Fionnuala Britton on her way to winning the senior women's title at the European Cross Country Championships (© Mark Shearman)
Ireland’s Fionnuala Britton has her chance to make history at the 2013 SPAR European Cross Country Championships in Belgrade on Sunday (8) when she bids to become the first woman to win the continental title three times.
Britton took back-to-back honours in 2011 and 2012, the only woman to win the race in consecutive years, and she is one of just three women who have won the senior women’s title twice, along with Great Britain’s Paula Radcliffe and Hayley Yelling.
She showed her ability to conquer tough courses when the championships were in Slovenia and Hungary in the past two years and although the 8km circuit in the Serbian capital is not likely to be quite as demanding, being slightly flatter and faster than recent championships, the temperature is still expected to be very chilly with the thermometer hovering around zero degrees.
Last year, Britton ran a tactically perfect race and the two-second margin over Portugal’s silver medallist Dulce Felix didn’t adequately do justice to the emphatic way she triumphed.
This year, Britton will face some familiar foes who will try to deny her place in the history books of European athletics.
Felix, the 2012 European 10,000m champion who also took the silver behind Britton in 2011, will mount a challenge again while Belgium’s Almensh Belete, fourth last year, will go to Belgrade on the back of a good win in a tough race on home soil in Roeselare two weeks ago, feeling confident that she can get on the podium this time.
The French pair of Laurane Picoche and Sophie Duarte, and Italy's Nadia Ejjafini, finished in the next three places behind Belete and will also be on the start line.
Ejjafini in particular has been running well so far this winter and, after finishing fourth in 2011, may feel it’s finally her turn to get a medal. Duarte, meanwhile, would have gained confidence from finishing ahead of Britton in Leffrinckoucke in November.
Another runner who might well be a factor is Norway’s Karoline Bjerkeli Grøvdal. The 2009 European junior champion on track and cross country has sometimes struggled with injuries in recent years but made the IAAF World Championships 5000m final this summer and has also been running well in Scandinavian races.
Great Britain has traditionally been a powerhouse at the championships and Gemma Steel, the bronze medallist in 2011, could lead their women’s challenge, both for individual honours and team medals.
A toast to absent friends
The men’s 10km race will be missing two significant figures: Italy’s defending champion Andrea Lalli and Ukraine’s nine-time champion Serhiy Lebid, the latter having previously been ever-present in all 19 previous editions of the championships.
However, an intriguing battle should still be in store.
The three men who finished behind Lalli – France’s Hassan Chahdi, Italy’s Daniele Meucci and Great Britain’s Thomas Farrell – will all be back again.
Other men to look out for, on the basis of their form in the last month, include Spain’s 2009 champion Aleyamehu Bezabeh and his compatriot Mohamed Marhum, Belgium’s Bashir Abdi and Great Britain’s Andy Vernon.
Turkey’s 2012 European champion and 2013 Mediterranean Games 10,000m winner Polat Kemboi Arikan also has the track credentials to worry anyone and finished seventh in last year’s championships in a rare cross-country outing but hasn’t raced since he dropped out of the World Championships in August.
The younger age groups have huge amount of interest as well for cross-country fans, and Serbia’s Amela Terzic will certainly be a popular favourite as the host’s best bet for a medal.
Terzic, the 2012 World junior 1500m silver medallist who went on to win the European under-23 title over the same distance this summer, brought her junior career to a spectacular end by taking the junior women’s title in Budapest last year, the first ever gold medal at the championships for Serbia.
Now running on home soil, the local heroine will be the centre of attention in the women’s under-23 race. However, the mantle of favourite has to go to the Netherlands’ Ethiopian-born Sifan Hassan, like Terzic still only 20, who has been in startling form this winter, winning a recent race in Tilburg from Dulce Felix by 20 seconds.
Norway’s Henrik Ingebrigtsen, who also won the European 1500m title last year, will defend his under-23 title but will certainly have noticed the fine form of Denmark’s 2013 Scandinavian senior champion Abdi Hakin Ulad.
Rieti revisited in the junior ranks
The junior races will see many of the medal winners from this summer’s European Junior Championships in Rieti, Italy, looking to get on the podium again.
Great Britain’s Emelia Gorecka won the European junior cross-country title in 2011 but was then beaten by Terzic last year. However, having won the 3000m gold medal in Rieti, she will start as the favourite in the junior women’s race this summer.
Among the women looking to deny Gorecka will be Finland’s Oona Kettunen, who impressed when winning the 3000m Steeplechase gold medal in Rieti.
After his dominant 5000m and 10,000m double in Rieti, Turkey’s Ali Kaya is the clear favourite for the junior men’s title.
The SPAR European Cross Country Championships celebrates its 20th edition this year and for the first time it will be staged in Serbia, the 14th different nation to stage the event since it was introduced in 1994.
Belgrade is expected to stage the biggest event in the championships’ history as there are 571 runners from 37 countries entered. Last year’s championships in Budapest were the biggest so far with 539 runners from 35 countries.
Phil Minshull for the IAAF