THE 31st running of the Blaydon Race is held tomorrow on its traditional date of June 9, with its usual star-studded field.
The 5.9-mile race, which sets off from Newcastle at 7.15pm, is second only to the Great North Run in the North East, with a field of more than 4,000.
The ever-popular event is always over-subscribed and attracts a sprinkling of Africans chasing the prize money.
Sunderland’s Alyson Dixon will be bidding to notch up her first Blaydon women’s win in only her second race since qualifying for the World Championship Marathon in Brighton in April.
But she faces a mammoth task. As well as the African challenge, she will take on former Elswick Harrier Justina Heslop, who is targeting her third win in a row. The Clapham Chaser is the course record holder with 31.25 and beat Dixon, right, in the recent London 10k.
Heslop finished fourth (33.20), just three seconds behind a below-par Paula Radcliffe, while Chester-le-Street club member Dixon was seventh (34.22) in the capital.
In last year’s race, Heslop was just nine seconds ahead of second-placed Dixon, who will be attempting to be the first athlete since Houghton Harrier Sheila Allen in 1995 to bring the winner’s trophy back to Wearside.
Also entered is Dixon’s clubmate Freya Murray, who has been on the injured list for some time.
With a £1,000 prize for first place and the usual plate of black pudding and tripe for all competitors, both the women’s and men’s races are fiercely contested. There are also cash prizes for the first three North East athletes to finish, with a £500 jackpot for the first across the line.
Since 1999 Africans have won every year apart from 2009, when Morpeth Harrier Ian Hudspith took the honours.
He is back again tomorrow in an ambitious attempt to repeat his momentous performance of two years ago, but the odds must have shortened as he is now a 40-year-old veteran.
However, he is still in good fettle, with some good recent performances to his name. He is the UK’s top-ranked veteran at 10k, having posted 29.42 at Manchester in May, before being the first veteran in the London 10k.
Sunderland Harrier Mark Hood has secured a late entry into the race and competes for the third time. The three-time North East Cross Country champion finished fifth in 2007 and eighth in 2008. He is searching for form after injury problems and was far from his best with a clocking of 31.28 in the London 10k.
Tipton Harrier Ryan McLeod, fourth last year, could be the dark horse as he tries to emulate his father Mike, a seven-time winner, including the first race in 1981.
Among the African contingent are Kenyan Edwin Kipkorir, who won last week’s Plymouth half-marathon ahead of Tewodros Shiferah of Ethiopia, and Burundian Jean Ndayinerya, who was second at Blaydon last year.
The runners assemble at the public house Balmbras in Newcastle (just as the travellers did to see the Blaydon Horse races in 1862) and are started on their run with the actual handbell mentioned in the song.
The race itself has been instrumental in maintaining interest in local traditions and in the Blaydon Races song in particular. The large crowd in Blaydon Shopping Precinct car park welcomes the runners just after 7.40pm, who receive local food and beer and the all-important T-shirt, along with their goody bags and certificate at the finish.