Dublin, IrelandDublin’s Santry Park is ready for some extraordinary cross country running. After weeks of rain this even applies to the Irish weather. It should be sunny and cool when the 16th edition of the Spar European Cross Country Championships will be staged on Sunday.
"This is a very special occasion for athletics in Ireland since it is the first time we are holding this event," said Liam Hennessy, the President of Athletics Ireland, during the press conference on the day before the event.
The likely highlight of Sunday’s races could come in the men’s event, where defending champion Sergiy Lebid of Ukraine will be up against Britain’s Mo Farah, who had taken the silver medal a year ago.
Farah, who was present at Saturday’s press conference, knows about the extraordinary challenge. For Lebid these championships are the most important event of the year. The unique success story of the 34 year-old tells it all: So far he has taken eight of the 15 gold medals available since the first edition of the championships in 1994. And Lebid is the only athlete, male or female, who has competed in all 15 editions of the championships. With another bronze and silver medal besides his eight golds he has collected a total of ten medals so far – this is more than for example that all Irish, Swedish or German participants or all runners from Belgium have won in total in the history of the event! That tells about the significance these championships have for Lebid and also about the effort it will take to beat him.
"The European Cross Country Championships are his main event. He turns up and you don’t really know how he will run. It is not easy, but he can be beaten. I have done this in 2006," said Farah, who had interrupted Lebid’s win streak three years ago. But that was on a day when the Ukrainian was not at his best and finished only in 11th place.
Nonetheless Farah was looking forward to Sunday’s race. Asked if a faster race from the beginning might increase his chances the 26-year-old answered: "I will talk with my coach and then determine the tactics. It is not going to be easy, but I will give 110 percent and put on a good show. There are others as well who want to win, for example Ireland’s Martin Fagan."
But Farah expects to be stronger than a year ago in Brussels. "I am in a good shape and it is better than in December 2008." Together with France’s European steeplechase record holder Bob Tahri he has prepared in Iten, Kenya, for this event (though the Frenchman will not run on Sunday). "I also went to Kapsabet frequently and there were plenty of very good Kenyan runners to train with, among them Micah Kogo."
Irish hopes Cragg and Cullen in fine spirits
"My training for Sunday was good and I am excited to run in front of a home crowd," said Ireland’s Alistair Cragg. "You have to do both, strength work and endurance for cross country. Obviously you have to be quick, but endurance is the main thing," Cragg explained. Both he as well as Mary Cullen like the grass course in Santry Park.
"After all the rain we had the course looks better than I had expected," said Cullen, who is another major Irish hope on Sunday. A year ago she was fourth in Brussels. "2009 started well for me in Turin, where I won the 3,000 bronze in the European Indoor Championships. But then it turned worse, when I suffered a stress fracture," said Cullen, who missed the World Championships due to the injury. "But now I am back in fine form and looking forward to Sunday."
Sunday’s European Cross Country Championships will not be the first international athletics events Santry has seen. In fact the stadium next to the race course was the venue of a couple of middle and long distance world records around half a century ago. It was in July and August 1958, when three records were broken here. While there were world bests at two and three miles the most notable one came in the mile. It was none other than Australia’s Herb Elliot, who improved the World mile record by a huge margin of 2.7 seconds when he clocked 3:54.5 minutes 6 August 1958.
There are no world records in cross country, but Santry could well see some fascinating races once again.
Jörg Wenig for the IAAF