10 Dec

Euro Cross Memories

On prestige alone, the European Cross Country lags some way behind the Olympic Games in the pecking order of major athletics championships. But the annual event has still thrown up some memorable moments for British runners and supporters over the years writes Chris Broadbent.

It is also a personal favourite of mine, having reported on several editions in the past. Again this year, I will be heading into remote Bulgaria for what should be another pre-Christmas treat on Sunday. Here are five of my all-time favourite Euro Cross moments.

It was the end of the year in which she had broken the world marathon record and was just ahead of the Athens Olympic Games. Paula Radcliffe was at her peak. The European Cross Country Championships was not an event the global icon prioritised anymore. Yet with 2003’s edition taking place in Holyrood Park, Edinburgh, she couldn’t resist a championship on home soil.

In truth, she had little to gain and everything to lose. Only gold would do for an athlete of Paula’s standing. And yet, it wasn’t quite as straightforward as it may seem. In Turkey’s Ethiopian-born runner Elvan Abeylegesse, she had a world-class opponent.

The duo pulled clear and raced shoulder to shoulder right through to the final 2km and the crowd wondered whether Radcliffe might be undone in the sprint finish, as she sometimes was. But heading up the charmingly-named Haggis Knowe hill she burst clear on the final circuit and normal service was resumed.

One of the gutsiest and pluckiest runners on the domestic running scene, what Hayley Yelling lacked in pure talent, she more than made up for in sheer British grit. She was heartbroken by missing out on a place in the 10,000m at the 2004 Athens Olympics by just 0.14secs.

So it was incredibly heart-warming when she kicked clear from a tightly-knit group to win Euro Cross gold later that same year in Heringsdorf, Germany. Compatriot Jo Pavey had to settle for bronze behind the fired-up Yelling. 

It is hard to believe, but there was a time when it was by no means certain that Mo Farah would cut it as a senior international athlete. After winning the 5000m title at the European Junior Championships in 2001, Farah had to wait a full five years until his next major gold medal.

It came at the 2006 Euro Cross in San Giorgio su Legnano where he won the men’s senior race. It was his first major senior championship. The rest is history.

Great Britain and Northern Ireland have always contended strongly in the junior female races at Euro Cross. The talented half dozen were expected to do so again at the 2008 edition in Brussels. Yet no-one had anticipated just how well.

Having competed at the Beijing Olympics earlier that summer, it was no surprise that 19 year old Stephanie Twell cantered to her third successive individual gold.

But what unfolded in her wake was truly remarkable, as one-by-one the British athletes raced home and filled the first six places. It was an unprecedented result. Laura Park was sixth in Europe, yet also sixth Brit.

If 2004 was an eye-opener, 2009 was a shock. 12 months prior, I sat beside Hayley Yelling on the Eurostar from Brussels as she revealed she would be retiring because her heart wasn’t in it anymore after finishing 19th in that year’s race. Again, she had just missed out on her Olympic dream, falling four seconds short of the Beijing 10,000m qualifying time.

But the following winter, she was back competing, unable to resist the lure of international competition. A rejuvenated Yelling won her second title, storming home in the Dublin mud. 

The 2014 European Cross Country Championships takes place at Samokov, Bulgaria on Sunday 14 December.