Sergiy Lebid (UKR) wins the 2008 European XC men's race (Mark Shearman) © Copyright
Preview Albufeira, Portugal

Lebid and Yelling-Higham looking for old gold at European XC Champs - PREVIEW

Ukraine’s Sergey Lebid and Great Britain’s Hayley Yelling-Higham are both well into their mid-30s but will be aiming to show that that age is no barrier to success at the SPAR European Cross Country Championships on Sunday (12).

The Championships will also provide a good rehearsal for those European runners with ambitions of doing well at the 2011 IAAF World Cross Country Championships, which will be held on March 20 next year just over the border in Punta Umbria in Spain, little more than an hour’s drive along the coast.

Lebid feeling fine about nine

The Ukrainian runner is arguably Europe's greatest ever cross country runner - although fans of the Belgian great Gaston Roelents would certainly have a case if a debate was staged - and he will be in the Algarve resort, just a few kilometres away from the Vilamoura venue of the 2000 IAAF World Cross Country Championships, looking to improve on his third place last year and take his ninth gold medal at the event.

“I have good memories of racing at the Championships in Portugal. It was in Oeiras, near Lisbon, back in 1997 that I got my first medal in the event. I finished third and it gave me the confidence that I could challenge the best, it was the mental foundation of my eight triumphs later,” said Lebid recently.

Now 35, he is the only runner to have competed in every single championship since they were inaugurated in 1994. “I’ll have to have a broken leg not to be on the start line,” he joked.

In the absence of Spain’s defending champion Alemayehu Bezabeh, a late withdrawal on Thursday, and Great Britain’s 2006 winner Mo Farah, who was the silver medallist 12 months ago but who has decided to extend his stint of altitude training in Kenya, Lebid is the leading finisher from 2009 on this year’s start list.

It also means that if he does not win and succumbs to one of the young lions snapping at his heels, then there will be a new name on the list of SPAR European Cross Country Championships senior men’s champions.

Among his most likely rivals are the Spanish pair of Ayad Lamdassem, fifth in Dublin 12 months ago, and Jesús España, the 2006 European Athletics Championships 5000m champion and the silver medallist behind Farah over the same distance this summer in Barcelona.

The Portuguese runners should also be a force to be reckoned with on home territory with family and friends cheering them on.

Licínio Pimentel was only 14th in Dublin last year but won the main Portuguese trial race, the Cross de Torres Vedras race on November 28, and looks in much better shape this time around.

Silva aiming to be better than bronze

Eduardo Mbengani, who was seventh last year, was second in that race while the 2009 European Athletics Indoor Championships 1500m gold medallist and local middle distance legend Rui Silva, who also won a bronze medal in 2007 in his only previous outing at Championships, was third in Torres Vedras. Both men are also aiming for a place on the podium on the continental stage.

The expected hard and fast condition, even though there has been some rain on the Algarve in recent days, should suit runners from the Iberian Peninsula but it would be unwise to rule out candidates from other parts of Europe.

Andy Vernon was a good winner of the senior men’s race at the McCain Liverpool Cross Challenge, which incorporated the UK Trials, on November 28, and is looking to add a senior medal from the Championships to the bronze he won as a junior and his silver as an under 23 runner two years ago in Brussels.

German steeplechaser Steffen Uliczka has improved greatly on the track this year and he was also an impressive winner over more rugged terrain at the European Athletics Cross Country Permit Meeting in Tilburg at the end of last month.

Italy is sending what appears to be a very strong squad in this category as well and they could well challenge defending champions Spain for team gold medals, with Great Britain, France and hosts Portugal also having chances in what should be an open contest.

Leading the Azzurri will be 2010 European Athletics Championships 10,000m bronze medallist Daniele Meucci, who was the first Italian man home in Dublin 12 months ago in ninth.

Yelling-Higham on a hat track

Yelling-Higham came out of her short-lived retirement last year to win at the 2009 SPAR European Cross Country Championships and add that gold medal to the one she won in 2004.

Now, she has a unique opportunity to make a little bit of athletics history.

Only Yelling and her fellow Briton Paula Radcliffe have won the senior women’s race twice and as the World marathon record holder opted not to compete in the Championships again after her last victory in 2003, the 36-year-old school teacher is the first woman to have a tilt at achieving a hat trick.

Two of the three women who finished immediately behind Yelling-Higham in the Irish capital will also be on the start line again on Sunday.

