ARCTIC conditions failed to deter hundreds of hardy cross country runners in the final fixture of the Start Fitness North Eastern Harrier League at Prudhoe on Saturday.
They turned out in their droves to help their clubs in the chase for league points, as they battled over a frozen course into the teeth of a howling, freezing wind.
The 10k Prudhoe farmland course is regarded as the toughest of all the six league races. And relegation-threatened Sunderland Strollers produced the performance of the day to dramatically save themselves from the drop to division two.
In the closest-ever battle to retain First Division status, five clubs at the bottom of the league were covered by only one point between them.
The Strollers went into the 10k handicap race firmly rooted to the bottom of the division and looking doomed. But, like last season, they remarkably pulled off another Houdini act to finish second team behind league winners Morpeth and secure league safety.
That superb performance lifted them to a final sixth place in the table on 41 points, with both Heaton and North Shields on 42 points going down on countback.
The Ashbrooke club had a mixture of slow and medium pack runners scoring for them and they used their start advantage to great effect.
They held onto their forward positions – over what was the longest of all the Harrier League races – despite being chased down by the faster packs.
First across the line for the Strollers was veteran Ken Maynard, who raised his game in the Strollers’ hour of need to finish a splendid eighth (41.34).
Steve Rankin from the medium pack ran out of skin to finish ninth in the club’s fastest time (39.05).
Then came tri-athlete Gavin Sword 31st (43.44), Graeme Pullan 44th (44.06), Anthony Wilton 46th (44.16) and medium man Graeme Thorpe 65th (42.08) to close the scoring.
Sunderland Harriers’ slight chance of lifting the First Division title failed to get off the ground, finishing seventh on the day and third in the league.
The club’s counters were medium man Ian Dixon in 18th (40.24), fast men Nathan Reed 29th (38.43), Craig Isherwood 47th (39.16), Michael Barker 53rd (39.18), mediums Paul Redman 78th (42.46) and Steve Graham 124th (44.09).
League table: 1 Morpeth 15pts, 2 Gateshead 22, 3 Sunderland Harriers 24, 4 South Shields 29, 5 Durham 32, 6 Sunderland Strollers 41, 7 Wallsend 41, 8 Low Fell 42, 9 North Shields 42, 10 Heaton 42.
Houghton Harriers also performed a rescue act by finishing fourth team in the Second Division to ward off relegation.
They had medium man Thomas Grey in 19th (40.33) and Stephen Johnson 43rd (44.05) as their top men.
Sunderland Strollers’ women finished seventh in the First Division won by Heaton.
They had Ashleigh Thorpe 21st, Jenna Maynard 28th and Moyra McGowan 67th. Houghton Harrier Katie Scott was fourth.
Sunderland Harriers’ under-20 women won their league championship and finished their season with another team win.
They were led by Alex Pearson who finished third for the bronze medal.
Anna Robinson was fourth, Amy Coulson fifth and Merial Smithson finished ninth.
Houghton Harriers had some good runs from their youngsters.
Lily Hardie won the girls’ under-11 race and her twin sister Eva was second.
Henry Johnson (right) was fourth boy. Alex Brown was third in the under-15 boys, Matthew Smith was fifth under-13. Sunderland’s Sophie Burnett (Birtley) was second in the under-15s but fastest overall.