WHILE local favourites Liverpool AC dominated Saturday’s Start Fitness-sponsored North of England 12 Stage Men’s Road Relay Championships on their home patch in the City’s splendid Sefton Park, defending champions Morpeth Harriers put up a brave fight to win themselves a set of bronze medals, despite the loss of key runners Jonny Taylor and Ian Harding, writes George Patterson.
The Northumbrians began very positively, courtesy of Mongolian international marathon specialist Serod Batochir, who eventually led the long-first-leg runners home with an impressive 22m19s for the five-mile, two-lap circuit, which proved to be the fifth-fastest long stage of the day and gave his club a seven-second lead over Stockport Harriers, courtesy of former Sunderland Harrier Jack Martin, at this early point.
Ross Floyd’s short stage second leg saw Morpeth Harriers still very much in contention, despite him dropping to third with his individual clocking of 11m59s for the two-and-a-half-mile one lap, and they were only a mere 12 and eight seconds respectively behind new leaders Derby, later to rank unfinished, and second-placed North East rivals New Marske, eventually to fade to 11th.
Floyd’s leg saw him also clock the day’s 31st fastest short-stage time.
Third leg saw Michael Dawson enter the fray for Morpeth and, unfortunately, he paid the penalty for a perhaps over-enthusiastic start, as he slipped back to seventh in completing the two laps in 24m31s.
Andrew Lawrence’s fourth leg of 12m09s did draw some respite for Morpeth as he clawed back one place at the expense of Leeds City, who were eventually to join Morpeth in a tremendous tussle for the bronze medals behind Liverpool Harriers, who at this stage were moving ever closer to honours, and Salford Harriers, who were the big threat lying in second place, with New Marske now holding a slender lead, having deposed Stockport.
Matters got even brighter for Morpeth Harriers on Matt Nicholson’s long fifth leg, which saw him rise a further place to fifth with his excellent clocking of 23m03s, which, in turn, proved to be third fastest of the leg, and 21st fastest of the day.
Morpeth Harriers’ sixth-leg runner Neil Gunstone, who was only drafted into the squad at a late hour, certainly proved his worth on the day.
Team Manager David Swinburne and Club Secretary Mike Bateman had managed to track down Gunstone in Dundee, where he was on a family visit, and he willingly motored back on the Friday to make the further journey on to Liverpool to take his place in the squad.
Gunstone’s clocking of 13m20s saw him drop only one place and again it was Leeds City, who were the close fighting opposition.
This was redressed somewhat, however, when Nick McCormick made his long-awaited re-appearance in a Morpeth Harriers vest on the long leg seven.
McCormick had plenty of class opposition to battle with, as he locked horns with the talented James Wilkinson of Leeds and eventually pulled away from the Yorkshireman to gain two places to fourth, passing a Sale Harriers runner into the bargain, with his second-fastest clocking of the leg of 21m47s. He was only surpassed by Liverpool Harrier Jonny Mellor, who gained a tremendous lead by clocking the day’s fastest long-stage time of 21m43s, a lead from which they never surrendered over the course of the rest of the competition.
As Liverpool pulled further away at the front, it was now quite evident that Salford had also benefited from Andi Jones’s 22m40s, taking them into second place, with Stockport holding on to third spot. Morpeth Harriers’ eighth-leg runner Ian Hudspith did manage to close the gap, however, with a superb 11m21s, which was fourth-fastest short-stage time of the day and fastest of the leg.
This proved just enough for ninth-leg runner Lewis Timmins to take Morpeth into a medal position with his clocking of 23m20s, proving too much to handle for the Stockport opposition, who had also found himself passed by the strong-running Leeds City team boss Simon Deakin (23m06s).
Timmins’s time was fourth fastest of the leg and this, in turn, paved the way for an exciting battle for the bronze medals between Morpeth and Leeds over the final three legs.
First blood went to Leeds City, however, with Michael Williams’s 11m55s 10th-leg clocking, proving just too strong for Morpeth’s Neil Wilkinson’s 12m31s.
However, Peter Newton’s fastest clocking on leg 11 of 22m31s, proved to be exceptional, as not only was it 10th fastest of the day overall, it also gave Morpeth Harrier Team Manager and newly-elected Club Chairman David Swinburne just enough margin to hold off the recognised threat from Leeds City’s final weapon Darran Bilton.
Swinburne truly gave his all as he battled to hold on to third place and he was a very relieved man, who was greeted by his much-elated Morpeth Harrier clubmates when he crossed the finish line in 12m18s still holding a 12-second margin over Leeds City for the well-earned bronze medals.
Morpeth Harriers were also the first home from the North East, with Gateshead Harriers A team having come through well in the late stages to finish seventh.
After a very strong start, New Marske faded to eleventh and Gateshead Harriers B team finished 44th of 47 finishing clubs.
All three North East clubs have qualified for the National Championships, due to be held at Sutton Coldfield in three weeks’ time.
Unfortunately, Morpeth Harriers’ Senior Women were unable to field a team in their six-stage contest due to late withdrawals through injury, and no other North East squads travelled to an event that was won by Rotherham Harriers, who beat their Yorkshire rivals Wakefield, who were the 2011 champions.
l Morpeth Harrier James Taylor finished sixth in the 3000m steeplechase in the Radley Open Graded Track meeting, held in Abingdon, Oxfordshire on Saturday, in a personal-best time of 10m24.74s.
l With the club’s leading athletes competing elsewhere at the weekend, it was down to the somewhat lesser-knowns to fly the Morpeth Harriers flag at the Transped-sponsored Blyth Valley 10k on Sunday, which attracted a field of more than 500 runners.
The first three finishers for Morpeth Harriers were all relatively homebred and it was Under 20 athlete Jonnie Nisbet who led the contingent home in 14th place in 35m16s, despite having to take a breather during the event with stomach cramps.
Next for Morpeth was Tom Brooks, also an Under 20 athlete, who finished 20th in 35m50s. Ten seconds and one place behind him was Thomas Straughan, who is also a promising name for the future.
Next home in 25th was Fergus Bates, who clocked 36m25s, to finish as fifth Over 40 Veteran Man.
Fourth Over 45 Veteran Man was Alistair MacDonald, who clocked 37m26s when finishing 40th.
Other Morpeth Harriers results: John Woods (46th) 37m42s, Sam Hancox (57th) 38m19s, Steven Bradley (66th) 38m46s, Mike Winter (70th) 39m00s, Rob Hancox (79th) 39m23s and A Richardson (100th) 40m43s.
Morpeth Harrier Phillip Winkler has been selected to represent the North East at the Virgin Money Giving Mini London Marathon.
He received his call for the April 22 event after a successful cross-country season, which culminated in him winning the North Eastern Counties U15 Boys’ title in December.