Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Leading Edge: Serhiy Lebid (written for Running Times USA 01/09).

British writer and runner, Nicola Bamford spoke to ‘the master of timing to perfection’; the eight-time European cross-country Champion; Serhiy Lebid.

By amassing more than half of the continental cross-country championship titles on offer to him over the past decade, Ukrainian distance-runner; Serhiy Lebid has established himself as Europe’s most dominant – and consistent – figure during the winter months.

Since 1998, the 33 year-old has held an unprecedented stranglehold over the prestigious annual European cross-country fixture, by capturing a culmination of eight championship titles with seemingly consulate ease.

The tall, blonde runner remains the only male athlete to have competed in all fourteen European contests and his championship CV is evidently as impressive as the way in which he has executed each victory. Making his senior debut whilst still in the junior ranks, Lebid finished a lowly 79th in the 1994 edition, before improving to 11th the following year. Injury curtailed his hopes in 1996, as he limped home in 58th but soon his frustration turned to elation, as a bronze medal beckoned in his breakthrough year of 1997; just eight years after he started serious training.

Eager to add to his medal collection, Lebid soon got greedy and in Ferrara, Italy, 1998 – aged 23 - he captured his first European cross-country title. Since that year, the championship crown has eluded Lebid only three times (in 1999 – 7th, 2000 – 2nd and 2006 – 11th) and he impressively enjoyed a five-year gold streak between 2001 and 2005; before coming back for more during his own ‘golden years’ (in athletics terms), for glory in 2007 and 2008.

The latter event; in the Belgium capital of Brussels this last December, proved to be his toughest contest yet, as he battled Great Britain’s 2006 Champion, Mo Farah until blasting away on a downhill stretch with some 500m remaining. The opposition – as in most editions of this event - appeared to have willingly succumbed to Europe’s greatest cross-country exponent before the race had even began. The Kostantin Stepanzov-coached runner claims his latest Championship win – together with his bronze medal display as a 22 year-old – are his most special achievements to date.

With his distance pedigree shining on the track in a far dimmer light – although, he did finish 7th in the 2000 Olympic 5,000m, won the 2001 World University 5,000m title and collected 2002 European 5,000m bronze - Lebid’s supremacy in a single event almost every year has led many to question how he manages to attain peak performance with such apparent little preparation; in 2008 for example, the Championships represented his debut competition of the season.

The athlete himself – who is also a motorbike enthusiast - was not surprised by his performance, however; “I prepare as it is my most important race of the year,” he explains, “I close the phone and go to Russia at 1600m altitude to train – I have full concentration for one month and continue with what has worked in the past.”

Evidently disappointed that his track credentials don’t match up to his winter prowess, Lebid reveals, “I know that I can run well also on the track (I ran 7:35 and 13:10) but I don't know why I'm not able to run fast on it...maybe I have not much interest because there are too many Africans and not good motivation to train hard on the track.”

Cross-country it seems, is just in his blood and Lebid’s talent for mud-running has also impressed on the World scene; with a silver medal from the 2001 global long-course Championships. A member of Italian club; cover mapei, Lebid’s New Year resolution is to perform well on the track but he has begun 2009 with a solid second-place behind 2008 Olympic 5,000m runner-up, Eliud Kipchoge of Kenya in the snow of the Campaccio EA Permit cross country meeting in San Giorgio su Legnano, Italy.

For the remainder of the cross season, the 27:58 10km runner plans to compete in the Great Edinburgh international cross-country then a couple of races in Spain (Seville and San Sebastian) before deciding whether to partake in the World Cross Country Championships in Amman; “I want to plan my season step by step,” he explains.

One goal that is guaranteed to be set in stone for the master of timing to perfection is, however, his aim to continue his continental dominance; “After I retire, I’d like to be remembered as a man who was able to win the European cross-country Championships eight times; maybe 10, so I need two more good Champs.” It’s great to see such a prolific achiever isn’t suffering from a lack of motivation.

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