Established in 2010, the Athletics Northern Ireland Cross Country League was initiated to introduce cross country to individuals and to increase participant numbers in, what many see as the unattractive prospect of running around muddy fields in the depths of winter.
The major difference between cross country and road running, apart from the terrain, is the importance of the team element within cross country which can play a significant role in bolstering club spirit and camaraderie.
The 2017/2018 season saw the prize fund increased to £2500, with the first eight teams in both the Men’s and Women’s sections receiving a portion. This season’s race programme saw a very busy pre-Christmas schedule with races at Comber, Rostrevor, Ballyclare, Cookstown and Londonderry in an eight week period, with clubs choosing their best 4 scores over the five events and then a further three races in the post-Christmas period where club scores from all the events counted towards the final results.
The League is constantly adapting to improve and this year was no different with a change in the scoring system. From a competitive point of view the first four in each team were vying for position against the other clubs with the first eight clubs scoring points, 16 to the winning team, 14 for second down to TWO points for eighth.
Teams were also able to score a point for each club member that finished the race, up to a maximum of 16. So if a club won the team event and had 16 members finish the race they would earn a maximum of 32 points.
The final event of the series, the NI & Ulster Senior Championships at Lurgan Park attracted double points.
The 2017/2018 season was a closely contested affair between Springwell RC, North Belfast Harriers, Foyle Valley Athletic Club and Willowfield Temperance Harriers.
On an individual level Neil Johnston (Springwell RC) and Mark McKinstry (North Belfast Harriers) were frequently battling each other for the top of the podium with some very close contests throughout.
Neil finished the Cross Country League with wins at the Comber Cup, the Malcolm Cup in Ballyclare and the North West Cross Country at Gransha Park while Mark had his deserved share of podium places.
With the weather disrupting the fixtures and forcing the Mighty Oaks Race in Cookstown to be postponed until January the top of the league at Christmas had a very North West purple tinge to it as Foyle Valley Athletic Club and Springwell RC were level on points with North Belfast Harriers just one point behind in third.
The post - Christmas events saw Foyle Valley AC take ownership of the competition, consistently being able to field teams of 16 while others struggled as the winter ills had their impact and the bad weather tested the resolve of some.
Good as they were, Foyle Valley weren’t running away with the competition and it was only by the final race that it could be said that the league was theirs’s to loose.
With a ten point lead over Springwell RC and North Belfast Harriers they could still have mathematically been caught, but it would have taken a collapse of epic proportions for them not to have been crowned worthy winners of this year’s competition.
The final result saw Foyle Valley victorious with 236 points, North Belfast Harriers second with 230 and Springwell RC third with 222.
This year’s league’s final table had 25 teams and finished in style with an all record number of competitors at the NI & Ulster Senior Championships.