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Mark Armstrong: Lessons from the Norfolk Cross Country Championships

Action from the start of senior race at the Norfolk Cross Country Championships. Picture: Mark Hewlett

Action from the start of senior race at the Norfolk Cross Country Championships. Picture: Mark Hewlett

© 2013 Mark Hewlett

Not much beats the sound of hundreds of runners thudding their way through the start of a cross country course.

Sunday was no different as the Norfolk Cross Country Championships took place at the Charles Burrell Centre in Thetford.

The event is one of the highlights of the running year and a great way to start 2020, although judging by the looks on the faces of a few runners midway through the race they would have gladly joined me on the sidelines. I'm sure the sight of my daughter Lara cheering them on with pink pom poms can only have helped though.

One man who made light of the course was Bure Valley Harriers' Michael Eccles, who took victory ahead of City of Norwich AC pair Ben Spratling and Gary Crush in second and third respectively.

After speaking to Michael it was abundantly clear what it meant to the 39-year-old as he fulfilled a bit more of his potential, which has unfortunately been tempered for the last couple of years by injuries.

Michael has never let those problems get him down though and on Sunday he threw down the gauntlet to Norfolk's other top runners.

It will be fascinating to see how they respond and I'm sure it will put a bit of fire in the recovery efforts of City of Norwich AC pair Logan Smith and Piers Arnold. I know it would if it were me and I could run to anywhere near their level... or at all in fact!

It's clear Michael is in a fine rhythm and he's going to take some beating at the Freethorpe 10M race later this month as the Sportlink Grand Prix Series gets underway once again.

Apart from Michael's dominance of the men's race, one of the other takeaways from Sunday was the strength of the women's field.

Iona Lake was in a class of her own, as you would expect from an international athlete, but there was some fierce racing going on not far behind her. Jo Andrews, Colleen Mukuya, Mabel Beckett, Amy Beck, Juliette Watkinson and Autumn Hales all posted times under 40 minutes, which takes some doing on a tough 10K course like Thetford.

All being well, and they make themselves available, Norfolk is going to have some team when they head to the Inter-Counties Championship in Loughborough in March. Team managers Dominic Blake and Chris Merrylees certainly have high hopes for them.

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Iona is well worth keeping an eye over the next couple of months as she uses the cross country season to set up her year, which everyone in Norfolk will be hoping can peak at the Tokyo Olympics.

I've got a lot of respect for her decision to move to Teddington in London, and take on a job as a nanny to fund it, in order to train with a group of runners that could take her to the next level.

Runners of all abilities have to take themselves out of their comfort zone if they want to get faster or go longer, and I hope her decision to leave Norfolk works out.

I've no doubt her coaches, Tim and Pauline Ash, will still be keeping a close eye on her training and be there for advice whenever she needs it.

They will also know that at 26 years old Iona is in the peak years of a track career and arguably won't have a better chance to gain an Olympic place in the steeplechase.

Wouldn't it be great to see a Norfolk girl flying the flag when just over six months earlier she was pounding through the turf at Thetford?

She is certainly serving as an inspiration for the hundreds of runners that took part in the junior races.

By the same token I felt inspired in the way some of those youngsters were giving their absolute all to the point of physical exhaustion.

They say it's the sign of a good race if you're sick at the end of it... if that's true then a lot of youngsters had good races at the weekend.

The one black spot on the championships was the struggle organisers had in getting the results out. We have all got very used to results being available instantly and unfortunately that wasn't the case with competitors having to wait until Monday. There are a lot bigger problems in the world than runners having to wait 24 hours to get their result but having said that I know that discussions have already taken place about having chip timing, which should prevent any delays in years to come.

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