One of the most tightly-contested Senior Men’s races in recent years is the highlight of tomorrow’s European Cross-Country Trials, due to be held at Liverpool’s Sefton Park. And with Great Britain vests available, there are expected to be exciting races in each of the Junior Men, Women and Senior Women’s races also.
 
The race will offer first outings for many of the elite athletes since the National Road Relays at Sutton Park. Since then, whilst some athletes have braved the decreasing temperatures at home, many are returning from an extended spell of altitude training in Kenya. And how these different approaches have affected tomorrow’s racers could prove the difference between qualification and disappointment.
 
In the Senior Men’s race, the favourite is arguably Andy Vernon. The Aldershot, Farnham & District runner posted the second quickest time at Sutton Park and won this event last year. However he will have his work cut out with attacks coming from Northern duo James Walsh and Steve Vernon. The latter dominated proceedings at the National Cross-Country Relays, whilst the former finished in the top-10 at the Great South Run and figured prominently at the Cross-Country Relays too.
 
Frank Tickner is also returning to form after last weekend’s win at the Bristol leg of the McCain UK Cross Challenge. Ricky Stevenson and Mark Draper return from the Kenya trip, also looking to book their places on the plane to Slovenia. Stevenson ran 17:06 as the fifth-fastest man at the National Road Relays, and has reportedly been training superbly in Africa.
 
Andy Baddeley and Tom Humphries are other names to look out for; Baddeley will be severely tested over the 9.8km course and Humphries has shown no form since his third-place finish at the Great Edinburgh 10k, suggesting they may fall short.
 
Aldershot’s Vernon is feeling particularly fit ahead of tomorrow’s race though, and after several weeks of sustained mileage he is hoping to come out on top for the third-time in four years at Liverpool against what he describes as the toughest field in years.
 
“Everything has been going in the right direction since the Great North Run, where I don’t think I was particularly fit. I think the lowest mileage week I have had since then has been 96, so I know I’m right back on top of things,” he said.
 
“I am thinking I can win the race, but it won’t be easy. Every year at Sefton Park there seems to be four or five guys turning the final corner together, and it’s a case of who has the greatest finishing speed. Although this year it is looking like seven or eight of us with how strong the field is.
 
“I certainly think the field is the deepest it has been in a long while, and should prove the most difficult to win. I think even making the team will be a huge task.”
 
The Trials offer Vernon his first opportunity to qualify for a Great Britain vest under the tutelage of new coach Nic Bideau. Bideau, based in Australia, will welcome his new charge down under after Christmas for an extended spell of training and racing ahead of what will hopefully be an Olympic summer for the pair.
 
However, as British athletes return from altitude training with UK Athletics in their own attempts to improve ahead of Olympic year, Vernon revealed an unfortunate case of rejection in his bid to travel on the Kenya trip.
 
“I asked to go (to Kenya) myself, but was rejected because of my new links with Nic Bideau,” the 25-year-old said.
 
“Their decision did annoy me a little, because it made me think ‘are they trying to support the athletes or the system?’ I have been one of the top guys in British endurance running in recent years, and yet it feels like I’m punished for changing to a coach who I think will improve me.
 
“I can see their thinking, and understand why they wish to promote the system in the UK, and prompt athletes to use the facilities at Loughborough and use British coaches. UKA have been great in providing support and help to so many athletes, so the work they do is terribly important. Their decision just confused me.
 
“There just seems to be a little negativity towards athletes not based in the UK, or using UKA facilities. Just look at the NCAA athletes like David Forrester and Callum Hawkins; they are athletes who would dominate at the European Cross, but have been given a tough flight back to the UK if they wish to be selected.”
 
Racing within the Senior Men’s field, the Under-23 age-group is likely to be headed by Leeds City’s James Wilkinson. Wilkinson returned from altitude early on Thursday morning and will be looking to build upon his remarkable run at the National Road Relays, where he ran 16:38 to beat Andy Vernon by 20 seconds and post the fastest leg of the day.
 
Mitch Goose has flown back from the USA after his exertions at the NCAA Division I Cross-Country Championships, and will be hoping his 40th-place finish at Terra Haute will constitute a qualification berth tomorrow. His City of Norwich team-mate, Ashley Harrell, has qualified for the Under-23 squad on the past two occasions and after an impressive run at Mansfield this month, should make the team once more.
 
Swansea Harrier Dewi Griffiths, sixth-fastest at the Sutton Park Road Relays, is likely to figure in the qualification mix-up too. His 65:40 at the Birmingham Half-Marathon last month suggests the Welshman’s preparations are going well. Meanwhile Derek Hawkins, a qualifier last year, is normally strong at Sefton Park. Southerners John McDonnell and Josh Gorecki are entered, and have both shown form worthy of a top-six finish too.
 
Wilkinson, who now shares a house in Loughborough with Stevie Stockton, Becky Lyne and John Beattie, is aiming for the overall race win tomorrow and not merely a spot on the British Under-23 squad.
 
“I won’t lie: I am thinking about the win tomorrow. It’s going to be such a tough race with so many people running well in the UK, let alone those who have returned from Kenya in good shape. My time at Birmingham (Six-Stage) does make me think I belong up there, as does my result this time last year at Sefton Park, but it’s still not going to be easy,” the 21-year-old said, who is considering a tilt at the World Indoor Athletics Championships in 2012.
 
