Close to 1000 secondary school cross country runners from 100 schools will converge on Spa Park in Taupō for the annual New Zealand Secondary Schools Cross Country Championships.
Five schools from the Whanganui region will have athletes in Taupō with not surprisingly Wanganui Collegiate and Whanganui High School providing most of the athletes as they did at the Whanganui Schools at Tawhero three weeks ago.
WHS travel north with 18 athletes which further highlights the good work being done in athletics and cross country at the school. Wanganui Collegiate have the fifth largest team of any New Zealand School in Taupō with 35 athletes.
Only boys heavyweight schools Wellington College (43 entries), Westlake Boys High School (43), New Plymouth Boys High School (40) and Wellington College (39) have more.
The Regional Relays run the following day have encouraged three athletes from Nga Tawa, one from Whanganui Girls College and one from Whanganui City College to attend as they have been selected to run relays for the region. They have attached themselves to travel and stay with the two large entry schools.
New Zealand great middle distance Olympian Nick Willis once remarked to me that the New Zealand Senior Cross Country titles were the hardest races to win as a runner alongside up to 60 school champions on the start line not to mention track 1500m, 3000m and steeplechase campions.
He and many other leading New Zealand middle distance stars failed to win the big one.
The junior grades are also demanding.
Whanganui's first champion was Marguerite Couchman (WGC) as a junior on her home course in the fourth edition of the championships in 1977. Martin Holmes (WHS) was the only Whanganui athlete to take two titles with back-to-back senior wins in the 1980s.
The Beamish brothers Hugo in 2006 and Geordie in 2014 (both WCS) won senior titles. A great family double only beaten by the three Wilson brothers from Auckland who each won a title. Other Whanganui winners included Michael Silk (WHS) and Duncan Ross (Wanganui Boys College now Whanganui City College).
Liam Back (WCS), who ran so well in his international debut at the ISF World Schools when he was the second Kiwi home in 15th place, will be striving for a podium place in his first run as a senior. He was a convincing winner at the Dorne Cup in Wellington last weekend.
Rebecca Baker (WHS), 4th New Zealander last year in the juniors and looked good at Tawhero, will have to step up to 4000m and joins a strong field and if not making the podium has a good chance of a top 10 diploma which would, as a runner in the top 12, gain selection for the New Zealand team to Australia in August. Sarah Lambert (WCS), second to Baker at Tawhero, has the team as major goal.
In the junior grade Ashleigh Alabaster (WCS) looked good finishing third in the combined grade race. Adelaide Roper (Nga Tawa) was second to Alabaster at the end of May. Both are promising runners with talent and potential.
The Year 9 winner in Whanganui, Josephine Perkins, has chosen to step up to juniors (under-16) to be part of a strong junior team. They don't come gutsier than Perkins who broke her wrist last Saturday in Football but has insisted she will run and has organised a lightweight cast.
Nat Kirk (WHS) relishes competition and will run strongly in the Year 9 boys. It is the team aspect that attracts so many to Taupō.
Wanganui Collegiate won all the three-to-score titles at Tawhero and look strong in senior boys where Back will be supported by the Sinclair brothers and Zach Bellamy with further support from Ben Conder, Geordie Ellis and Ethan Gillespie in a bid for podium places in both three and six-to-score.
Collegiate look good also in junior girls. They were third as Year 9s in 2017 and will be striving for a repeat podium performance.
As indicated earlier the Regional Relays set up two years ago are a popular addition to the weekend. There are relays in each of the three grades comprising of five athletes for both boys and girls. Each runner will run 2km. They run two 1000m laps with two races (boys and girls) with all teams running together. This provides real spectator interest as well as a wonderful opportunity for athletes.
The Whanganui Year 9 team girl's team has athletes from four of our schools (WHS, WGC, WCS and Nga Tawa), a clear indication of the value of the relays.