To most who watched Sergiy Lebid waving to the crowd in the closing moments of Sunday’s European Cross Country Championships men’s race, a record fifth victory for the Ukrainian victory seemed all but certain.
But that assessment was not one shared by the laid back, jovial Lebid. At least not at first.
"Today was not easy," the 29-year-old Ukrainian said. "It was not pressure-free. Everyone expected me to win."
Yet from the moment he decided to take control of the race, some 16 minutes into the competition, it become clear that the only battle in Seebad Heringsdorf would be one for second place.
"When it came down to the fourth lap, I felt great. At that moment I knew that I would win the race."
The victory would be the "greatest" of his five. He won by 23 seconds in 27:31 over the 9.64 km course, the largest victory margin of his five victories.
"Each victory is very important," he said, unable to pick a favourite from his growing list of continental titles. "But this one," he added, "is the most special."
Guerra and Lopes
Despite displacing Paulo Guerra from the record books with his fifth win, Lebid said he’ll always look up to the Portuguese star. "In my first years running in the championships, as a junior, Guerra was winning. He was the big star. His is still an idol."
And he is quick to brush off any suggestion that he is now the greatest of European cross country runners. That title he said, firmly belongs to another Portuguese, three-time World champion Carlos Lopes, who also captured two silver medals at the global event in addition to his wins in 1976, 1984 and 1985.
While some admit they aren’t fully prepared for the early-season fight for the continental title, Lebid said that for him, it’s among his highest priorities.
"It’s one of my main focuses of the year," he said. His winning margins seem to echo that assessment. After his one-second victory over Belgian Mohamed Mourhit in Ferrara, Italy in 1998, his other four victories weren’t particularly close.
In Thun, Switzerland in 2001, he beat runner-up Kamiel Maase by 13 seconds; in Medulin, Croatia, he topped Mustapha Essaid by five seconds; and last year in Edinburgh, he finished 21 seconds ahead of Spaniard Juan Carlos de al Ossa, who was second again this year.
"All the wins were difficult, but the win in 2001, in Switzerland, was perhaps psychologically, the easiest." At the time, he was on the mend from an injury he suffered two months before that race in Thun, and said he wasn’t thinking much about a victory. "There was no pressure."
Nine years of consistency
In preparation for his season-opening European Championships, Lebid said he "trains hard" each October, a training regimen he hasn’t strayed from for the past nine years. He runs six days a week, three times a day, logging as many as 900 kilometers in the month. A typical autumn training day, Lebid said, begins soon after he wakes up at 6:30 with a 30 to 35 minute run before returning for breakfast. At noon, he said, it’s time for a 20 to 25 kilometre run, slogging through sand along the shores of the Black Sea every other day. "That’s the best preparation for the legs." At 5:30 or six in the evening comes time for this third run.
In November, he relocated to Russia, near the border Georgia, for a training stint at altitude. Adding a bit of intrigue to his quick geography lesson, he adds with a hearty laugh, "It’s just 100 kilometres from Chechenya!"
Possible Brussels date
Looking ahead, he said his immediate race schedule is still subject to revision, but said he’ll "probably compete" in Sunday’s LOTTO Iris Crosscup in Brussels, while his appearance at the Edinburgh race on January 15, where he could meet Kenenisa Bekele and Saif Said Shaheen, is still under negotiation. After perhaps a pair of appearances indoors on the track, Lebid said he would then fully concentrate on the upcoming World Cross Country Championships in St-Etienne/St-Galmier.
After a silver medal performance in the long course at the 2001 World Championships in Oostende, Lebid hasn't fared nearly as well since. He dropped out in 2002 and 2003, and didn't compete in Brussels last year. With that in mind, he said he will slightly alter his preparation as the March competition approaches.
"In previous years, I stopped racing three weeks before the championships. This year I’ll stop for five weeks. Perhaps that will change things more in my favour.”
Bob Ramsak for the IAAF