Preview of the European Cross-Country Championships, being held this weekend in Velenje, Slovenia
The European Cross Country Championships has been a very happy hunting ground for our athletes and Great Britain lead the overall medal table with a tally of 80 since the first edition in 1994. Despite the absence of some of our big-hitters, full-size teams will be competing in the six races in Velenje this Sunday and a sizeable crop of medals are expected.
The European Cross-Country Championships will be streamed live online at the European Athletics website on Sunday, while BBC 2 is also showing coverage from 12.30pm.
He might not be the same force on the track or on the roads but Sergiy Lebid has a Bekele-like ability when it comes to performing in this race and the Ukrainian will be gunning for his tenth title since winning for the first time in 1998. The 36-year-old, who has only once finished out of the top-10 since 1996, hasn’t raced this winter but this is the norm for Lebid, who prefers to prepare at altitude in Russia.
The most likely candidate to stop the nine-time defending champion is last year’s runner-up Ayad Lamdassem from Spain. The former Moroccan missed the summer but the 30-year-old finished ahead of Lebid at the Bupa Great Edinburgh 8km cross-country race in January before finishing 16th at the World Cross. Most recently, Lamdassem was the runner-up in a high-calibre contest in Soria.
France won the team title last year and they field another strong outfit which includes Abdellatif Meftah and former junior champion Mourad Amdouni, who were fourth and fifth respectively last year. Their squad is also bolstered by the inclusion of last year’s under-23 champion Hassan Chahdi, who has opted for the senior race even though he’s still eligible for the under-23 race.
World marathon eighth-placer Ruggero Pertile leads the Italian squad along with Stefano La Rosa, while the Belgian duo of Atelaw Bekele and Pieter Desmet might also be contending for the podium.
British trials winner Andy Vernon says he’s aiming for the top five and he leads a squad which should be able to make the team podium after missing out last year. The former junior silver medallist is joined by trials runner-up Mark Draper and 1500m specialist Andy Baddeley, who finished 11th in 2007.
Trials winner Hatti Dean leads a strong British team who will be in the shake-up for individual medals as well as the team title. Having missed the track season with injury, the steeplechaser returned with a vengeance at Sefton Park to defeat arguable pre-race favourite Gemma Steel and Freya Murray, who returns to the British squad after a top-ten finish in 2009.
The Portuguese have taken a stranglehold on the team title although their three-year reign as champions looks in jeopardy as their team is missing some familiar faces. Reigning individual champion Jessica Augusto dropped out of the New York City Marathon last month and failed to finish in the trials race two weeks later while Sara Moreira has been suspended after testing positive for a stimulant.
Despite fielding a weakened team, last year’s hosts will still be hopeful for some individual silverware through reigning bronze medallist Dulce Felix, who will be a contender if she’s recovered sufficiently from her 2:25:40 marathon PB last month. Their squad also includes the very experienced Ana Dias, who was a top-ten finisher last year.
Very few athletes are as well travelled as Nadia Ejjafini, who will be looking to strike gold on her debut in this event. Born in Morocco and having previously represented her nation of birth, as well as Bahrain at the 2004 Olympics, Ejjafini gained Italian citizenship in 2009 and the 31year-old has improved markedly since this switch.
Ejjafini recently improved her marathon PB from 2:37:25 to 2:26:15 and this was followed with a commanding victory in a cross-country race in Llodio. Also watch out for Valeria Straneo, who finished eighth in the Berlin Marathon in a PB of 2:26:33.
A lack of interest has been one of the reasons for the downgrade of the IAAF World Cross Country Championships to a biannual event but this championship is still drawing healthy numbers and this age-group race pits the gold medallists from the 1500m, 3000m steeplechase, 5000m and 10,000m from the European Under-23 Championships.
Sindre Buraas, who won the 5000m in Ostrava and has a PB of 13:28.07, is the pre-race favourite. The Norwegian showed good finishing speed to win in Ostrava and he finished inside the top 30 at the World Cross.
