It was four hours – and ten races – that went some way to emphasising the wealth of unrecognised talent that’s been bubbling beneath the surface for some time.
Domestic championship racing has seen Andrew Butchart find his feet again since his Rio heroics in the summer – and yesterday was further affirmation of his unbridled potential. Butchart consigned last year’s 13th-place finish to anomaly by leading from the front and leaving the longer distance cross country specialists in his wake.
Euro Cross staples of recent years such as Jonny Hay, Adam Hickey and Charlie Hulson, finished outside the qualification places for Chia. It mightn’t be shouted too loudly, but it’s testament to the depth that’s been developing that runners of such calibre miss out. Four Olympians leading the way in one of the deepest and most competitive fields on the mud in recent memory; a future post-Farah suddenly doesn’t look so bleak.
While Olympians failed to deliver the same goods in the women’s race, the tit-for-tat racing left the door to qualification open until the very final moments in an almost blanket finish. Gemma Steel proved Sefton Park very much remains her stomping ground after making it four wins in a row and holding off a red hot pursuit from Charlotte Arter in the sticky finishing straight.
Just five seconds separated the top-7 women in the end. While old favourites maintained their winning habit, stars of the future also came to the fore, none more so than the rapidly-improving under-23 Rebecca Murray in third and the continued welcome return to form of Jess Judd in 9th.
But it isn’t just what happens at the sharp end that makes Liverpool an undervalued jewel in the British Athletics crown. Liverpool is one of the more obvious examples where the line between grassroots and elite is blurred and broken down.
The European Championship-shaped carrot offers a legitimate route to international honours for distance runners often stunted by a lack of opportunity and arbitrary selection criteria elsewhere. Olympians with designs on GB places line up alongside the hooked backbone still chasing dreams and individual ambition on a thoroughbred course. There’s nowhere to hide.
The grassroots continue to come back for more in record numbers – and so now, if our product is athletics but our business is entertainment, as Seb Coe says, then broadening cross country’s appeal should surely rank highly in the list of considerations.
We talk about making events more appealing to the masses and trying to engage a new, younger audience. Cross country is as ripe for a rethink as any other discipline – and its untapped potential and relative obscurity in comparison to road and track continues to baffle.
The final straight at Sefton Park sees runners charge past the finish on one side to the U-bend at the bottom and back up. Spectators line the straight then dart to the other side, lurching along the barriers, barking instructions and watching the closing stages unravel.
Simple things like this, plus snappier laps and interesting courses that are easy to get around, support and stay on top of are key to future success. Informed and creative commentary and regular race updates likewise. The Pretenders, Queen and Tony Christie blasting loud into the thick fog are perhaps less vital – but it still added value and was something the Liverpool Cross Challenge got right. It pointed towards a more accessible, exciting and appealing future. The quality racing helped, of course, but there was much to applaud and learn from.
This year’s record running excelled itself. As the sun finally burnt off the fog, the Liverpool Cross Challenge was once more revealed to be one of the highlights of the domestic calendar. It continues to guarantee the goods.
Words by Chris Rainsford
Image from Hannah Viner