The Netherlands’ 2009 bronze medallist Adrienne Herzog will be bidding for her first European title, after also getting a silver medal as an under-23 runner three years ago.

Like Uliczka, Herzog was also a runaway winner in Tilburg on November 28

Getting the biggest cheers from the home crowd though will inevitably be Portugal’s Jessica Augusto, who was second in 2008 and fourth last year.

The European Athletics Championships 10,000m bronze medallist was the 2000 junior champion at this event.

“I can't deny that I'm dreaming about winning. I have never won an individual senior European title so it would be something special to do it on home soil,” said Augusto.

In addition to Yelling-Higham, one other previous senior women’s winner at Championships will be in action on Sunday, Ukraine's Tetyana Holovchenko, who took the title in 2006 and who was eighth last year.

A lot of pundits around the continent have also got their eyes on the Turkish pair of Binnaz Uslu and Sultan Haydar, who have both won gold medals in other categories at the SPAR European Cross Country Championships.

Uslu won as a junior in 2004 and as an under-23 runner in 2006 while Haydar was last year’s under-23 women’s gold medallist.

Portugal look like clear favourites to retain the team title they took in 2008 and 2009, especially with the undeniable advantage of running on familiar terrain and with the boost of competing in front of a home crowd but Spain and Great Britain may get on the podium again, just as they did 12 months ago.

Chahdi or Carvalho? Bjerkeli Grøvdal or Erdogan?

In the under-23 men’s race, the French pair of Hassan Chahdi and Florian Carvalho assume the mantle of being the joint favourites.

“Hassan Chahdi and Florian Carvalho were second and fourth respectively last year in the under-23 men’s race and have a very good chance of fighting for the individual title again,” said the French federation head cross country coach Philippe Dupont, last week.

Carvalho and Chahdi also helped France to the team gold medals last year, and were first and third respectively as juniors two years ago in Brussels, and so they know what is required to get medals at the Championships.

Dutch distance running has been dominated by its women in recent years with Lornah Kiplagat, Hilda Kibet and Susan Kuijken all winning SPAR European Cross Country Championships titles in the last five years but Abdi Nageeye, seventh as an under-23 last year, has been running well enough this winter to contemplate the possibility of a medal this time around.

The Netherlands’ neighbours Belgium are also sending two runners who they hope can make on impact on Sunday.

Last year’s junior men’s winner Jeroen D’Hoedt is now 20 and moved up a category while 21-year-old Abdi Bashir has also been racing well this winter. Great Britain’s James Wilkinson, who finished just behind D’Hoedt in Dublin, could also be a factor.

The under-23 women’s race, in the absence of 2008 IAAF World Junior Championships 1500m gold medallist Stephanie Twell who has been drafted into Britain’s senior women’s team, is expected to be a duel between Norway’s Karoline Bjerkeli Grøvdal and Turkey’s Meryem Erdogan.

The pair, at least on paper, seem a long way in front of the rest of the field.

The Norwegian, last year’s junior winner, tops the European under-23 3000m steeplechase rankings, set a Norwegian under-23 5000m record this summer and she was also a convincing winner of the Nordic cross country championships senior race in October.

Erdogan was fifth in the 2010 European Athletics Championships 10,000m in 31:44.86, the fastest time over 25 laps of the track this year by a European under-23 runner.

Bjerkeli Grøvdal claimed Norway's first ever gold medal at last year’s Championships so can Sondre Nordstad Moen emulate his compatriot in the junior men’s race?

Moen won the silver medal in Brussels 12 months ago but slipped back to fourth last year. However, with all three Dublin medallists having progressed from the junior ranks, he will start as the favourite although three other junior men who finished in the top 10 in Dublin also return. A threat to Moen could be Portugal’s Rui Pinto, who was sixth 12 months ago and running on home soil.

Five of last year’s top 10 in Dublin are also still eligible to compete in the junior women’s race and all have been entered again by their countries.

Leading the way is Russia’s Gulshat Fazlitdinova, last year’s silver medallist, although Ireland’s 2010 World Junior Championships 1500m silver medallist Ciara Mageean, ninth last year, also looks a good prospect for a medal after her performances on the track during the summer.

Great Britain’s Charlotte Purdue, the UK junior 10,000m record holder and the 2008 SPAR European Cross Country Championships silver medallist two years ago as a 17-year-old, missed last year’s race through injury but was such a convincing winner of the UK Trials race that she is clearly back to her best form as well.

Phil Minshull for the IAAF