Host club Playas de Castellón stamped their authority on the 2023 European Champion Clubs Cup Cross Country when not only did they defend their senior women’s and mixed relay team titles but added the senior men’s crown on Sunday (5).
Into the bargain, in a competition where the focus was on team performance, their runners Miriam Benkert and Rodrigue Kwizera took the individual honours in the U20 women’s and senior men’s races.
Kwizera, from Burundi but based in Spain since 2019, looked well in control of the 8.7km men’s senior race from shortly after the gun and although he still had two men accompanying him as the bell sounded for the last 1920m lap the odds were always on him prevailing for a second successive year.
Firstly Benfica’s Reuben Longosiwa was soon dropped and while Kwizera's last remaining rival, Oscar Chelimo of the Italian club Casone Noceto dogged hung on for another half-a-lap, Uganda’s 2022 World Athletics Championships 5000m bronze medallist didn’t have an answer to a subtle but decisive final surge.
He crossed the line in 23:55, having put eight seconds between himself and Chelimo, who like in 2022, had to settle for second again behind Kwizera.
Kwizera’s Playas de Castellón teammates Aaron Las Heras and Sergio Paniagua finished fifth and sixth to clinch the senior men’s team title for the host club with just 12 points while 15-time winners Sporting Clube de Portugal had three scorers in the top 15, led by Vincent Rono in fourth, and finished second for the second year in succession.
A short while earlier, Playas de Castellon had defended their senior women’s title won 12 months ago in Oeiras, Portugal in a very close team contest when their three scorers finished in the top ten.
2022 individual winner Likina Amebew, Naima Ait Alibou and Cristina Espejo came home sixth, ninth and tenth respectively to total 25 points and prevail by just one point over compatriots Adidas with former champions Sporting Clube de Braga just another single point further back in third.
However, if the destination of the team title over 8.7km went to the favourites, the individual victory was a huge shock as Alley Athletics Club South Tel Aviv’s Anjelina Nadai Lohalith, originally from South Sudan but who has competed in the 1500m of various major championships as a member of the Athlete Refugee Team, took the honours.
Lohalith had ostensibly never before run competitively further than 1500m but showed untapped reserves over the longer distance, she surged on the penultimate lap and was never headed before coming home home in 27:55.
At one stage, Lohalith had built up a lead of 80 metres before Spanish international Irene Sanchez-Escribano closed some of the gap in the final kilometre to come home just five seconds in arrears.
As in 2022, when the event made its debut on programme for this championship, Playas de Castellon dominated the mixed relay almost from the gun, fielding the same quarter and in the same order as in Oeiras a year ago.
Abderrahman El Khayami gave the host club a six-second lead at the first changeover after a leg of 1450m, with five other closely matched teams battling for second place, before 2021 European Athletics U20 Championships 1500m bronze medallist Mireya Arnedillo consolidated Playas de Castellon’s advantage with the fastest second leg of the day to extend her club’s lead to 10 seconds over Sporting Clube de Portugal, who were now a clear second.
Victor Ruiz, who set personal bests of 3:37.86 and 8:16.42 for the 1500m and 3000m steeplechase last summer, produced a flying third leg of 3:49 – like all the runners having to cover more than 200 metres of beach as well as three small steeplechase-like obstacles on the twisting course – to add another four seconds to the lead and give Uganda’s 2022 World Athletics Championships 1500m finalist Winnie Nanyondo the relatively easy task of bringing her club home as champions.
Despite going very briefly off circuit and stumbling on a short sandy descent, Nanyondo’s class shone through and she also ran the fastest time on her lap to help her club across the line in 16:10, 16 seconds in front of Sporting Clube de Portugal with Swiss club LG Regensdorf coming through for a surprise bronze.
The U20 women’s titles went to Playas de Castellon’s Spanish 2023 U20 cross country champion Miriam Benkert who started to run away from her rivals just before the bell and eventually won over the 5.8km race in 19:18, coming home 10 seconds clear of Fenebahce’s Edibe Yagiz, the latter having just turned 17 two weeks ago and still eligible to compete in this category for another two years.
Both women might well duel again for continental honours at the European Athletics U20 Championships in Jerusalem this coming August.
French U20 cross country international Margot Dajoux coulld be part of that contest as well, and also has another year in this category, but was third in this competition for the second year in succession for C. A. Auvergne.
Behind the women getting places on the podium were the trio representing defending team champions Mica Roma from Romania, with Mihaela Maria Blaga, Alexandra Maria Hudea and Iulia Florina Marginean coming home fourth, fifth and sixth respectively – the reverse order to the way they finished in 2022 – to tally and 15 points and take home a second set of gold medals to the club’s home city of Blaj in Transylvania.
2018 and 2019 U20 women’s winners Fenerbahce had to settle for second this time despite having their three scorers in the top 12 finishers and totalling 24 points, which in many previous years would have been good enough to win.
The U20 men’s individual title went to Uganda’s 2022 World University Games cross country champion Dismas Yeko, running for the Spanish club Clinicas Menorca, who was away and clear from the start of the last of the three 1920m laps and even had the luxury of being able to look around and relax over the final few hundred metres.
Yeko, who won in 16:47, was such a convincing winner that his four-second advantage over runner up Vivian Delin, running for the Dijon club, was flattering to the Frenchman despite the excellent effort of the latter runner.
Delin crossed the line in 16:51 after an enthralling three-way battle for the silver and bronze which saw Stefano Benzoni, running for Italian club Atletica Valle Brembana, take third in 16:52 and Playas de Castellon’s Ruben Olivo given the same time but just losing out on a medal in fourth.
Fenerbahce, having missed out on the U20 women’s team honours a short while before, regained the U20 men’s team title they last won in 2010 when Caner Can Tunctan, Furkan Mutlu and Cuma Ozcan helped each other in the latter stages of the race and finished in sixth, seventh and eighth place respectively.