HIGHLAND Cross contender Sam Hesling has played down his chances of winning the event tomorrow – insisting Gordon Lennox will be the man to beat.
Hesling, who competes for Highland Hill Runners, has finished fourth and third in the last two years but believes Lennox, who has a hat-trick of top-three finishes since 2013, is the favourite to take the crown this year.
The field has opened up with the news that Joe Symonds, a former doctor at Raigmore Hospital, will not be back to make it five Cross victories in a row. Symonds has been selected to run for Scotland in the home international hill race in Keswick on Sunday.
That provides someone else to claim the title of king of the Cross, a 50-mile duathlon between Kintail and Beauly.
Competitors start with a 20-mile run before changing to two wheels for a further 30 miles, into the finish in Beauly.
Hesling has two Highland Crosses under his belt and is a Scottish Hill Running international. Lennox, who runs for Inverness Harriers, did not compete last year but was runner-up in 2014 and 2015.
“Without Joe it will undoubtedly be up for grabs, unless someone like Gordon pulls off a really fast run and gets away from us all,” said Hesling, who runs NorthScape, his own construction firm. “He’s the man to watch this year.
“I don’t know if I’ll be up there. I’ve been focusing on my running, so I’m not sure if my cycling is going to be up to scratch. Finishing in the top five would be great, I’d be happy with that.
“It can be a shock coming off a hard, fast run and the cycling can find people out. But if you’re well-conditioned, you can come off the run on to the bike and just fly.
“Joe not being here opens it up for us mere mortals. What he has achieved in road, mountain and hill running is phenomenal.
“He used to outclass everyone on the run; he was off out in front last year but there wasn’t a huge gap between myself in second and fourth after the run.”
In the Nairnshire Challenge (13 mile run, 17 mile cycle) at the end of last month, Lennox was leading fellow Inverness Harrier Michael O’Donnell on the cycle when he punctured a tyre and O’Donnell went past him to win. Both are thought to be prominent contenders along with a third Harrier Graham Bee. Lennox says he’s determined to get the better of this one as a result.
“I was gutted when the puncture happened in the Nairnshire. My tyre might have been too hard and I hit a stone so I lost out to Michael. So I’m determined to go one better this time in the Cross,” he said. “I got a good track session done at the Queens Park on Tuesday and I feel I’ve been going very well on the bike. There are a few good runners in there and the stage on the bike could be critical.”
Symonds was the winner in three hours 32 minutes last year, 10 minutes clear of Kingussie’s Ewan McCarthy. Hesling’s time in third was 3:45:10.
The Evanton-based runner, who was born in Daviot, got significant mileage under his belt over the winter but has tapered off training recently. His last outing was the Trotternish Ridge Hill Race a fortnight ago where he came sixth.
The Cross is a unique experience in comparison to other races he enters and not just due to its duathlon nature.
“The level of support and camaraderie between the competitors is brilliant,” said Hesling. “As you go past some of the walkers, they’ll give you thumbs up and high-fives. Ultimately, it’s for an amazing cause.”
Five charities will benefit from fundraising for the 35th running of the event. Competitors enter in teams of three and must pledge to raise £500 between them for the beneficiaries.
This year’s charities are Abbeyfield Ballachulish Society, Caberfeidh Horizons, Dundonnell Mountain Rescue Team, Merkinch Community Centre and Shopmobility Highland.
The Cross has raised £4.4 million since its inaugural race and last year’s total was a record £277,189. Applications to be one of the benefactors at the Cross open yearly and organising secretary Calum Munro has been amazed by those from years’ past that have returned to help.
“There’s a huge network of organisations coming together to make it happen. There’s 20 charities that have previously benefitted from the Cross, coming together to make sure the event goes ahead this time. It’s a tremendous testament to the whole community,” he said.
“Last year was incredible and we’re just looking to meet our pledge to the five charities – if we get more we can help more people.
“Can we beat last year? I don’t know; people have given enormous sums of money and you can’t take them for granted.
“We appreciate every contribution to the Cross as they are helping people in need, who otherwise wouldn’t get the chance.”