Yasemin Can successfully defends her European cross country title (© Getty Images)
Kaan Kigen Ozbilen and Yasemin Can made it a Turkish double in the senior races at the SPAR European Cross Country Championships, held in icy conditions in Samorin, Slovakia, on Sunday morning (10).
The Kenyan-born athletes proved a class apart in the end, despite facing different degrees of challenge in their respective contests.
In the senior men’s 10,000m race, Ozbilen looked an unlikely winner early in the race as Britain’s Dewi Griffiths cut out a strong early pace which pulled him clear of the field along with teammate Andy Butchart and Spain’s Adel Mechaal.
However, shortly before the halfway mark Griffiths came to an abrupt stop with injury, and despite attempting to continue he was forced to drop out not long after. On the penultimate lap, Mechaal surged clear at the front, but steadily making his way through the field over that lap was Ozbilen – formerly Mike Kigen – who is best known as a road-racing specialist.
Ozbilen had clawed his way back to Mechaal’s shoulder as they set out on the final circuit, then quickly surged to the lead. Though he took many a panicked glance over his shoulder at Mechaal through the final kilometre, in the end he proved the stronger of the two and sent the title back to Turkey for the fourth successive year. Ozbilen came home in 29:45, with Mechaal second in 29:54 and Butchart third in 30:00.
Turkey took a narrow win in the team event with 17 points to Spain’s 20, while Britain took the bronze.
“It was a tough competition,” said Ozbilen. “The cold made the run much harder but I loved the course. I’m very happy I could reach for a gold medal as I’m back in shape and injury-free.”
Can successfully defends
The senior women’s race proved a much more straightforward affair for Ozbilen’s teammate Yasemin Can. The defending champion retained her title with a majestic display of front-running, seizing the lead from the outset and running the field into submission thereafter.
She came home in 26:48 with 15 seconds to spare over runner-up Meraf Bahta of Sweden, who edged a to-and-fro battle with Karoline Bjerkeli Grovdal of Norway to take silver.
“It was not an easy race as it’s very windy and cold,” said Can. “The wind was pushing me back. However, I like to keep in my own rhythm - to slow down and speed up whenever I want - so I did not mind that I had to run on my own.”
With a total of just 23 points, Britain took the team title ahead of Romania (31) and Turkey (54), led home by Charlotte Taylor in sixth.
Reh and Klosterhalfen 1-2 for Germany in women's U23 race
In the women’s U23 race, teammates Alina Reh and Konstanze Klosterhalfen of Germany traded blows throughout the contest, but in the end it was strength that prevailed over speed with Reh taking gold in 20:22 to Klosterhalfen’s 20:25.
Two weeks prior, the pair had clashed on home soil where Reh prevailed by two seconds and this time around, it appeared just as even for most of the race. Reh shot to the front early and churned out a relentless gallop, using the strength exhibited in a 71-minute half marathon performance in September. However, with a lap remaining Klosterhalfen appeared poised to utilise her sub-four-minute 1500m speed and moved to the lead, only for Reh to hold pace and then launch a counter-attack inside the final 600 metres.
“I was in trouble very often, the wind was very hard,” said Reh. “Konstanze is really fast but in distances over 5000m I’m a little bit stronger now. I saw I had the gap but I didn’t believe I could win this. I had to run and run and say to my legs: come on, keep going.”
Britain’s Jessica Judd led her team to gold with a third-place finish, their tally of 12 points edging Germany, who had 15.
Upset win for Gressier in men’s U23
In the men’s U23 race, France’s Jimmy Gressier caused an upset by taking victory in 24:35 with a searing final kick, which drew him clear of teammate Hugo Hay and race favourite Yemaneberhan Crippa of Italy, who took bronze. France took the team title with the lowest tally of the day – seven points – with Belgium taking silver and Britain third.
“I was trying to be close to Crippa and I waited for the last 400 metres to speed up,” said Gressier. “I was previously a football player and I was very fast – so I decided to change my career and become a runner.”
Ingebrigtsen and Knowles-Jones prevail in U20 contests
Norwegian wunderkind Jakob Ingebrigtsen retained his title in the U20 men’s 6000m race, the 17-year-old unleashing a powerful finish to take victory in 18:39, two seconds clear of Turkey’s Ramazan Barbaros. France’s Louis Gilavert was third in 18:45.
Although he looked to be virtually jogging for much of the race, Ingebrigtsen decided to bide his time until the final lap, moving to the front and changing gears with ease as he turned for home. With a quick injection of pace, he soon opened a 15-metre lead and began waving to the crowd.
“My opponents gave me a good fight until the finish,” he said. “I was planning not to do anything risky, to be near the front and control the pace a bit. In the end I had a different gear than my opponents.”
Earlier this year Ingebrigtsen became the youngest ever athlete to run a sub-four-minute mile, doing so at just 16, and he admitted that he has since taken his form to a new level. “My training is going really well and I’m a better runner this year,” he said. “I feel much stronger.”
Spain took gold in the team event with 20 points ahead of France (27) and Turkey (49).
Harriet Knowles-Jones of Great Britain and Northern Ireland was a commanding winner of the U20 women’s race, the 19-year-old coasting to the finish in 13:48 for the 4000m distance, 11 seconds clear of silver medallist Lili Anna Toth. Germany’s Miriam Dattke took third in 14:03.
“It was my last European Cross Country Championships as a junior and that is why I really wanted the gold medal,” said Knowles-Jones. “I worked for this title the whole season.”
Knowles-Jones also led Britain to gold in the team race on 21 points ahead of Italy and Spain.
For the first time at these championships, a mixed 4x1500m relay was held to close proceedings, with the British quartet of Melissa Courtney, Cameron Boyek, Sarah McDonald and Tom Marshall taking gold in 18:24. Marshall held off the late charge of Jakub Holusa, who came home with his usual burst to take silver one second behind. Spain took the bronze a further second in arrears in 18:26.
Cathal Dennehy for the IAAF