Team-mate Sondre Nordstad Moen will be making his debut in the under-23 ranks after four top-six finishes in the junior race and the 20-year-old showed his pedigree by winning the 10,000m at the European Under-23 Championships.
While Moen is likely to prefer a faster pace, last year’s silver medallist Florian Carvalho will be happy with a tactical contest as the Frenchman is by far the fastest 1500m runner in the field at 3:33.60. The European under-23 champion won the junior race in 2008 and this will be his last chance to capture this age-group title.
The Spaniards boast a very strong team including European under-23 steeplechase winner Sebastian Martos and last year’s junior winner Abdelaziz Merzoughi, who holds a steeplechase PB of 8:22.00.
The Brits are led by Mitch Goose, who was 12th at the trials.
The British team struck team gold last year and a strong squad, including two top-five finishers from the senior race at the trials, ensure a reasonable chance of a repeat victory. Birchfield Harrier Hannah Walker was the leading under-23 finisher in Liverpool in fourth, one place ahead of three-time junior champion Steph Twell who makes a welcome return to the fray after an ankle break in February. Twell’s AFD club-mate Emma Pallant also makes the team after individual bronze last year.
Meryem Erdogan from Turkey front-ran to a convincing victory last year but the reigning champion’s form is somewhat unknown having not raced since a pair of DNFs at the European Under-23 Championships in Ostrava. Team-mate Gulcan Mingir, who won the steeplechase in Ostrava, might be the arguable pre-race favourite if Erdogan still lacks form.
The Germans are enjoying something of a long-distance resurgence and they field a strong team including Ostrava steeplechase silver medallist Jana Sussmann and 4:08 1500m runner Corinna Harrer.
The recent race in Tilburg is perhaps most representative when it comes to judging current form. Former bronze medallist Adrienne Herzog prevailed on home soil ahead of Simret Restle and Sabrina Mockenhaupt, who are both in the German team along with Susanne Hahn.
Fionnuala Britton from Ireland was 16th in the World Cross in March and the first European finisher in a race in Leffrinckroucke recently where she beat Binnaz Uslu from Turkey, who just pipped Britton for a medal last year.
Other contenders include former junior and under-23 champion Ancuta Bobocel and her experienced Romanian team-mate Cristina Casandra as well as Olivera Jevtic from Serbia, who won a bronze medal when Velenje held this event in 1999.
The absence of European junior 5000m and 10,000m champion Gabriel Navarro from Spain leaves this race without a clear-cut favourite although Jonny Hay, who was narrowly outsprinted by Navarro in the 5000m final in Tallinn, should challenge for a medal. The AFD athlete defeated Richard Goodman in the trials, who took fifth in this race as a 16-year-old in 2009.
Leading overseas contenders include European junior steeplechase champion Ilgizar Safiulin from Russia and compatriot Andrey Rusanov, who finished seventh last year. Also watch out for reigning bronze medallist Rui Pinto from Portugal, European junior 5000m silver medallist Bartosz Kowalczyk from Poland and Muhammet Emin Tan from Turkey.
Having taken five of the last six junior team titles including an unprecedented top-six sweep in 2008, the British team are the outright favourites to continue this outstanding run. Last year’s bronze medallist Emelia Gorecka and Annabel Gummow will be to the fore and while they start as outright favourites for the team prize, the individual title might not be so easily claimed.
The outstanding athlete in the field is Gesa-Felicitas Krause and while she’s a bit of an unknown quantity at cross-country, the German is already a world-class steeplechaser. The German won the European junior title and finished ninth at the World Championships in a European junior record of 9:32.74.
Other protagonists include former silver medallist Gulshat Fazlitdinova from Russia and reigning silver medallist Amela Terzic from Serbia who won a 1500/3000m double at the European Junior Championships.
Esma Aydemir, who outsprinted Gorecka and Gummow for the European junior 5000m title in Tallinn, is another starter.