Kieran Clements is the in-form athlete who British spectators are fully aware of heading into tomorrow’s Junior Men’s race. The Ipswich athlete, who fell short in his attempts to qualify last year as an Under-17, won last week’s meeting at Bristol and posted the fastest time at the National Cross-Country Relays three weeks ago.
 
Clements’ chances of victory may depend upon the progression of Jonny Hay and Richard Goodman, the top-two from the Inter-Counties Championships in March. Each of them returned from Kenya this week and, should they perform to their best, may run away from the rest of the field.
 
Paul Thompson has dominated the London Colleges League this season, and after encouraging runs at Sutton Park and Berry Hill will hope to make the plane to Slovenia. Bedford & County’s Jack Goodwin and New Marske’s Mark Shaw could contest the minor positions, after finishing second and first respectively at a recent IAAF Permit race in Spain.
 
Overwhelming favourite for the Senior Women’s race is Charnwood’s Gemma Steel. Unbeaten in her past five races, the John Nuttall-coached athlete is hitting form at the right time, and appears to be benefitting from the structure and professionalism of her new coach.
 
Steel is unlikely to be troubled, unless Freya Murray and Hatti Dean demonstrate some of their best form, or even toe the start line in the first place. Murray finished ninth at the Great South Run last month and 10th at the Great North Run in September, but has not ran over cross-country as of yet and may be found lacking if she starts tomorrow. Dean on the other hand, has not recorded a result since August, when she ran 17:34 for a low-key 5km event in Pontefract. The Hallamshire Harrier is a serious doubt for tomorrow’s race.
 
Spectators at Sefton Park may be offered a blast from the past tomorrow, with Swansea’s Andrea Whitcombe. The 40-year-old, ranked third in the country for the 5,000 metres in 2000, finished fifth at Ashton Court in the Bristol Cross Challenge last weekend and was 10th fastest at the National Road Relays this year. Her consistency this year could see her in place to qualify tomorrow.
 
Favourite Steel, has made significant changes in her life this past 12-months which have seen her become a force on the domestic athletics scene. Her victory at Bristol, her fastest legs at Mansfield and Sutton Park, and her personal best at the Birmingham Half-Marathon are all products of her improved dedication to the sport.
 
“I joined up with John Nuttall a few months ago, and he has brought much more structure to my training. I’ve moved on from running 60 miles per week previously, to more like 75 and 80 a week now. And with that there has been much more quality added,” Steel revealed.
 
“I packed my job in, in April. Since then I have dedicated plenty more time to my running, so it would be nice to have some reward tomorrow.
 
“I am working part-time as a cleaner to support myself, and working towards my goals off my own back. The decision to work part-time seems to be paying off though – I get more sleep and allow myself more time to get better quality into my sessions.”
 
The Under-23 Women’s race has been robbed of its pre-race favourite, Charlotte Purdue, according to the official UK Athletics website. In her absence, a tense and unpredictable race may develop. Her team-mate, Steph Twell, represents undoubted quality on her day but she has raced sparingly since recovering from her long-term ankle injury. And coach Mick Woods may have plans other than the European Cross-Country Championships for his star athlete.
 
If neither of the Aldershot, Farnham & District women race then Mick Woods may still come out with a victorious athlete from his own stable in the shape of Jess Coulson. The Stockport Harrier was absent from competition for the whole of 2010, but is returning to something like her best form after a third-fastest leg at Sutton Park.
 
Stevie Stockton, of Vale Royal, has not raced since the World University Games in August. However, Stockton was a part of the altitude trip to Kenya this past four weeks, and having already ran at the World Cross-Country Championships this year should figure at the front of the field tomorrow.
 
Trafford’s Kirsty Milner finished 91st at the NCAA Division I Cross-Country Championships earlier this week, and should she follow up her entry with an appearance tomorrow, may cause a couple of upsets.
 
Two of Great Britain’s most talented junior athletes will face-off in a highly anticipated clash tomorrow. Jessica Judd is finally eligible for Great Britain selection and will take on her elder rival, Emelia Górecka, in the Junior Women’s race tomorrow. Górecka, almost exactly one year Judd’s senior, has the edge this calendar year after victories at both the Southern and National Cross-Country Championships.
 
Annabel Gummow is the third athlete with realistic hopes of victory tomorrow, and the Bristol & West representative has her eye firmly fixed on finally defeating the Surrey woman who continues to evade her in competition.
 
“I respect Emelia so much for the amount of times she has won these types of races and left us all behind. She’s been winning for so long now, that I’d like to think I’m at the stage to really take her on,” said Gummow, who lost out by just 1.58 seconds to Górecka in the 5,000 metres at the European Junior Track & Field Championships this summer.
 
“I haven’t had the confidence in the past to go past her; I’ve always had a feeling of ‘did I hold back too much’ or ‘should I have made a move earlier’ after races where I have lost to her. It’s time I focussed on stepping up though and really began looking at running the strength out of her.
 
“It’s a friendly rivalry we share, and we will room together at GB events, but on the day I’m going to be hoping to get the win. All I could do is run to the best of my ability, and perhaps that may be enough to defeat her long-running dominance.”
 
Beren Cross