The SPAR European Cross Country Championships in Fingal-Dublin on Sunday will see a trio of men chasing a second continental title after triumphing at the European Athletics U20 Championships in Tallinn this summer.
Home favourite Nick Griggs, Denmark’s Joel Ibler Lilleso and Spain’s Pol Oriach all won distance running titles in Tallinn this summer and, naturally, are expected to be to the fore over the four-lap 6km course on the Sport Ireland Campus.
Griggs, the European U20 3000m champion who doesn’t turn 17 until the Saturday after the Championships, was impressive when winning the Irish U20 title last month. He was every bit as impressive in the 3000m in the Estonian capital, deploying a potent sprint finish to win the gold medal despite being the youngest athlete in the field.
The Ulsterman has an emotional motivation for doing well in what will be the first major continental competition to be held in Ireland since the SPAR European Cross Country Championships were staged in Dublin 12 years ago.
His brother Josh, also an accomplished runner and gaelic footballer, died in a workplace accident just a few weeks before his younger sibling triumphed in Estonia.
“Josh had a massive impact on me. If anyone has an older brother, you always try and mimic them and do whatever they do. I've just always wanted to be exactly like him. Me and Josh actually talked about this a few times, he is a big reason for when I started running.
"He encouraged me to come with him and do everything with him, we would have done a few sessions together when I was in first year and he would have always spurred me on,” reflected Griggs recently.
Ireland have only ever won two individual bronze medals in this category – Gareth Turnbull in 1998 and Efrem Gidey at the last edition in 2019 – and have never been on the podium in the team contest but this could be the year Ireland makes the podium as a collective.
The Irish team has been weakened somewhat by the late withdrawal of European U20 1500m champion Cian McPhillips due to injury but those in the know are still expecting the Irish team to challenge for team honours despite the absence of one of their star names.
Oriach and the Spaniards could be a big danger to the Irish ambitions of success on home soil.
The European U20 3000m steeplechase champion, who finished 13th as a 17-year-old in Lisbon two years ago, has been his country’s outstanding U20 runner so far this winter, winning a high quality race on home soil in his age group at the World Athletics Cross Country Tour meeting in Atapuerca. Oriach also has impressive credentials on the flat and caught the attention with a 3:37.67 1500m this summer when he was 18.
He will be joined in the Spanish team by, among others, David Cantero who ran Denmark’s Lilleso close in the 5000m in Tallinn.
In addition to Lilleso, Denmark also has the precocious 17-year-old Axel Vang Christensen, who is eligible for the U20 ranks at both the 2022 and 2023 European Cross Country Championships, in their ranks.
The latter took the silver behind Oriach in the steeplechase final and he finished in front of his compatriot at the Nordic Cross Country Championships in early November.
However, both Leleso and Christensen finished behind the Norwegian winner Abdullahi Dahir Rabi in Tullinge and although the latter has never run internationally – having arrived in Norway several years ago as a refugee from Somalia before getting his Norwegian citizenship in September and being cleared by World Athletics to run for Norway only this week – he could certainly challenge for the medals, especially as Dahir Rani can also boast of a 5000m best of 13:49.88 which would have otherwise have seen him place third on this year's European U20 lists behind the two Danes he beat to the Nordic title.
Form in depth is always difficult to assess but Great Britain, Ireland and Spain look the most likely candidates for team medals with Denmark, as well as perennial challengers France, Germany and Italy also sending good teams.
Ostgard looks to emulate Ingebrigtsen
Norway has taken the men’s U20 gold medal at these championships for the last four editions thanks to Jakob Ingebrigtsen and now it could be the turn of their women to feature in Fingal-Dublin courtesy of Ingeborg Ostgard.
Ostgard won the 1500m title in Tallinn but then showed her mettle as a cross country runner last month when winning the Nordic U20 title, getting the verdict in a frantic sprint over the super-talented Danish 16-year-old Sofia Thogersen who took the 3000m silver medal in the Estonian capital, with both being given the same time.
Like a number of other Norwegian women distance runners over the years, Ostgard also excels as a cross country skier and it is to this sport that she will turn her attention after the SPAR European Cross Country Championships.
“I’d never run a race in such windy conditions as the Nordic Championships,” commented Ostgard. “Now I’m looking forward to the European [cross country] championships and it should be fun. I have no specific ambitions about getting among the medals, I’m just going to see what I can do.”
Notably, the women's U20 race at the Nordic Cross Country Championships was contested over 6km whereas the European title will be decided over 4km, which could be to Ostgard's advantage with her middle distance pedigree.
Another European U20 champion on the track will be on the start-line. Finland’s Ilona Mononen, who took the 3000m title in Tallinn ahead of Thogersen, finished just three seconds adrift of the leading pair in Tullinge and could be a factor again.
Completing the trio of Tallinn U20 champions in action will be 5000m winner Carla Dominguez and the Spaniard has shown good form in local races in recent weeks to suggest she could also be a factor in this race.
Hungary’s Greta Varga, who took the the 3000m steeplechase silver medal in a thrilling sprint finish in Tallinn, also merits attention. She is also the highest-placed finisher from the last edition of these championships in Lisbon two years ago still to be eligible to race in Fingal-Dublin, having finished seventh on that occasion when she was only 15.
Great Britain – 16 times winner out of the last 20 editions since 2000 – start once again as favourites for the team title but Norway, Spain and possibly France could also be battling for the medals.
The SPAR European Cross Country Championships will be streamed live in its entirety on the European Athletics website from 9.30am local time (GMT).