After taking a clean sweep of the medals last year, the Nordic domination in the men’s U20 race was expected to continue in the first race of the day at the SPAR European Cross Country Championships in Piemonte-La Mandria Park on Sunday (11).
But in a morning of shocks in the U20 races, two of the medallists from last year dropped out and the third returning medallist faded out of medal contention on the last lap in the U20 men’s 5.7km.
Last year’s U20 silver medallist Abdullahi Dahir Rabi from Norway, who took ownership of the long-standing European U20 10,000m record last summer, was the first of the highly vaunted Nordic trio to succumb to the course and the freezing conditions, dropping out in some distress at the start of the the uphill climb on the second long lap.
The second athlete to suddenly drop out was the reigning champion Axel Vang Christensen from Denmark, the British-based 18-year-old who was considered by many the pre-race favourite. But having pushed the pace hard in the early stages, Christensen, who woke up this morning with a cold, lost contact on the penultimate climb towards La Mandria Castle before stepping off the race course.
This left the Danish - and indeed the Nordic challenge - in the hands of Joel Ibler Lillesø, who eclipsed Jakob Ingebrigtsen’s European indoor U20 3000m record this winter. But after visibly struggling on the uphill section, Lillesø struggled even more on the downhill section. His legs crumbled on the final descent and fell out of medal contention, eventually fading to 13th.
This left Great Britain’s Will Barnicoat and Ireland’s European U20 3000m champion Nick Griggs to duke it out for the victory. And there was still even more drama to follow.
After taking the final downhill section so well, Griggs looked to be on course to add to his continental medal tally. But on hard ground which had still not completely thawed, Griggs stumbled in the finishing straight, lost his footing and was overhauled by a charging Barnicoat who had led the Brits to the team title last year.
Barnicoat, who stopped the clock at 17:40 for a one second win, leaves Turin not only with an individual gold medal for posterity but a second team title. He was ably backed up by Sam Mills and Luke Birdseye in fourth (17:54) and fifth (17:56) respectively.
“It was a very hard course and in the last lap, I saw the others struggling a bit so I started kicking. I was thinking - ‘OK, this is going to be my chance.’ Let’s hope for the best. I felt I still had something left. I tried to push myself. I have always had a strong finish. I knew that the race was not over until the end and that was also my plan to fight until the very end. I just started sprinting and it was unbelievable. I still cannot believe it,” said Barnicoat.
Griggs cut a forlorn figure in the mixed zone but he did have the consolation of leading Ireland to another team silver - not bad for a runner who doesn’t consider himself a cross country runner - with his teammate Dean Casey taking the individual bronze in 17:46.
“After that stumble towards the end, it was not what I wanted. It is going to take some time to reflect on, but we have to be supportive. Again, I am not a natural cross country runner, but maybe I proved everyone wrong. I thought I would go out there and give myself a chance, so I put myself there and be brave. Again, I am disappointed I ended the race. I had it in the bag, but I stumbled and lost momentum, so Will capitalised.
“Yeah, I’m a bit sore but I am glad I could help the team, especially helping those lads getting a silver. I am proud of my race today,” said Griggs.
There was another unexpected result in the women’s U20 race as Spain’s Maria Forero defeated the more accomplished track exponents for the individual title.
The running in the early stages was taken up by Innes Fitzgerald, the precocious 16-year-old who has already broken the nine minute-barrier for 3000m.
Intriguingly, Fitzgerald travelled from her training base in Exeter in Great Britain to Turin by train for environmental reasons and she started like one, showing no fear against more experienced athletes more than three years her senior.
But Fitzgerald was eventually joined - and then passed by Forero - who went on to forge to victory in the U20 3.8km in 13:04 ahead of Norway’s European U20 1500m champion Ingeborg Østgard (13:07) and Finland’s Ilona Mononen (13:08), the European U20 3000m champion.
“I didn't really expect to win with such a margin over the other girls, let alone take the lead at such an early stage. I felt really strong, but not in my dreams did it occur to me I could have won in the way that I did,” said Forero who also led Spain to the team title.
On her international debut, Fitzgerald eventually finished fourth but by virtue of a 2006 birthdate she will be eligible for the U20 race at the next three editions of the SPAR European Cross Country Championships.
Full results here.
Steven Mills for European Athletics