Axel Vang Christensen continued his outstanding winter form by holding off three reigning European U20 champions on the track and taking the first title of the day at the SPAR European Cross Country Championships in Fingal-Dublin, on Sunday.
The Dane – just the second individual men’s winner after Carsten Jorgensen won the senior men’s title in 1997 – darted to the front just after the first 1500m lap in the men's U20 race and then continually forged ahead to eventually win by the huge margin of 25 seconds.
At the halfway point in the race, the tall 17-year-old European U20 3000m steeplechase silver medallist in Tallinn this summer had managed to put nine seconds between himself and Norway’s Abdullahi Dahir Rabi, who had won the Nordic title in front of Christensen a month ago.
Christensen then just kept gliding over the mud at the Sport Ireland Campus over the second half of the race and gradually extending his lead although Rabi was able to stay running strongly in second place and had a significant margin over the other medal contenders going into the last lap.
Over the final lap of 1500m, Christensen continued to negotiate his way comfortably around the testing course and over the last few hundred metres it was clear from the expression on Rabi’s face that he had given up hope of Christensen suffering a late meltdown and he visibly eased up.
Christensen eventually crossed the line in 17:53 after 6011m of running, with Rabi a distant second in 18:18. Behind the leading pair, Denmark’s European U20 5000m winner Joel Ibler Lilleso ran a tactically astute race with a strong third lap to move up several places from the halfway point.
Just after the bell, Lileso overtook Israel’s flagging Adisu Guadia – who had tried to stay with Rabi once Christensen started to move away at the front but would eventually drift back to finish 11th – and ultimately made the bronze medal his own.
Another Tallinn champion, Spanish steeplechaser Pol Oriach, actually ran the last lap faster than anyone else and sped past a host of runners on the laps lap before trying to charge down Lileso over the 300 metres but left his effort just a bit too late and had to settle for fourth place.
"Obviously, Abdullahi, my team mate Joel and Pol – the guy who beat me in the steeplechase this summer [at the European Athletics U20 Championships] – were my main opponents, so I felt I had to get my revenge here today. Having competed with them before was definitely an advantage because I felt I had something to prove. I wanted to get that gold medal really bad," commented Christensen.
Good packing by Great Britain - with their three scorers finishing in ninth, tenth and 15th to give them a total of 34 – meant that they retained the team title they won two years ago in Lisbon.
However, it was very close.
An inspired Irish team, looking for their first ever U20 gold medal at these championships, finished just one point in arrears of Great Britain, helped in no small part by Adel Laddjel rising to the occasion and finishing an unexpected sixth.
An even bigger surprise came in the shape of the Israeli team who placed three men in the top 20 and totalled 37 points, just three behind Britain and two behind Ireland, to take their first ever medal of any description at the SPAR European Cross Country Championships.
Keith grits her teeth and gets gold
Yet another U20 gold medal for Great Britain. ????— European Athletics (@EuroAthletics) December 12, 2021
Megan Keith kicks for victory in the women's U20 race at the SPAR European Cross Country Championships! ????#FingalDublin2021
Great Britain’s Megan Keith was to the fore throughout the women’s U20 race but it took her until the final 500 metres of the 3984m race before she managed to put daylight between herself and her rivals for the title.
In contrast to the earlier men’s U20 race, there was a large pack of more than 20 runner togethers at the halfway point.
Keith and Hungary’s highly-fancied Greta Varga, who took the silver medal in the 3000m steeplechase in Tallinn, were the main protagonists pushing the pace on the second lap but behind them there was a host of other prominent names whose track form suggested they could be medal contenders.
Also showing well at this stage was Germany’s Emma Heckel, who has started studying at the University of New Mexico following her third place in the Tallinn 5000m, and it was Heckel who moved up alongside Keith as they heard the bell with one lap to go.
The pair then had a fine duel over the next kilometre, with a little bit of daylight emerging between the leading pair and the women behind them, until the final 500 metres when Keith surged again and the German started to look very tired and started to slip back.
Keith, the British trials winner for Fingal-Dublin, now knew that she had the gold medal in her grasp and was determined to not let it go and sprinted for home to the raucous delight of the many British supporters among the 10,000 course-side spectators.
The Briton crossed the line 13:41 as behind her Norway’s Ingeborg Ostgard finished with a tremendous sprint as befits her status as the 1500m winner in Tallinn this summer and flew past Heckel in the last 50 metres to take the silver medal three seconds behind Keith.
Heckel came home third, a further two seconds further back but her efforts were rewarded when Germany shortly afterwards were confirmed as the unexpected team gold medallists, with their three scorers in the top 10, regaining a title they last won in this age group in 2015 with a mere 15 points, the lowest winning total since 2008.
Spain took the team silver medals despite the Tallinn 5000m champion Carla Dominguez, many pundit’s pick as a medal contender especially after recent results on home soil, finishing a disappointing 54th.
Great Britain, U20 team winners on 16 of the last 20 occasions prior to Fingal-Dublin, had to settle for third place on this occasion despite Keith’s individual victory.