Fionnuala Britton en route to a commanding victory in Velenje (© Mark Shearman)
7 December 2012 – Budapest, Hungary – Hungary stages the SPAR European Cross Country Championships for the first time with the venue being the town of Szentendre, which is on the banks of the Danube just north of the Hungarian capital. Belgium’s Atelaw Bekele and Ireland’s Fionnuala Britton will both return to defend the titles they won in 2011 on Sunday (9).
In addition, Great Britain’s 2011 junior girl’s winner Emelia Gorecka does not turn 19 until next month and the 2012 IAAF World Junior Championships 3000m bronze medallist is eligible to try for a second gold medal.
Bekele is still striving to recover his best shape after suffering illness and injury earlier in the year - an Achilles problem and then a virus caught while training in his native Ethiopia - which caused him to miss the entire summer.
He showed a glimmer of the form he showed 12 months ago when he finished fifth on home soil at the recent top-quality European Athletics Cross Country Permit Meeting in Roeselaere but the mantle of pre-race favourite over 10km this time around falls on the shoulders of Ayad Lamdessem, the silver medallist in 2010 and 2011.
Lamdassem showed he is coming good at the right time when he finished second, and was the leading European, at the Cross de Alcobendas in Spain on 25 November.
Another man bidding to get on the podium again will be Portugal’s Jose Rocha, last year’s bronze medallist, who battled through tough conditions to win the Portuguese selection race at the Cross de Torres Vedras last month.
Two other names to mention are Turkey’s 2012 European 10,000m champion Polat Kemboi Arikan, although he has little Cross Country form, and Ukraine’s evergreen nine-time champion Serhiy Lebid, who has competed in every edition of the Championships since they started in 1994.
Britton ran away with the 8km race from the halfway point last year but it will be a surprise if she wins with the same ease this time year, despite her recent performance when finishing third, and the leading European, at the European Athletics Cross Country Permit Meeting in Leffrinckoucke, France on 25 November.
Massed against her will be several good Portuguese runners including last year’s silver medallist Ana Dulce Felix, the 10,000m winner at the European Athletics Championships last summer.
Felix has won two high quality Cross Country races in recent weeks, including a win in the Dutch city of Tilburg by five seconds from The Netherlands’ hope, Adrienne Herzog, who was fifth in 2011.
Spain’s Diana Martin has also been in splendid form in races at home and the steeplechaser looks set to improve significantly on her previous best position of 14th from two years ago.
Under 23 men
There’s no doubting the track pedigree of Azerbaijan's Hayle Ibrahimov as he has won European senior medals both indoors and out, and clocked 13:11.34 over 5000m in the summer but he has never ran in an international Cross Country race and so there must be a big question mark over how he will fare.
If Ibrahimov falters in the mud, then Great Britain’s 2011 silver medallist James Wilkinson could step up a place on the podium.
Spain’s Abdelaziz Merzoughi has tasted victory in this event in the past, having won the 2010 junior title, and shows all the signs in his Spanish outings over the last month of being to the fore again.
Belarus's Siarhei Platonau could also be a factor, having finished fifth last year and improved significantly on the track this summer and it would also be unwise to discount Denmark’s Abdi Ulad after his impressive effort to take the Nordic senior title last month.
Another interesting Scandinavian runner on the start line of this race will be the 2012 European 1500m champion Henrik Ingebrigtsen who was 15th in Velenje.
Under 23 women
This has all the signs of being a very high quality race but the marginal favourite seems to be Great Britain’s Jess Coulson.
Still only 22, Coulson finishing a fine third at the IAAF Cross Country Permit Meeting, Cross Internacional de Atapuerca, in Spain on 11 November, when she came home a place in front of the European senior champion Fionnuala Britton. She followed this up with a win over other experienced runners at the UK trials in Liverpool two weeks later.
Germany’s Corinna Harrer took the bronze medal in this category 12 months ago and clearly could make the top three again. Although she is primarily a 1500m runner, she reduced her personal bests over a variety of distances by big margins during the summer.
However, on a heavy course in Darmstadt last month, she was beaten into second place by Switzerland’s Fabienne Schlumpf, who could bid for her country’s first medal since 2000.
Junior men and women
This 6km junior men’s race could be wide open race as only one man from last year’s top 10, Great Britain’s Kieran Clements (who was ninth), will be on the start line this time around.
Norway’s Filip Ingebrigtsen, younger brother of Henrik, and Croatia’s Dino Bosnjak were the leading European finishers in the 2012 IAAF World Junior Championships 1500m and 5000m respectively and could transform their track talent to a different surface.
It is difficult to look beyond Gorecka for the gold medal in the junior women’s 4km race but if anyone if to beat her then it is likely to be Serbia’s Amela Terzic, second and third in 2010 and 2011 respectively.
Great Britain have also named Jessica Judd, the 2012 World Junior Championships 800m silver medallist in their squad.
A record 539 athletes and 35 countries have entered this year’s Championships.
Phil Minshull for the IAAF