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Christensen battles back “from zero” to regain European U20 cross country title in Brussels

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  • Christensen battles back “from zero” to regain European U20 cross country title in Brussels

With around 200 metres to run, Axel Vang Christensen looked at the orange vest of Niels Laros up ahead and was ready to accept his fate. But then, all of a sudden, something changed.

As the two teenage stars raced towards the finish at the SPAR European Cross Country Championships in Brussels last Sunday (10), Laros’ stride began to falter just a little, the 18-year-old stealing some glances over his shoulder.

“That’s when I really started to feel I had a chance,” says Christensen. “Because if he was purely focused on the finish, it suggests he had something left. But the way he was looking back was almost with fear. That was when I could sense blood.”

Christensen was not about to walk away wondering.

“I opened up and ran with everything I could. I put my heart and soul into my running. I let everything out there.”

With 50 metres to go, he finally drew alongside Laros who was heavily favoured to emerge victorious in the final sprint. But after 16 minutes of running in torrid underfoot conditions, the Dutch star was devoid of his usual kick, and no matter how hard he tried, he was unable to repel the acceleration of Christensen, who powered past to regain the title.

2021 breakthrough followed by illness, injury and heartache

Two years ago in Dublin, the Dane had routed the field to win the U20 race, coming home with 25 seconds to spare. But the years since, filled with injury, illness, heartbreak and hardship, ensured this win felt very different. 

In those moments after the finish, he located his biggest supporters: his girlfriend, his sister, his dad, his coach. “They were all in tears,” he says. “I was in shock.”

To understand why it meant so much, you have to see how far he fell, and how often. After his demolition job in Dublin in 2021, Christensen began 2022 with high expectations. In February last year, he ran a European U20 best of 13:42 for 5km in Monaco, while in April he won the Danish senior cross country title.

So far, so good.

But given he was in his final semester of high school, Christensen was pushing himself as hard in his studies as he was on the track, and perhaps that contributed to the illnesses he picked up ahead of the outdoor track season. Despite that, in June, he clocked a European U20 record of 8:29.12 to qualify for the 3000m steeplechase at the European Athletics Championships in Munich.

On the build-up, he trained at altitude in Font Romeu, France, but a few days into that camp he contracted Covid-19. He spent a week isolated in his room, with Danish teammate Martin Olesen bringing him his meals. A year earlier, Christensen had missed a chunk of training after a bad reaction to the Covid vaccine, and the illness itself left him exhausted for several weeks. 

Unable to do the work he typically thrived on – long threshold sessions – he focused on shorter efforts like 400-metre or 1000-metre reps, which allowed him to get to Munich feeling “pretty sharp.”

Christensen led much of his 3000m steeplechase heat but after 2000m, he crashed into a barrier, ending his race. “I’m not sure if I lost concentration,” he says. “Out of the blue, I was on the ground. I hit my knee pretty hard; I had inflammation for almost two months.”

Soon after, he enrolled at the University of Birmingham in Great Britain, continuing to be guided remotely by his long-time coach, Nicolaj Raagaard Sorensen, with his training overseen by Luke Gunn and Dave Sheldon. But much of his time that autumn was spent alone, cross-training as he waited for his knee to recover. 

After getting back to health, he returned home for the autumn break and put in a strong showing at a race in Copenhagen, making him think he could defend his U20 title in La Mandria Park on the outskirts of Turin last December.

He tuned up by competing as a guest against the seniors at the British trial race in Liverpool but didn’t feel himself, racing with a cough that was “terrible” - he also fell mid-race - and on the final build-up, he knew something was amiss. Christensen tracks his heart rate variability daily – a metric that shows how well your body is coping with hard training – and it was repeatedly abnormal.

After one-third of that 6km race, he felt “so much lactic” (acid) and on the steep downhill section, as runners streamed past, Christensen tripped over himself and crashed to the ground, hitting his head. “I was unable to get up,” he says. “That hurt a lot.”

Over Christmas he took some time off, talking things through with his coach and his dad. He could only laugh when he realised that in three of his previous four races, he’d fallen. “It was almost a metaphor for how things were going,” he says wryly. 

But they were about to get even worse.

Back home in Denmark after a stint in Birmingham

Early this year, Christensen developed pain in his lower leg which he couldn’t shake.

The physios and doctors in Birmingham told him it was inflammation in his achilles tendon, and in the months that followed he had two injections which did little to ease his symptoms. In April, he returned to Denmark to see the national team doctor and within five minutes, he was told he needed surgery on a cyst that had been growing on his achilles.

