DEFENDING senior men's team champions Morpeth head a strong contingent of North-East athletes joining the nation's best cross country exponents in Nottingham today for the 127th Saucony English Championships, being held for the first time at Wollaton Park.
The Midlands venue has proved to be hugely popular, with nearly 8,000 entries received for the ten races, an increase of 2,000 on the number of runners who travelled to Wearside last year when the event was staged at Herrington Country Park, Sunderland.
Once again the region's top contenders in the senior men's race are expected to be Morpeth, whose depleted six-man team - chasing a hat-trick of victories - slipped to third place in last weekend's Royal Signals North-East Road Relay Championships.
This time last year the Northumbrians revelled in the muddy conditions in the lea of Penshaw Monument to take the senior title by 16 points from 2011 champions Leeds, while Durham City's Dan Garbutt, this season's North-East and Northern champion, was the region's leading finisher in fifth place behind the winner, Keith Gerrard, of Newham and Essex Beagles.
Morpeth won the silver medals in the North of England Cross Country Championships at Knowsley, Merseyside, at the end of last month and will be determined to come out as the region's top dogs again, though the competition will be fierce.
This year's women's race has attracted an entry of over 1200 runners and last year's silver-medallist, Sonia Thomas, who has returned to her old club, Wallsend from Sale Harriers, is again expected to be the North-East's leading contender. And four-time Junior Great North Run winner, Lydia Turner, will be determined to improve on her 12th placing last year as Birtley's strong under-17 team could challenge for the gold medals.