Unseasonably warm weather greeted the runners at the British Athletics Cross Challenge and Home International at Milton Keynes on Saturday
It was yet another mild autumn day, where temperatures rose to 18C, so racing turned out to be much like a summer outing with parkland conditions underfoot.
As well as being the second British Athletics Cross Challenge of the winter, the event incorporated a Home International and the Mahamed brothers led home an England sweep of the top four places in the men’s race, whereas the women’s race saw another victory for England as Alex Millard beat Northern Ireland’s Grace Carson.
Both senior races saw the 2021 champions beaten, too, with Hugo Milner fourth and Jess Gibbon third.
England dominated the race but the outcome in the individual match race only became clear once the Mahamed brothers took control midway through the second of three laps, totalling 9.5km.
Both Mahamed and Zak had previously run well in this leg of the Cross Challenge with Mahamed a three-time winner between 2017 and 2019 and Zak finishing runner-up twice. They had also both won the English National so it was no surprise to see them at the head of affairs after the first lap.
Also in there was 2021 winner Milner, while Alex George, Callum Elson and Matt Stonier were also along for the ride in a large group that refused to break up in the early stages.
Once the Mahamed brothers finally took control, it was Milner who went with them and that left George, the fourth member of the official England team, in a bit of a no-man’s-land.
The last lap then saw the brothers drop Milner on the initial loop down by the lake and that left him vulnerable to attack by George, who seemed then to relish the chase.
Finally, it was Mahamed Mahamed who edged clear of his younger brother Zak and that was how it stayed to the end. Behind, George ran down the tiring Milner who seems to be a little short of his 2021 form.
England took the team with a clean sweep as Elson and Stonier, both overlooked in the team selections, completed the top six.
Mahamed said: “I was pushing on the hills and I split it up and tried to test myself.”
Zak played second fiddle to his older brother and said: “I was with him the whole way but there was no point in challenging him.”
He suggested that it might be a different story in the Euro Trials in Liverpool in a fortnight.
George admitted to feeling uncomfortable during the early stages of the race, saying: “I didn’t feel good but I gradually caught him (Milner) on the big hill with an effort on the hill and then ran hard off the top.”
Milner, 24, was philosophical about losing out in the battle for third, as he explained: “I was in an awful position (when they got away) but I am training for triathlon intensely as I have just given up work to be a full-time triathlete.”
England did not have it all their own way in the separately run under-20 men’s race and found themselves headed by a South of England pair, as Luke Birdseye and Rowan Miell-Ingram got the better of the rest.
Windsor’s Birdseye, who might have been running in the later Chiltern League senior men’s race here, had been overlooked for an England junior vest as he had missed the Cardiff Cross Challenge fixture in October but he now goes to the Euro Cross Trials with added confidence.
Behind the top two, Blackburn’s Matt Ramsden also got the nod over both the area and national selected teams.
Earlier the England vested pair of Edward Bird and Ben Brown had been the first to show in front before being joined temporally by George Couttie at the front, but going on to their second lap Birdseye had moved up, along with Miele-Ingram and Ramsden.
The race then unfolded on the back of the course near the biggest hill and Birdseye said: “My plan was to go on the big hill no matter what and I then got a gap and held on to the end.”
Last year, Jess Gibbon won here in her Reading AC vest but this time was in an England shirt and she was always in contention in what proved to be a massive field that wound its way around this Teardrop Lakes multi-lap course.
As in the men’s race there was a large group at the head of affairs for much of the first half of their race over three differing in size laps. The first to show in front at the start was Olivia Mason but Amy-Eloise Markovc was also at the front alongside Gibbon, Jenny Walsh, Melissa Courtney-Bryant and Alexandra Millard but gradually the field whittled itself down to just five, then three after Markovic, who had led out on to the middle lap, fell back.
It was Millard who came out narrowly on top from Grace Carson, who had not shown in the early stages and Gibbon.
Millard seemed surprised by her win and said: “I was not really expecting much.”
Gibbon said: “Through the woods I felt good but everyone was a bit tentative until the big hill. I had a tough day at the office and my legs felt dead.”
The team race was England’s but they had to wait until Walsh closed in ninth for their third scorer. Earlier, Walsh had been higher up, as had Courtney-Bryant and the Celtic pair of Welsh woman Cari Hughes and the Scot Eloise Walker, both of whom were running as individuals in the Cross Challenge.
