Tuesday, 7 July 2009

At the Races (written for Running Times USA 01/09).

British athletics writer and runner, NICOLA BAMFORD gives us an insight into the European international cross-country season and explains how these fixtures are an important stepping stone to the winter’s climax; the World cross-country Championships.

Many of you over the pond may not be aware of my fine continents’ attempts at providing a competition series which aids the development of European mud-larks and provides excellent pre-performance day, African-facing tasters ahead of the annual global cross challenge.

Yes, those frustratingly-unbeatable Ethiopians and Kenyans excel on our circuit, too but quite strangely, they fail to appear quite so formidable (ad seen in their lack of bulk competitors, in comparison to their World cross dominnance). Perhaps the reason behind this is because the prize money and prestige gained from winning a ECCA permit meet does not match up to that of the World cross – and maybe it’s due to the athletes merely stretching their legs and not particularly trying so hard in what they see as measly season openers in fascinating foreign lands; but nevertheless, despite us probably being to blame for introducing young Africans to international athletics, we Europeans are proud of the event format we put on offer.

Please do not misinterpret my attempts to promote our continental series as an open invite to pop over and join us in our contests, however; this piece is purely a boastful explanation of what we do correctly behind your backs and a prediction article of sorts – I dare you to refer back to the victors soon to be mentioned in this article and check how they perform in the World cross this coming March!...

Although not part of the EA winter series, it would be foolish to neglect the achievements of your Eastern counterparts in their continental Championships – which were in 2008, held in the Belgium capital of Brussels on December 14. The main attraction; as we Europeans have become accustomed to over the past decade, was – as always – Ukrainian cross-country master; Serhiy Lebid. By taking his eighth victory here in his 15 attempts in this competition, Lebid truly established himself as one of the all-time European greats. 2006 Champion, Mo Farah of Great Britain put up a sterling fight but had to succumb to his rival’s finishing speed in the final 500m; eventually crossing the line eight seconds adrift. Sweden’s Mustafa Mohamed collected his third minor medal in as many years in the bronze position.

The women’s event was equally as dominating, as Netherlands athlete, Hilda Kibet; the cousin of World half-marathon Champ and record-holder; Lornah Kiplagat, followed on from Kiplagat’s 2005 win; with a 9-second victory over Portugal’s Jessica Augusto and Ines Monterio.

The stars of the ECCA series show were undoubtedly the African supremos – or the African-born turned European speedsters. Hilda Kibet; a 24 year-old physiotherapist based in the Netherlands, who she now represents, took a 10-second-lead in the 50th International VGZ International Warandelop in Tilburg on Nov 23 then went on to take the European cross-country crown in Brussels, three weeks later. Watch out for the cousin duo to cause some shockwaves in Amman (World Cross Champs) this year.

On the same date over in Spain, Ethiopia’s Tariku Bekele – we all know his older brother, right? – And Kenya’s Linet Masai captured the top spots in style on a cold and rainy day at the XXV Cross Internacional Valle de Llodio in Alava. In doing so, the 21 year-old Bekele – the World indoor 3,000m Champion - became the first athlete to win the event three times, while the manner of Masai’s victory – the 2008 Olympic 10,000m fourth-placer won by over a minute – suggested she was in shape to go on to emulate her bronze medal-winning display from last year’s World Cross, this March.

November 30th was the next date of the European tour, this time staged in Roeselare, Belgium at the Lotto CrossCup West Vlannderen. 35 year-old home girl, Veerle Dejaeghere took advantage of a near-African no-show and showed an impressive display of strength and endurance in her last appearance in front of her local fans, after she announced her intentions to end her athletics career at the end of 2008.

A week later and we witnessed the final race of the ECCA XC Permit series of 2008 in Alcobendas, Madrid. The Spanish hosts did a fine job on December 7th and attracted star-quality fields. Ethiopia’s Gebregizabher Gebreariam captured a thrilling sprint victory in the 27th Cross Internacional de la Constitucion; held in the outskirts of Madrid on a slightly rainy day. In doing so, the 24 year-old former (2004) double World cross-country silver-medallist got the better of fellow Ethiopian, Tariku Bekele; with only one second separting the pair. 19 year-old Kenyan rising star, Linet Masai made the women’s race a solo exhibit as just as she did in Llodio the previous week, she produced a stunning performance to build a near 40-second gap over her closest pursuer; compatriot Eunice Jepkorir, the reigning Olympic steeplechase silver-medallist.

The European season catapulted itself back into the international limelight in the New Year, with the successful Campaccio EA Permit cross country meeting in San Giorgio su Legnano, Italy on January 6. Its’ 52nd edition attracted 2008 Olympic 5000m silver medallist, Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya and Hungarian, Aniko Kalovics, who both showed impressive performances in the snow-drenched conditions. Kipchoge beat eight-times European Cross Country champion Sergiy Lebid from Ukraine by a mere two-seconds, whilst Kalovics establish a lead of almost half-a-minute.


Now, with our pre-Christmas competition preparations complete, Europeans can look ahead to a handful of events – most likely the IAAF permit meets - to sharpen-up ahead of the World cross-country Championships in Amman, Jordan this March 28 to take on the likes of defending Champions, Kenenisa Bekele and Tirunesh Diababa.

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