A lifetime ambition very nearly became a reality for Morpeth Harriers and their legendary, long-time member and president Jim Alder on Saturday, writes George Patterson.
They came within just over a minute from achieving much-wished-for gold medals in the Senior Men’s event at the annual English National 12-Stage Road Relays held at their ancestral venue, Sutton Park, Sutton Coldfield, near Birmingham.
Having won silver once, in 2007, and bronze on no less than four occasions (1995, 1999, 2002 and 2011), there was every reason to believe that on this occasion, the club could go one better and win that elusive gold, and by no one more so than Alder.
He is currently celebrating the 48th anniversary of his memorable Commonwealth Games marathon victory in Kingston, Jamaica, and will be taking part in some of the celebrations marking this year’s Games, being held in his native Glasgow this summer.
Even without the services of leading light Nick McCormick, the squad was still full of strength, with Jonny Taylor, Nick Swinburn, Ryan Stephenson, Nathan Shrubb, Richard Morrell and new acquisition Paulo Pinheiro, a former Portuguese junior champion, all in the starting line-up.
It was Taylor who got things off to an excellent start for Morpeth on the 5.08mile first leg.
He came home in second place in 24m41s, 20seconds behind early leaders Cardiff, a time that would eventually rank as seventh equal long-leg on the day.
On the short 2.69mile second leg, Nathan Shrubb held his nerve as he came home in third place in 13m20s, only a second adrift of Kent AC, who had advanced from their early placing of fourth, at the expense of Highgate, who were also to come through again on forthcoming stages of the contest.
The long third leg saw Morpeth’s Lewis Timmins very much involved in a tough battle for supremacy as the lead changed, with Highgate coming through again, and Bedford coming into the equation.
Timmins clocked 25m28s, as he came home in fourth spot, however, still only a few seconds adrift of a medal placing.
Ryan Stephenson, who had answered a late call from team manager David Swinburne, to fill the gap left by the absent Ian Harding on the short fourth leg, did his level best to keep Morpeth Harriers in contention. However, he succumbed to a lack of race fitness, having not competed since the North Eastern Cross Country Championships in mid-December, where he sustained a leg injury.
Stephenson unfortunately slipped to seventh place with his clocking of 13m49s; however, he was still only 30 seconds adrift of a medal placing.
On the long fifth leg, Nick Swinburn, clearly in good form entered the fray and succeeded in clawing back three places. He was only 16 seconds adrift of the now third-placed Leeds City, with Highgate still leading and Aldershot now in second spot.
His clocking was 25m01s, which proved to be sixth fastest on the leg.
The sixth leg saw debutant Pinheiro in action and, as Highgate went back to fourth, he quickly passed Leeds City and did battle with new leaders Aldershot.
Pinheiro certainly made his Morpeth Harriers debut a memorable one – when he reached the finish-line in an excellent 12m44s, the day’s fifth fastest short-stage clocking and the fastest on the leg, he had all but grabbed the lead, finishing only three seconds adrift, at this the halfway point in the contest.
Unfortunately, Richard Morrell on the long seventh leg suffered from having very strong runners around who were all champing at the bit to gain some advantage at this a very vital stage in the contest.
The one who gained the most was James Wilkinson of Leeds City, who clocked the leg’s fastest time and one of the fastest on the day, to put the Northern Champions into the lead for the first time, a lead that they were not to surrender for the remainder of the contest.
Aldershot had now dropped to second and Bedford had come back into the reckoning, as Morpeth slipped back to fourth, courtesy of Morrell’s 26m24s, but only still only a mere 14 seconds adrift of a medal placing.
The placings remained unaltered during Ade Whitwam’s short eighth leg, where he clocked 13m23s on his 12-Stage debut, which was just outside the leg’s top-six times.
Still in fourth place, but now around 50 seconds adrift of a medal placing, Ian Hudspith’s ninth leg saw Morpeth back among the leaders as he got round the 5.08-mile circuit in an excellent 25m20s, coming home third at the expense of Bedford, who had drifted by 16 seconds.
Hudspith’s time was seventh fastest on the leg.
Aldershot were now only 70 seconds ahead in second place, with Leeds City now well out in front by more than another minute.
It was Matthew Nicholson for Morpeth Harriers on the short leg 10 and he did his level best to claw back some of second-placed Aldershot’s advantage.
He successfully reduced the margin to around 40 seconds, as he got round in the leg’s third fastest time of 13m08s.
So it was former Northern 10,000metre track champion Peter Newton who went out on the penultimate 11th leg chasing ultimate glory.
Newton quickly chased down his Aldershot opponent and, by the time the pair had reached the monument at the top of the course, there was only 13 seconds between them, with half of the leg still to run.
Clocking an excellent time of 24m51s, second fastest on the leg, Newton not only succeeded in ousting Aldershot, he had also eaten into some of Leeds City’s lead, as final leg runner Ross Floyd went out in the act of retaining at the very least, silver medals.
Floyd successfully managed to fend off the chasing Aldershot opponent to put in a 19-second cushion to take the silver medals and reduce Leeds City’s winning margin to 57 seconds, from the 65 seconds, which had been the margin at takeover point.
His individual clocking of 13m29s was fifth fastest on the leg.
