We would say that Liverpool even topples the historic National off its exalted perch.
It is the jewel in the crown of all domestic cross country, bar none. There isn’t a race on the mud that comes close to matching the quality on show annually at Sefton Park. The competitiveness in Liverpool is always top-calibre. That’s because there’s always more at stake.
This fixture gathers the perfect mix of runners – and never fails to deliver the goods. The last track season isn’t so far in the past while we’re not too far into winter that the indoors have yet taken precedence. Marathon runners have the miles in the legs, the strength in the bag. Mudlarks and road runners come together to race over an interesting route neither high on elevation nor short on mud. The lure of Euro Cross places pulls in all the big-hitters – form and fitness regardless. This year proved no exception.
The outside hope that the cold snap may just firm the course up a little were naive and misplaced. It took no time at all for the course to cut up. Slippy mud immediately seeped through spikes where only 15mm would do. It used to be that the piercing calf-rakers were saved only for post-Christmas contests. Not anymore.
Familiar faces took the wins in the junior races. In a week in which Bobby Clay’s words on the perils of overtraining at junior level have been rightly lauded and applauded, the intelligent progression of Harriet Knowles-Jones and Ben Dijkstra over the years is positive. Talents well-trained and to be nurtured, without doubt. A face less-familiar, but a name certainly well-known, U15 winner Mohamed Ali already looks like one for the future.
If last year’s senior women’s race was more tit-for-tat at the start, this year’s was something more bat-out-of-hell on the opening small lap. It didn’t last and soon settled down.
It was Gorecka, Judd, Twell, Steel, Partridge and Vernon – a stacked supporting cast more than merely making up the numbers – who inevitably came to the fore. It was a case of seeing who would twitch first. The trio of Gorecka, Steel and Judd upped the ante first and broke clear. Gorecka and Judd poured it on some more in a treat of a final lap.
Emelia Gorecka ultimately proved to be the ‘cross country queen’.
There couldn’t have been a more popular duo heading up the race. The personable pair have the grassroots rooting for them. They have comeback stories different in nature but just as easy to get behind. The never-ending straight before the loop back up to the finish was lined with friends and spectators roaring on their every move.
If Judd’s rehabilitation to the upper reaches of the national game began on the mud last winter, then Gorecka is now following her path, one year later. Her return to top-spot was a welcome sight, especially given that she had to learn how to walk again, let alone run, just two years ago. A more popular winner there could not have been.
The senior men’s race provided an upset of sorts, even if the curriculum vitae of the eventual top-three suggested they would be a more than adequate match for their more esteemed and well-known opponents. Andrew Butchart flirted and faltered to an eventual fifth while grassroots icon Dewi – he surely now only need to be referred to with one name – was also usurped by three unassuming but well-worthy characters.
It was relentless from the off. The keen pursuit of a top-4 finish would guarantee selection for Slovakia next month. Connor, Lancashire, Stabler, Goolab, Butchart, Griffiths, Teuten, Vernon. There’s no place to hide when the main protagonists come out to play.
National champion Connor was brave to lead the field out. It was a move that proved less foolhardy as the narrative unfolded. The inevitable gaps appeared and, sensing his chance, Connor broke with a three-quarters of the last lap to run.
Stabler gamely broke from the group to move within strides of the leader with a couple of kilometres still to run -– but it was a calculated effort that put paid to his chances of winning overall. Quietly making his way was the unassuming figure of Teuten. Languid as he looks, his appearance at the sharp end of races shouldn’t come as a surprise anymore. Perhaps we’re more guilty of underestimating the Southampton runner than his opponents. Alex is becoming an increasing force to be reckoned with – something Ben Connor will attest to, we’re sure, in the slippy-shoddy final straight.
Firm footing was at a premium. Sprint finishes through superglue were worth way more energy than the time they took. For Connor at least, it certainly wasn’t more effort than the end result was worth. Victory for Connor and Team New Balance MCR.
Victory, indeed, for grassroots cross country fans.
Words by Bo James
Image from Christopher Rainsford