They were all well ahead of Niamh Bridson-Hubbard, whose 10th spot led home the second placed South of England team.
The South also did well in the under-20 women’s match and would have won the team challenge with a different selection of women. In the final tally England won comfortably and were led home by overall winner Alice Bates.
At the start it had been Louise Hackett who was the first to show in front but there was still a dozen or so in contention going out on to their second lap, before Bates began to take control.
After crossing the line, Bates said: “I planned to sit in then with 2km to go kicked and stretched it out, but I felt so comfortable,” added the 17-year-old.
The South had the next three under-20s home as Beatrice Wood, Megan Harris and Alice Wright were all within eight seconds of the winner. However, Wood and Wright were not selected for any team so Libby Huxley and Kiya Dee completed the England team in sixth and eighth respectively.
The under-17 women ran with the junior women, as is the norm in the Chiltern League, who hosted this fixture for UKA and while they were somewhat over-shadowed by the older runners, they did manage to make inroads.
Prime among them was Sophie Nicholls, in fifth overall, albeit 14 seconds down on fourth. The Wells City runner had a more than comfortable margin over Crawley’s Yasmin Kashdan as Lilia Harris just got the nod on Caitlyn Heggie and Beca Bown for third.
Nicholls, who hopes to run the junior European trial in Liverpool later this month, said: “I hoped to win but I wasn’t sure as I was only fourth at Cardiff so that gave me added motivation as it was really annoying.”
Scott Heggie was the first non-English runner home but it was a different story in the U17 men’s race where Central AC’s Connor Bell had a comfortable victory over fellow Scot Graig Shennan. The pair had taken Ben Peck away from the rest of the field in the first half of the race before it was Welshman Iwan Thomas who eventually took a comfortable third spot in their two-lap race over 5.9km.
Earlier it had been Daniel van Aardt who had been the first to show in front before the eventual leaders took over.
Bell said: “I didn’t know if I was going to win but thought to myself ‘these boys are not running too fast’, then I pulled away steadily and felt comfortable after I eased away from them. I came here to win but I had a poor summer after long Covid but trained right the way through it and with Andrew Butchart once a week.”
The under-15 Cross Challenge runners also ran with the large Chiltern League field but numbered less than 30 in each case. Leading the girls home was Welsh raider Millie Gold, who eventually came out on top of a tussle with Liverpool’s Holly Cross and Banbury’s Chiltern League runner Isla McGowan.
Libby Hale and McGowan had been in the lead mid-race but then Cross took over on the second lap before Gold came through to win. She said: “I won! I am really surprised but passed her on the back straight.”
It was a good birthday present for the Cardiff runner as she turned 15 on the day of the race.
The winners continued to be well spread around as Cleethorpes’ George Wilson was a comfortable under-15 boys’ race winner from Matthew Clark and Ollie Calvert. It was Cardiff Cross Challenge winner Clark who was the first to show soon after the start, but soon it was just Wilson and Clark making the running before the Cardiff second placer went away for his solid victory.
Wilson said: “I knew he had a good kick so I went early and knew I had more of a chance here than at Cardiff which was longer.”
The Chiltern League had their only outright winner in the Cross Challenge as Kara Gorman in the green and black vest of Chiltern Harriers had a narrow win over Cardiff’s Bryony Boyce in the under-13 girls’ event. She said: “It was hard and I thought I was going to die but it was easier on the downhill.”
Wreake & Soar Valley’s Noah Homer won the under-13 boys’ race over 3.2km by about 80 metres as Scotland’s Rhuairdh Laing was a well beaten second. The pair had been at the head of affairs from the start before Homer went ahead on the second lap.
He said: “I was thinking (about the win) but it was a matter of whether I could. I liked the course but there were a few twisty bits.”
Men TEAM: 1 England 6; 2 Northern Athletics 24; 3 South of England 28; 4 Midlands 36; 5 N Ireland 46; 6 Wales 51; 7 Eastern Counties 72
U20 TEAM: 1 South of England 7; 2 England 15; 3 Wales 33; 4 Northern Atletics 37; 5 Midlands 43; 6 N Ireland 45
Women TEAM: 1 England 9; 2 South of England 23; 3 Midlands 36; 4 Northern Athletics 37; 5 N Ireland 48; 6 Eastern C 52; 7 Wales 60
U20 TEAM: 1 England 8; 2 South of England 14; 3 Northern Athletics 36; 4 Wales 39; 5 Midlands 41
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