Velenje, SloveniaFor well over a decade Serhiy Lebid has been the main story line in the lead-in to the European Cross Country Championships. It’ll be déjà vu all over again on Sunday when the Ukrainian ace takes centre stage once more at the 18th edition of these championships in the north central Slovenian city of Velenje.
Lebid gunning for No. 10
There is little debate that Lebid, now 36, can be considered Europe’s finest Cross Country runner of the modern era, based at least on his track record at the continental championships. He’s won a staggering nine individual titles and finished in the medals on three other occasions, a record strong enough to earn him the role of the man to beat this weekend. Illustrating impressive longevity, he’s won those nine titles over the span of more than a decade, taking his first in Ferrara in 1998 and his ninth one year ago in Albufeira, Portugal.
When the gun sounds on Sunday afternoon he’ll also keep an impressive streak alive as the only athlete to compete at each edition of these championships. He’s said repeatedly that he won’t plan to come to a championship if he isn’t ready; again, the continent’s finest will take those words to heart.
Velenje, which hosted these championships in 1999, joins Alnwick, England, site of the first two championships, as the only two-time host. Lebid was a distant seventh the last time he competed here, adding all the incentive he needs to tack on more to his status as continental legend this year.
His prime opponent over the 10,000m course could be a familiar one, Spaniard Ayad Lamdassem, who chased Lebid home last year to take silver. The 30-year-old opened his Cross Country season with a seventh place finish in Atapuerca and was runner-up in Soria on 20 November.
France will come armed with a strong squad, led by Abdellatif Meftah and Morhad Amdouni, who finished fourth and fifth last year, along with Hassan Chahdi, last year's under 23 champion. On paper, they’ll certainly start as the team to beat.
The home crowd will be cheering Mitja Kosovelj, one of the finest mountain runners in the world, and most recently the World Mountain Marathon champion. Unlike other runners, he’ll be hoping for a muddy course.
Can Félix succeed compatriot Augusto? – Women’s race
The only certainty in the women's 8000m race is that a new champion will be crowned. Still recovering from her New York City Marathon outing early last month, 2010 winner Jessica Augusto won't be back to defend, opening the door a bit wider for her compatriot Ana Dulce Félix, who took bronze last year.
Félix is clearly in fine form of late, clocking a personal best of 2:25:40 for fourth at the New York Marathon five weeks ago, then taking the Cross de Amora two week later.
Ireland's Fionnualla Britton, fourth a year ago, could also play a key role. She too has shown good early season form, most recently with a third place finish against a strong international field in Leffrinckoucke on 27 November.
Meanwhile, Last year's runner-up, Binnaz Uslu of Turkey, will be looking to fill out her medal collection by adding to her 2004 junior and 2006 Under 23 gold.
Other medal contenders include Italy's Nadia Ejjafini, the winner at the Cross de Llodio in Spain on 27 November; Dutchwoman Adrienne Herzog, the bronze medallist in 2009, who won in Tilburg recently; and the leading French hope, Sophie Duarte, who has raced well in domestic races this season, winning the Cross du Maine Libre and finishing second in the Cross Sud Ouest. Hattie Dean, a top ten finisher in two of the last three editions, leads British hopes.
Leading the local charge is Slovenia's top middle distance star of late, 2009 European indoor 1500m bronze medallist Sonja Roman. On the mend from injury that kept her off the track for much of the past two seasons, the 32-year-old has 6th and 7th place finishes to her credit from the 1997 and 1998 continental junior races.
Portugal has won the team title three years running; with three of last year’s champions returning, they’ll be extremely difficult to unseat.
Rising stars in U-23 and junior races
Meanwhile the men's U-23 race (8000m) is expected to take on a France vs Spain dynamic. Florian Carvalho, the 2008 junior champion, finished second in the U-23 race last year and is primed to move up a notch on Sunday. Among his key challengers is 2010 junior winner Abdelaziz Merzougui of Spain and his teammate Sebastian Martos, the European U23 3000m Steeplechase champion.
Norwegians Sindre Buraas and Sondre Norstad Moen, the European U23 5000 and 10,000m champions, respectively, will be targeting their country's first gold.
In the women's U-23 6000m contest, Meryem Erdogan will be returning to defend her title, but is an unknown quantity at the moment, not having competed since her double DNF - both the 5000m and 10,000m - at last summer's European U23 Championships. The primary challenger to her crown is Emma Pallant of Great Britain, the bronze medallist in this race last year. Her teammate Stephanie Twell, however, is likely to steal the spotlight.
A three-time junior winner at these championships and the 2008 World junior champion in the 1500m, Twell, now 22, is on the rebound from a broken ankle suffered during a Cross Country race in Belgium last January.
In the junior races, Rui Pinto of Portugal, third last year, will start as favourite in the men’s 6000m race. He'll take on Russian Andrey Rusakov, who was sixth last year, and Frenchman Romain Collenot-Spiriet, 11th one year ago.
The women's junior race (4000m) will feature Germany's Gesa Felicitas Krause, the continental junior record holder in the 3000m Steeplechase, who was a surprise finalist at the World Championships in Daegu last summer where she finished a solid ninth. She'll take on Amela Terzic of Serbia, the 1500m and 3000m European junior champion in 2011.
The championships in their entirety, will be streamed live via the European Athletics website's homepage at www.european-athletics.org. The webstream will begin at 09:30 GMT with the first race scheduled to start at 09:45 GMT.
Bob Ramsak for the IAAF