France’s Sophie Duarte had finished sixth at the past two editions of the European Cross Country Championships but on Sunday (8) in Belgrade the 32-year-old struck gold in the senior women’s race.
Meanwhile, Alemayehu Bezabeh regained the senior men’s title he won four years ago, leading Spain to team honours too. For the 11th year in succession, Britain topped the medals table after winning four of the six team titles as well as the junior women’s gold.
Having made history 12 months ago by becoming the first back-to-back senior women’s winner, Ireland’s Fionnuala Britton was looking to secure an unprecedented third consecutive title. But from the outset it was clear that it was going to be tough as Norway’s Caroline Bjerkeli Grovdal audaciously shot into the lead.
The former three-time European junior gold medallist led by three seconds after just the first lap of the 8km race. Grovdal was reeled in 1.5km later and a seven-woman lead pack had emerged. It comprised Grovdal, Britton, Ana Dulce Felix, British pair Gemma Steel and Julia Bleasdale, Belgium’s Almensch Belete and Sophie Duarte of France.
The pack continued to extend their lead and by the end of the third lap it was Duarte who led from Steel with the other five still close behind. One kilometre later, Duarte put in an injection of pace; a move that proved decisive.
As the bell sounded, Duarte’s lead had grown to five seconds as Felix and Steel were locked in their own battle to decide the other medals. Britton, meanwhile, has holding on as best she could in fourth place, still hopeful of a podium finish.
Duarte’s lead was never challenged and she won in 26:34. Having been overtaken by Felix, Steel came back to take silver ahead of the European 10,000m champion as Britton had to settle for fourth place.
"It’s my first medal at cross country and it’s important because you have all runners from marathon to 5000m and 10,000m all in the same race," said Duarte. "I finished second European at the World Cross earlier this year, so I’m happy to have got the gold.
"My coach wanted me to push on the last lap, but I could sense that the other women were tired so I pushed two laps from home and destroyed the field.
"I have now entered the second part of my career," added Duarte, who holds the French Steeplechase record at 9:25.62. "I used be to a Steeplechase specialist but now I’m focusing on the 5000m and 10,000m. Cross country is very important to be strong on the track and in the Marathon."
With their four scorers in the top 15, Britain were comfortable winners of the team title. Duarte added to her tally as France took team silver.
In the senior men’s race, Turkey’s Polat Kemboi Arikan, one of the medal favourites, tripped over a log before the end of the first lap and crashed to the ground. Fortunately for him, it happened early on in the race and he had plenty of time to recover.
Alemayehu Bezabeh, meanwhile, made no such mistakes on the 10km course and began building up his lead early in the race. At 4km, he led by five seconds over a three-man chase pack which comprised Arikan, Belgium’s Bashir Abdi, and Hassan Chahdi of France.
Little changed up front as the Spaniard continued to increase his lead, the title looking more and more certain with each lap. With 3km remaining, Arikan was out on his own as Bezabeh’s sole pursuer. Abdi was still in third with Belgian team-mate Jeroen D’Hoedt a few seconds behind.
Bezabeh eventually crossed the line the clear winner, stopping the clock in 29:11. Arikan finished 21 seconds behind as Bezabeh recorded the biggest winning margin in this event since 2004. Britain’s Andy Vernon unleashed a ferocious sprint as the bronze medal was decided in a photo finish, Vernon being given the verdict over D’Hoedt.
Helped by Bezabeh’s win, Spain took the team title with Belgium earning the silver ahead of Britain.
Hannes and Hassan take under-23 titles
Sifan Hassan of the Netherlands ran out a clear winner of the under-23 women’s 6km race, but did so with such ease that it looked as though she could have placed well in the senior race too.
Ethiopian-born Hassan gained a Dutch passport just a few weeks ago, having lived in the Netherlands since her early teens. Now 20, Hassan impressed on the track this year, setting PBs of 2:00.86 for 800m, 4:03.73 for 1500m and 8:32.53 for 3000m.
It wasn’t until half way into the under-23 women’s race that a lead pack began to emerge. Former junior winner Charlotte Purdue was doing most of the pace-making work, closely followed by Hassan and last year’s junior winner, Amela Terzic, the host nation’s best hope of a medal.
But by the end of the third lap, Hassan had moved into the lead and began to open up daylight on her pursuers. Hassan’s lead grew to six seconds by the time she crossed the finish line in 19:40, with Terzic taking silver ahead of Purdue.
With five of their six athletes in the top 10, Britain took the team honours.
For the third year in succession, a 1500m specialist won the under-23 men’s 8km race. Belgium’s Pieter-Jan Hannes followed in the footsteps of fellow middle-distance talents Florian Carvalho and Henrik Ingebrigtsen.
Hannes, the European under-23 1500m champion, bided his time and waited until the closing stages to sprint to victory. Britain’s Dewi Griffiths and Luke Caldwell took turns at leading, but through the changes of leaders, Hannes was always tucked in closely near the front.
Bulgaria’s Mitko Tsenov moved through the field and joined the leaders with just a few kilometres left. But ultimately no one could match Hannes’ finishing speed and he won in 24:02, celebrating some 100 metres from the finish.
Tesnov took silver, while Serbia’s Nemanja Cerovac delighted the home crowd with a surprise bronze. As the only team to place four runners in the top 20, Britain took team gold.
Junior track champions Kaya and Gorecka triumph on the mud
Earlier this year Turkey’s Ali Kaya and Britain’s Emelia Gorecka took gold medals on the track at the European Junior Championships in Reiti; Kaya winning the 5000m-10,000m double and Gorecka winning the 3000m. Today in Belgrade the pair scooped continental age-group titles on the cross-country.
First up was Gorecka, who won this title in 2011 and was beaten to gold 12 months ago by Terzic. With Terzic now in the older age group, the Briton was the favourite for the junior title and she duly delivered.
The 19-year-old led from the outset and made an early break in the 4km race. At the end of the 2.5km lap, Gorecka already had a five-second lead over Slovenia’s Marusa Mismas, the European junior Steeplechase silver medallist.
Gorecka continued to forge ahead and crossed the line in 13:06, ten seconds ahead of her nearest challenger. Another European junior silver medallist, Poland’s 1500m specialist Sofia Ennaoui, overtook Mismas in the second half of the race to take silver with Mismas holding on for third.
For the 10th time in the past 12 editions of the championships, Britain won the junior women’s team title with five of their six athletes finishing in the top 13.
The junior men’s race was the closest of the day. Kaya and Belgium’s Isaac Kimeli opened up a gap on the large chase pack before the half-way mark.
The only other athlete capable of sticking with them initially was Russia’s Mikhail Strelkov, but by the end of the third of four 1.5km laps he was running in no-man’s land; six seconds adrift of the leaders and eight seconds ahead of the main chase pack.
Kaya and Kimeli continued to extend their lead in the closing stages. Kimeli overtook Kaya close to the finish and it looked as though he may snatch the victory, but Kaya responded and came through to win in 17:49, two seconds ahead of Kimeli.
Strelkov held on for third place, scoring valuable points for Russia as his team took silver behind France.
Jon Mulkeen for the IAAF