ALTHOUGH late in the year, the European Cross Country Championships never fail to attract a high level of interest and expectation.
And Sunday’s 29th edition in Brussels will be no exception with four of the six individual champions in 2022 returning, although not necessarily in the same race as last year.
In total 540 athletes have been entered from 38 countries.
Sadly, World and Olympic champion Jakob Ingebrigtsen is a non-starter at the Euro Cross for the first time in his career. It ends a sequence for Ingebrigtsen who would have been going for a third senior men’s title and his seventh in all, family problems possibly affecting him since the dispute with his father, who is now under investigation by Norwegian police.
The championships were last held in Brussels in 2008. Initially supposed to take place in Ostend, the event was moved to the Belgian capital owing to heavy rainfall in the coastal town.
Anyone who remembers the 2001 World Cross Country will recall runners struggling knee-deep in the mud after heavy rainfall on the Hippodrome Wellington in Ostend. The re-arranged championships in Laeken Park turned out to be among the most memorable.
Ireland returned empty-handed from the meeting but two notable northern athletes were involved.
Paul Pollock, who won the Joe Seeley 10K Road Race only last Saturday, was 57th in the U23 race, making him fourth scorer in the Irish team that finished eighth.
And Ciara Mageean was 17th and third scorer on the Irish U20 team that missed out on bronze medals by 15 points to third-placed Russia. Evidence of the longevity and success of both athletes’ careers.
In Ingebrigtsen’s absence, Karoline Bjerkeli Grøvdal will be flying the flag for Norway in seeking a hat-trick of titles in the senior women’s race, and a 10th individual medal in total.
Lining up against her should be Ireland’s two-time champion Fionnuala McCormack who would be making a record 18th appearance at the championships but has not yet decided whether to compete.
Despite giving birth to her third daughter earlier this year, the Wicklow woman ran the Valencia Marathon last Sunday and achieved the Olympic standard with a 2:26:19 timing. That qualified the phenomenal Kilcoole AC athlete for a record fifth Games next year.
Completing such an exacting double is nothing new to McCormack, who in 2021 also ran Valencia a week before finishing fourth in the Euros at Abbotstown in Dublin.
If she starts, McCormack will be backed up in the race by the Flanagan twins from Co Tyrone. Eilish and Róisín were both members of the Irish trio that took team bronze medals last year along with Armagh AC’s Fionnuala Ross, who is also included again.
There will be a lot of interest in the performance of another Tyrone athlete, Nick Griggs, especially following his collapse within sight of the finish at the National U20 championship two weeks ago.
Twelve months ago, the Candour Track Club athlete looked to have the U20 race sewn up and the gold medal in his grasp, but his legs gave way metres from the finish allowing Britain’s Will Barnicoat, who runs in the U23 race on Sunday, to snatch victory.
Griggs faces one of the highest-quality fields ever for an U20 race at these championships.
European U20 1500m and 5000m champion Niels Laros, from the Netherlands, makes a belated debut at the Euro Cross after missing out through injury in 2022.
Another rival will be Denmark’s Axel Vang Christensen who was also absent last year but won this title by an impressive 25 seconds when he was only 17 in 2021.
And Henry Dover impressed in winning the British trial in Liverpool two weeks ago.
City of Derry Spartan Seamus Robinson joins Griggs in the Irish U20 selection while East Down’s Anna Gardiner and Finn Valley’s Amy Greene go in the women’s U20 race.
Candour’s Callum Morgan and North Belfast Harrier Matthew Lavery are on duty in the men’s U23 race, bringing the number of Ulster athletes to nine.
Last year Ireland came away with five medals – two individual and three team.
Anything approaching that number on Sunday would be satisfactory.