“In the UK I told them I had this bump; they said it’s normal, rationalising it but a cyst is not supposed to grow there,” says Christensen. “They analysed it and I had no cancer in it, but it needed to be removed. Within a month, I had surgery in Denmark.”

Christensen went under the knife in May, abandoning his studies in Birmingham to prioritise his return to health in Copenhagen. “I just wanted to be healthy,” he says.

Given the detraining effect on his achilles, he developed tendonitis after starting back training and in his first race of the outdoor season, a 5000m in Heusden, Belgium, he dropped out after halfway. “It felt like I had a tear in my achilles, I was in so much pain,” he says. “It was almost comical, in a tragic way.”

It turned out that it was just inflammation, and he was sentenced to another long spell of cross training. At this point, after 18 months of hell, Christensen started to wonder if his best days were behind him.

“When you really go from zero, it’s very, very time-consuming to get back to the top, where I used to be. The thought of losing everything scared me; it was relentless fear.”

He hadn’t been on a training camp since the previous summer, but with leftover funding from his kit contract, he decided to go back to Font Romeu for six weeks in the summer, churning away at altitude each day on a stationary bike.

“I lived as a monk,” he says.

Gradual progress and cautious optimism en route to Brussels

In September, he began a preparatory course for university in Copenhagen and finally got back running. By the end of that month he was up to 120km a week, 40 kilometres of which was done at threshold, with Christensen doing two such sessions every Tuesday and Thursday – consisting of long reps that added up to 10km in each workout.

“So 33% (of the training) was quality,” he says. “It was slightly risky, but it worked pretty well.”

In October, he completed his first race in 10 months, finishing close to fellow Danish star Joel Ibler Lillesø , and he followed it up by clocking 29:18 at a 10km road race in Norway, in which he “blew up” over the last 4km. “To know I’d have to run at 75% is difficult but I accepted that it’s a process, I’m progressing, even if it doesn’t look that way. We kept on believing.”


By November, he was back up to full training load – 160km per week – and Christensen soon felt back to himself, hammering his rivals to win the Danish senior cross country title by 50 seconds.

“We started to think this will maybe work out in Brussels,” he says.

Still, no athlete had ever won, lost and then reclaimed the U20 title at the European Cross Country Championships and to do so, Christensen had to defeat two formidable rivals in Laros – who had broken the Dutch senior 1500m record when finishing 10th in the world 1500m final, clocking 3:31.25 – and Ireland’s Nick Griggs, the 2021 European U20 3000m champion who’d finished a close runner-up in last year’s race.

“It can be argued it was the strongest field ever in the U20 category,” says Christensen, and few would disagree.

When the gun fired, the Dane did exactly what he’d done two years ago – going out hard, putting his rivals to the sword. Was that to draw the sting out of Laros?

“Exactly,” he says. “It was my only hope.”

With a little under a lap to run, Christensen had burnt off everyone except Laros, who was matching him stride for stride. “I tried to look at him,” he says. “I wanted to know the damage (of) the work I’m doing. I could tell he was not completely at ease; he was definitely feeling it, breathing as hard as me.”

When Laros made his move, with about 800 metres left, Christensen thought: “‘This is brave,’ but I also thought, ‘If someone can do it, it’s the guy who’s the strongest at everything and maybe he’s just one in a million.’ I reached a point where I was like, ‘Okay, I can accept silver.’”

But soon after, he saw the first signs of frailty in his rival.

“He was really trying to go out of the mud as much as possible and I hoped that could mean his legs are heavy,” says Christensen.

Only after emptying the tank about a minute later and drawing alongside Laros did he realise his hunch was correct. Laros had nothing left, and Christensen was back on top.


As he looks ahead to 2024, his plan is to focus on the 3000m steeplechase and he hopes to compete in that at both the European Championships in Rome and at the Olympics in Paris. 

Christensen will start a new university course after the summer in Copenhagen, but until then he will be a full-time athlete. As he leaves behind the U20 grade, more than anything he’s just grateful to be healthy, something that for so long seemed a distant dream.

Come what may on the road ahead, he’ll look back fondly on Brussels, where he made the comeback of all comebacks – not just in the race, but in his career as a whole.

“It was very special,” he says. “It was the sweetest win of my career.”

Cathal Dennehy for European Athletics


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