WEYNAY Ghebresilasie bids to be the first Sunderland Harrier in 47 years to win an English National Cross-Country title at Herrington Country Park on Saturday.
The Eritrean Olympian lines up as one of the favourites in the Junior Men’s (under-20) 10k race around two soggy, demanding laps of the park.
This will be the 18-year-old’s fourth race for the Wearsiders since he joined the club last November, after he walked out of the Olympic village to seek asylum in Sunderland.
In each of his four races he has came out on top, headed by winning the North of England title at a snow-covered Knowsley Safari Park last month.
Last Saturday, he clocked the fastest overall time in the Royal Signals North Eastern Road Relay Championship at Hetton Lyons Country Park.
And he was also the quickest in the Durham Cathedral cross-country relays in January.
In his other outing, where he made his Harriers’ debut in the Jarrow Harrier League at Bedewell Park in December, he finished third with the fastest time of the day in the handicap race.
Ghebresilasie has been preparing for his big race by visiting Herrington Country Park for training runs.
He is now familiar with the tough course that lies ahead of him, and is looking forward to the challenge.
The former soldier said: “I like muddy courses. This course is very hilly, but I don’t mind that. It would be a big race for me to win.’’
He seems ideally suited to cross-country running, whatever the conditions, having coped well with the cold, six inches of snow at Knowsley and the mud of Bedewell Park.
In 2011, as a 17-year-old, he finished an impressive 30th in the World Cross-Country Championships in Spain. His personal best of 8.28.97 for the 3000m steeplechase is faster than any British athlete ran last year.
The late Brooks Mileson was the last Sunderland Harrier to win a national title, winning the youths’ crown (under-17) at Graves Park, Sheffield, in 1966.
Middlesbrough and Cleveland’s Stephen James was the last junior men’s champion from the North East, winning at Peterborough in 1959. Double Olympic gold medallist Mo Farah won the title in 2003 at Parliament Hill Fields, London.
The championships have a long and proud history, being first held in 1876 at Buckhurst Hill, but the race was declared void when every one of the 32 starters went off course.
Over the years, numerous athletes from the region have won a national title, though it has been more than a decade since the North East celebrated a senior individual gold medal – Michael Openshaw won at Durham in 2001.
Olympic medallists Brendan Foster and Mike McLeod, who are both invited guests on Saturday, triumphed in 1977 and 1979 respectively.
The championships have grown into a 10-race programme catering for both sexes, ages from under-13 to seniors, and on Saturday around 4,000 competitors are expected to take part.
Officials have come up with a much improved course than that of 2007, making it more spectator friendly and omitting much of the camber and extended concrete pathways covered in wood chippings, that athletes disliked.