A PRESTIGIOUS athletics competition is heading for Wearside for the first time this weekend.
Sunderland is set to stage the 118th North of England Cross-Country Championships at Herrington Country Park on Saturday.
Although back in 1960 Houghton hosted the championships at Glebe Farm, when Blackpool’s Gerry North won the senior title, this will be the first time the championships have been held in the North East since 2005, when Consett’s Berry Edge was the venue.
The North East will be hoping to do a lot better than last year, when they won only one individual medal at Blackburn with a solitary bronze in the under-17 men’s race.
But on home soil at Consett they fared much better, with Delyth James winning the under-17 women’s race, Avine Fox lifting the under-20 gold medal and Kate Avery winning the under-13 event.
Sunderland Harriers joined in the medal haul when Nathan Reed clinched silver in the under-13 and led his team to the gold medals.
He is back in action on Saturday in the Junior under-20 men’s race. Reed and his team-mates James Chapman, 12th, Liam Wintrip, 27th and Scott Younger, 40th, were the last Sunderland medallists in the championships.
Sunderland’s hopes of getting back into the medals have been dealt a double blow with injury and illness.
Three-times North East cross-country champion Mark Hood, whose highest position in the northern senior race is fourth, will again miss out through illness.
But Patrick Martin, the 2009 North East champion, returns to competition for the first time since November. His highest and only previous performance in the championship was at St Helen’s in 2009, when he finished 22nd.
Club-mate Brian Rushworth, the 1989 champion, will return to the race for the first time for many years and a place in the first 30 for the 48-year-old cannot be discounted.
Others vying for a team counting position in the six-to-score competition are: Steven Duffy; Graham Lancaster; Paul Merrison; Paul Bestford; Matthew Foggin; Steve Potts; Jon Dobson; Damien Weston; Steven Gordon and Paul Redman.
Sunderland have won the team championship once before when in 1985 marathon international Glenn Forster led Graham Smith, Dave Hill, Calum Bark, Paul Taylor and Brian Rushworth to victory at Thirsk in a race won by Steve Cram on a frozen racecourse.
Youngsters’ coach Ken Jefferson had high hopes of success for his under-15 boys’ team at Herrington, but an ankle injury to Michael Wilson, the English Schools’ junior boys’ 800m bronze medallist, has put that in doubt.
The double North East champion will make a last-minute decision on whether to compete, although with a lack of training since Christmas this may rule him out of being a contender for an individual medal.
Others in the fray for a team counting position are Joel Jones, Hugh Danby-Platt, Luca Irvine, Dominic Hill and James Myers.
More than 2,000 athletes will be involved in the 10 events, with the first event off at 11am. Performances will be monitored by North East Inter-County selectors, who meet on Sunday to select teams for Birmingham on March 5.
Sunderland’s northern title holders over the years are: 1938, Arthur Ridley youths; 1966, Brooks Mileson, under-17 youths; 1985, Stewart Mathieson, under-15 boys; 1989, Brian Rushworth, seniors; 1994, Steven Barker, under-15 boys and 2000, Jill Scott, under-13 girls.
Timetable: 11am, under-15 Boys’ 4.25k; 11.20, under-17 Women 5k; 11.50, under-13 Girls’ 3k; 12.05, under-17 Men 6.2k; 12.35, under-15 Girls’ 4.25k; 1pm, Junior Men, 8.2k; 1.30, Junior Women, 6.2k; 2pm, under-13 Boys’ 3k; 2.15, Senior Women, 8.2k; 3.05, Senior Men, 12k.