Sunderland Harriers are one of five clubs chasing senior team medals in the 110th North Eastern Counties Cross Country Championships at East Park, Sedgefield, this Saturday.
Forty clubs are entered for the men’s championship and Morpeth, Gateshead, Tyne Bridge, Durham and Sunderland, have emerged as the leading contenders.
The Wearsiders will face a stiff challenge to get themselves on the podium in the six-to-count team race.
Morpeth Harriers are the clear favourites to retain the title, but the minor medals should be fought out between the other four leading clubs.
Last year at Newcastle’s Town Moor, the city club finished third and Durham were second with Tyne Bridge and Gateshead trailing in their wake.
Sunderland, 14 times winners of the championship, are a stronger team than last year with a number of new recruits determined to make their mark over the 12k four-lap flat course, with some gentle climbs.
The last time they won the team title was in 2006 and since then they have regularly featured in the minor medals with Morpeth dominating the championship.
The Sunderland counters should come from any of the following: Kevin Jeffress, Steve McMahon, Steve Potts, Andy Powell, Nathan Reed, Matty Devlin, Matty Jones, Ian Dixon, Noel Hitchcock and Liam Roarty.
Jeffress, Potts, Reed and Hitchcock were team counters last year and competition for a counting position will be keener than ever. Jeffress has passed himself fit after illness laid him low and ended with a couple of below par results.
McMahon has been racing well over the country in the Harrier League. Andy Powell is no lover of cross country, but a reasonable performance from the road runner would greatly help the team score.
Dixon is in the form of his life and will be looking to consolidate his performances with another solid run.
Reed could feature at the sharp end with a positive start. There could be a lot more to come from marathon man Jones, who competes over cross country for only the second time.
Irishman Roarty is an improving young athlete and he should show that on Saturday.
There will be a new individual champion crowned as Morpeth’s Jonny Taylor will miss the race to compete for Great Britain in the European Cross Country Championships in France on Sunday.
Former Sunderland Harriers’ Patrick and Jack Martin, based in Manchester and competing for Stockport Harriers, will be contenders.
Patrick won the 2009 championship at Darlington and Jack was runner-up to Durham’s Dan Garbutt at South Shields in 2013. Garbutt is not entered this time.
The favourite on form should be Morpeth’s Nick Swinburn, who finished seventh in the European Trials at Liverpool two weeks ago, only 12 seconds ahead of Jack Martin.
Sunderland Harriers junior men’s team will be challenging for medals in the under-20 age group race.
It may be too much to ask of the team to equal the winning performance of 2002, but for Michael Wilson, Mark Smith, Jonny Howe, Chris Bell and Ben Craig, there will be a lot to run for in the three-to-count team race.
In the women’s championship, Durham’s Rosie Smith defends her title and also entered are Olympian Laura Weightman (Morpeth) and international marathon runner Alyson Dixon of Sunderland Strollers.
The timetable is 11am Under-13 boys, 11.15, Under-13 Girls, 11.30am Under-15 Boys, 11.45am Under-15 Girls, noon Under 17/20 Women, 12.20pm Under-20 Men, 1pm Senior Men, 1.55pm Senior Women, 2.30pm Under/17 Men.
The first three in each event will gain automatic selection for the Inter Counties Cross Country Championships at Birmingham on Saturday, March 12.
Directions to championships: Exit junction 60 on the A1, approximately two miles east to Teesside on the A689, follow the directions to Sedgefield Race Course at the roundabout, after passing the race course on the left and crossing above the A177, you have arrived at the venue. Postcode TS21 2DN