Morpeth Harriers’ final team effort over the 12 legs took 3hrs51m38s and Leeds City won in 3hrs50m41s.
Aldershot finished third in 3hrs51m57s.
Morpeth Harriers Men’s team manager Swinburne felt that the whole squad on the day all played their part in what was a truly excellent result, a result which they had all learned from and will take away the knowledge that they were one of the best clubs in the country, who will return to grab that elusive gold in the very near future.
He also singled out Ryan Stephenson for special praise, that he had come in at the very last minute, after a very lean racing period due to injury and had performed extremely well under such circumstances.
Two other North East clubs travelled to the event.
Gateshead Harriers finished 19th in 4hrs08m02s, and Tyne Bridge Harriers were 32nd in 4hrs19m09s.
Fifty-seven teams completed the Men’s 12-Stage Relay.
In the accompanying Women’s Six Stage event run over the short 2.69mile course, Morpeth Harriers were very unlucky to lose out on medals as in the Northern Championships.
They finished a close fifth just behind Birchfield and only a mere 45 seconds outside a medal placing.
After Sarah Graham’s first leg clocking of 16m44s saw her finish 38th, it was the club’s middle order runners Laura Weightman, Morag Stead and Ashley Gibson, who got them into a challenging position.
Weightman’s second-leg clocking of 14m03s, which was fastest of the leg and eventually proved to be the second fastest of the day, saw her claw back a mammoth 31 places, before handing over to third-leg runner Stead.
Stead ran solidly and maintained Morpeth Harriers’ position, by clocking the leg’s 10th fastest time of 15m33s.
This paved the way well for Gibson, who has been in excellent form since the English National Cross Country Championships at Nottingham in February.
Ashley very quickly set about the opposition in front of her and got up to fourth with her clocking of 14m41s, only seven or eight seconds adrift of third-placed Rotherham.
Gibson’s time was also third fastest on the leg, only beaten by Inter Counties Cross Country winner Lily Partridge of Aldershot and Swansea’s Veteran International Andrea Whitcombe.
Delyth James battled very hard on a tough fifth leg to remain in contention and, despite her effort of 16m29s, she slipped back to fifth.
Sixth and final leg runner was Sarah Wilkinson, Morpeth Harriers’ Women’s Road and Cross Country team manager, who ran with determined force.
Despite her efforts, she could not quite gain ground on those in front of her with her excellent individual clocking of 15m17, which proved to be sixth fastest of the leg.
Wilkinson remained very upbeat about her squad’s overall performance and felt that there was now a stable base to build on for the challenges ahead and felt the squad had proved they are more than able to compete nationally and eventually to make a realistic challenge for medals.
Everyone had run solidly against very strong and stern opposition and she couldn’t really expect more on the day, however, could not hide from the fact that there was disappointment in being so close to medals twice within two weeks, but hadn’t claimed them.
Morpeth Harriers’ total team finishing time over the six stages was 1hr32m47s.
The event was won by Aldershot in 1hr27m00s, with Swansea and Bristol and West second and third with times of 1hr29m28s and 1hr32m03s respectively.
Forty teams completed the Women’s event.
Locally, Morpeth Harriers Senior Men triumphed in the Transped-sponsored Blyth Valley 10k Race on Sunday.
The event was won by North Shields Poly’s Gary Cook in 33m24s.
Led by Cook, North Shields Poly were second team to Morpeth Harriers, with Sunderland Harriers in third place.
Morpeth Harriers were led home by John Butters, who finished second in 33m35s, only losing out for victory by 11 seconds.
Butters, who was also first in the Veteran Men’s Over-35 section, was well supported in the winning team count by Thomas Straughan, who finished fourth in 33m43s, and Sam Hancox, who again showed excellent form in finishing ninth in 34m26s.
In the women’s race, which was won by Durham City’s Rosie Smith in a new women’s course record time of 34m12s, Morpeth Harriers Emma Holt and Lorna MacDonald finished fifth and ninth in respective times of 38m47s, and 41m08s.
Other Morpeth Harriers finishers were as follows: Matthew Boyle (50th) 37m45s; Rob Hancox (51st, fourthO/45) 37m47s; Tony Lewis (54th, sixth O/40) 38m00s; Mark Snowball (122nd) 41m09s; Paul Banks (134th) 41m36s; Peter Scaife (155th, seventh O/50) 42m44s; Mark Crosby (225th, 13th O/50); Archie Jenkins (247th, seventh O/60); Norman Clark (270th, eighth O/60) 47m22s, Susan Smith (49th Woman, second O/45 Woman) 48m22s, Kate Herron (103rd Woman) 53m34s; David Gray (413th, ninth O/65) 54m23s, and Clare Walker (116th Woman, 29th O/35 Woman) 55m16s.
There were a total of 526 finishers in the event.
Morpeth Harrier Nick McCormick spurned the chance of winning silver medals at Saturday’s National 12 Stage Road Relays to take part in Sunday’s prestigious Brighton 10k, run alongside the highly-prized Brighton Marathon.
There is no doubt that his club colleagues’ achievements of the previous day’s challenges spurred him to success, as he crossed the finish line in 29m11s to clinch a well-earned victory in illustrious company.
Second place went to Southend’s Adam Hickey in 29m50s, with third spot going to Deeside’s Robbie Simpson in 30m01s.