800m in a time of 1:44.09. Both performances earned him the prestigious BBC Sports Personality of the Year for 1978. He would go on to win Olympic gold (800m) and silver (1500m) at the 1980 Olympics, shortly after setting a world mile record of 3:48.8.

Showing that nine miles of tough cross-country is no determent to success on the track, even at that young age Ovett had, along with his middle-distance times, already achieved PBs such as 21.7 for 200m, 47.5 for 400m – and, wait for it - 65:38 for the half-marathon!

Two other Olympic medallists figured among the top 25 that day at Luton. Brendan Foster (19th), the 1976 10,000m bronze winner and former world record holder at the distance, turned out mainly to ensure his Gateshead club its fifth title in six years. Also scoring on the winning team was Charlie Spedding (25th) who would go on to finish third behind John Treacy in the 1984 Los Angles marathon.  

An Irish connection from that English National C-C of 1979 was that four of the top 20 – Andy Holden, Bernie Ford, Brendan Foster and Mike McLeod - had already tasted victory at the Grange International Cross-Country event at Fermoy, an indication of the class of athlete the North Cork venue attracted in those years.  

And finally, another Irish link to that race of 40 years ago, and to this year’s event at Leeds. In 1979, Martin McGann was his East Cheshire club’s second scorer in 174th position in what was his 10th ‘National’. Last Saturday, the now 72-year-old McGann competed in his 50th consecutive English National Cross-Country. Originally from Kiltale in Co Meath, McGann, who is a brother of 1972 Olympian and former Irish marathon champion, Des, finished in 1990th position to set a unique record that looks unlikely to be ever equaled or surpassed.

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