THE 126th English National Cross-Country Championships, staged at Herrington Country Park on Saturday will go down as one of the most gruelling in the event’s remarkable history.
Following early morning snow, the main 4k lap, which took in two torturous hills, became awash in a sea of mud and ice.
By the time the 10th and last event on the programme, the senior men’s race, got underway, conditions were deplorable and that was reflected in one of the slowest winning times recorded for the 12k race in years.
While the talk among officials, who were assembling the course from Thursday, was of a soft to firm running surface, little did they realise that conditions would deteriorate so rapidly.
But if that was a shock to the system, a bigger shock to local supporters was the defeat in the junior men’s race of Sunderland Harrier Weynay Ghebresilasie.
The Eritrean asylum seeker was red-hot favourite to take the prestigious title that Mo Farah had won in 2003. But it was not to be for the Olympian. Instead, he had to be satisfied with the bronze medal after being out-gunned by the Southern champion, Ian Bailey of Aldershot and Farnham AC, and Michael Callegari of Shaftesbury Barnet.
Ghebresilasie had gone into the race with four out of four wins against quality opposition, including winning the Northern title at Knowsley.
There he had coped with six inches of snow and icy sludge remarkably well for an African’s first experience of the white stuff.
Here, in the shadow of Penshaw Monument, going into the second of two laps, the Millfield athlete was well placed in Bailey’s slipstream and looked comfortable.
But, as they began the climb up the first of the two strength-sapping hills, Ghebresilasie was, surprisingly, off the pace.
The alarm bells were not ringing yet, as his strength lies in his daredevil downhill running technique. But when the leaders came back into view at the front of Foxcover Woods, the leaders’ gap was beginning to grow.
You could see all was not was not well with the Eritrean, who was now endeavouring to hold onto a medal position.
Bailey went on to take the prestigious title (34.47) by 25 seconds from Callegari in second (34.12) and the Sunderland Harrier third (34.34).
Afterwards, Ghebresilasie said in broken English: “My leg not good. I have pain down it. I am having some treatment. I’m sad that I could not win. Maybe another time when I’m better.’’
That could be next year when he will still be able to compete in the same age group as he is only 19 next month. Clubmate Oliver James again showed good form by finishing third runner home from the North East in 20th (35.55). Gateshead’s Callum Johnson was 11th (35.27) and Barry Maskell 62nd.
Isle of Man’s Keith Gerrard (Newhan) retained his senior men’s title by three seconds (41.21) after a thrilling duel with Steve Vernon (Stockport).
Durham City’s Dan Garbutt finished an impressive fifth (41.57) and Dan Jenkin was 36th (44.03).
Morpeth won their first National team title after being boosted by a number of new signings.
They placed Jonny Taylor eighth, Richard Morrell 11th, Lewis Timmins 15th, Matt Nicholson 21st, Graeme Taylor 46th and Ryan Stephenson 52nd.
Sunderland Harriers were the second North East team to finish in 19th and 13th for nine counters. The team scorers were: Craig Isherwood 179th, Nathan Reed 220th, Michael Barker 249th, Steven Gordon 300th, Paul Merrison 311th and Steve Graham 328th.
Durham were 28th, Sunderland Strollers (Steve Rankin 196th) 39th and Houghton 66th.
Louise Damen enjoyed a clear cut victory when she finished a minute ahead of Sonia Samuels, with 2012 winner Gemma Steel third in the women’s race. Jarrow and Hebburn’s Alex Snook was first from the region in 34th. Sunderland Harrier Michelle Avery was 126th.
Sunderland Strollers finished 25th team, with Ashleigh Thorpe 159th, Rachel Ball 163rd. Judith Shotton 213th and Jill Kisler 222nd.
Durham City Harrier Chloe Price finished 23rd in the junior women’s race. Birtley’s Sophie Burnett finished 49th in the under-15 girls’ event.