Velenje, Slovenia – Scintillating front-running performances by Atelew Bekele and Fionnuala Britton highlighted the 18th Spar European Cross Country Championships in Velenje, Slovenia, on Sunday (11).
Bekele, who was at the front from the gun and forged on alone for much of the 9870m contest, covered the course in 29:15, five seconds clear of Spaniard Ayad Lamdassem, to claim the first-ever senior medal for Belgium at these championships. Britton, fourth a year ago, reached the finish seven seconds ahead of another pre-race favourite, Portugal’s Ana Dulce Felix, to collect just the second senior gold ever for Ireland. Meanwhile, Great Britain & Northern Ireland dominated the team triumph medal board, amassing four gold and two silver medals.
Bekele dominates – Men’s race
With much of this weekend’s spotlight falling on defending champion Serhiy Lebid’s drive for a tenth title, the 24-year-old Bekele fell somewhat under the radar on the list of potential spoilers. But his intentions were clear from the outset.
Initially keeping pace with a hefty lead pack, Bekele pulled away well before the midway point, building a sizeable nine-second lead four kilometres into the race.
“I had to pull away then because I’m not a strong finisher,” said Bekele, who turned 24 exactly one week ago. “Then I was hoping to just hold on.”
Forging on, his lead was still seven seconds 5.5km into the contest, with Frenchman Mourad Amdouni, Spain’s Lamdassem, and Portugal’s Jose Rocha leading the chase pack.
With just over a kilometre to go, his lead was reduced to six seconds, but that was hardly an indication that he was beatable on the overcast but otherwise pleasant afternoon along the shores of Velenje Lake.
Behind Bekele, the only late-race changes came about 20 metres from the finish when Lamdassem passed Rocha to take his second successive silver.
“Today was a surprise. I’m a first time winner today!” said the Ethiopian-born Bekele, who moved to Belgium when he was 16. Bekele first gained attention two years ago when taking the bronze in the Under 23 race. Europeans will be paying more attention now.
Lebid admitted on Saturday that he missed a considerable amount of training in his Velenje build up, and it showed. The 36-year-old Ukrainian ran in the middle of the pack for much of the race before dropping out in the final kilometre.
Paced by Hassan Chadhi's fourth place finish and Mourad Amdouni's seventh, France took the team title with 34 points, with Great Britain & Northern Ireland second with 59. Spain, led by Lamdassem, finished third.
Britton in command – Women’s race
Much like Bekele would do after her – perhaps he followed her example? - Britton pulled away from a solid field at about the midway mark to take home her commanding victory, the first senior triumph for Ireland since Catherine McKiernan took gold in these championships inaugural edition in 1994.
“This is what I wanted ultimately, it’s what everybody wants,” said the 27-year-old, who was 16th at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships last March. “I knew what my race plan was and it worked well for me.”
She was in a lead group of nine after the first kilometre, but just nine minutes into the race, was alone in a pack of three with Felix and Italy’s Nadia Ejjafini. With three-and-a-half kilometres behind them, Briton Gemma Steel was running fourth and in contention. While Britton kept the pressure on at the front, Steel was making up ground in the back of the lead group, moving into third at 5km and second at 6.5km, two seconds behind Britton and four ahead of Felix and the Italian. That was the closest they would come.
Over the final 1.5km lap, Britton showed no signs of faltering and won handily, with Felix outdistancing Steel for silver and to move up a notch from last year.
"I won the bronze last year, but didn’t want to put any pressure on myself,” said Felix, who was an impressive fourth at the ING New York City Marathon five weeks ago. “When I saw that I was at the front of the race, I tried to go for a medal. It was silver and it was great.”
“This was unexpected for me,” Steel, 26, said. “I was 27th last year so I wasn’t one of the favourites. Top 10 is what I was expecting, that would have been good.”
Steel's strong performance helped lift the British women to a somewhat unexpected team title with 42 points, nine ahead of Portugal (51), despite two finishing in the top 10.
Near team sweep for British squads
The women’s senior squad victory was the fourth team triumph for Great Britain on the day, which began with Emilia Gorecka’s victory in the women’s junior race.
With a strong last lap surge over the 3.97km course, the 17-year-old improved on her bronze medal performance of a year ago. As the highest finisher (15th) at the World championships last March, her performance seem like a natural progression. Biding her time until the bell sounded the final 1.5km lap, Gorecka gradually ate up the gap that Romanian Ioana Doaga and Amela Terzic of Serbia had built early on.
“The others went out pretty fast but I didn’t. I held back, she said. “The front two were quite a bit up ahead but I tried to keep my cool.”
With teammate Annabel Gummow finishing a strong sixth, Greaat Britain & Northern Ireland took a narrow victory for the team title with 40 points, just three ahead of Russia who was led by Gulshat Fazlitdinova and Svetlana Ryazantseva who were fourth and seventh respectively. Germany, led by Steeplechase standout Gesa-Felicitas Krause's ninth place showing, was third, with 50 points.
The boys' junior contest was British-Russian battle at the front, with Ilgizar Safiulin taking the win for Russia in a close race. He edged Briton Richard Goodman by two seconds in 17:49 over the 6.07km course, with Vladimir Nikitin just a hair behind in third.
In the team fight, depth was on the British side who took a lopsided 30 to 60 win for team gold. France, with 103 points, was a distant third.
The hit parade continued in the women’s Under 23 race where it was Emma Pallant’s turn to take the baton. She took a commanding victory in 19:57 over the 6.07km course, five seconds ahead of teammate Naomi Taschimowitz.
"Coming third last year I wanted to improve on that this year," Pallant said. "I knew it would be a tough race. So I was eying first or second and realistically had to see how I'd do on the day. I had a good feeling today."
Germany's Corinna Harrer foiled a podium sweep, edging Stephanie Twell for third. The Britons dominated the team race with 14 points, with Harper and Anna Hahner's top-five showings enough to give Germany team silver with 41 points. Portugal took bronze with 77.
France took its only gold of the day courtesy of Florian Carvalho's convincing victory in the men's Under 23 contest. Running a solid final lap noter the 8.17km course, Carvalho easily held off Briton James Wilkinson by three seconds in 23:44.
“I was very satisfied,” said Carvalho, last summer’s European U23 1500m champion. “I was well prepared and my tactic was to wait until the end to pull away.”
Led by Sondre Norstad Moen's bronze performance and a ninth place finish by Sindre Buraas, Norway won team gold with 59 points, ahead of Great Britain & Northern Ireland (76) and France (94).
Bob Ramsak for the IAAF