Jakob Ingebrigtsen might have been the youngest competitor in the senior men’s race by two years but the scintillating Norwegian glided to gold at the SPAR European Cross Country Championships in Fingal-Dublin on Sunday (12).
Ingebrigtsen would have been eligible for the U23 race - and he remains so next year as well when the championships take place in Turin - but the Olympic 1500m champion stepped up both in age-group and in distance at the Sport Ireland Campus to win his sixth European senior title at the age of 21.
The distance of 10km might be slightly beyond Ingebrigtsen’s speciality but he never looked under considerable pressure or out of his comfort zone against what was arguably the finest ever men’s field assembled at the European Cross Country Championships. The line-up included the three individual medallists from 2019 as well as Jimmy Gressier who was also making his senior debut.
Reigning two-time champion Aras Kaya from Turkey set an unrelenting pace on a muddy and rutted course and by the end of the second large lap of 1500 metres, the Kenyan-born reigning champion had already whittled the group down to four contenders. Ingebrigtsen and Gressier both kept pace with Kaya along with Yemaneberhan Crippa from Italy.
Kaya’s attritional tactics would eventually pay dividends. After looking anxiously over his shoulder, Crippa suddenly came to a halt before grasping his stomach on the penultimate lap and then Gressier started to cede ground on the leading pair just before the bell chimed to signal the last lap.
But Ingebrigtsen showed no discernible signs of fatigue and he ominously loomed onto Kaya’s shoulder before nonchalantly moving past the reigning champion with just under one kilometre to go.
The gap opened up gradually at first but Ingebrigtsen’s raking stride took him to a clear-cut victory in the end. He broke the tape in front of a sizable and knowledgeable crowd in 30:15 to win by just under 100 metres from Kaya (30:29) and Gressier (30:34) and add senior gold to his four U20 titles between 2016 and 2019.
“It felt really good but I have to admit 10K is not the best distance for me. At the same time we do a lot of similar training to these sorts of races in our normal weeks, but you are always thinking about the worst case scenario.
“There is a lot of mud here, it is a tough race, a long race with a lot of good competitors this year,” said Ingebrigtsen who also acknowledged the role of the crowd just over four months after landing Olympic gold in a near-deserted stadium in Tokyo.
“The crowd was crazy and they really helped us, so I´m really happy there were lots of spectators here today!”
Kaya had to relinquish his title to Ingebrigtsen but the Turk was happy to make the podium again after a rather nondescript season. He has now made the podium in four of the last five editions of the European Cross Country Championships with silver this year accompanying his bronze from 2018 and his gold medals from 2016 and 2019.
“I knew I had to lead from the front - that was my plan - both Jakob, Yemen and Jimmy are very strong so I need to come out strong and neutralise the field. Someone had to get the pace going. Although I came out here as the reigning champion overall, I am very happy with my result,” he said graciously.
Gressier came home safe in the bronze medal and he led home a French contingent who packed excellently. With Hugo Hay fourth and Yann Schrub sixth, the French team came away with the senior men’s team title.
Incredibly this was Gressier and Hay's sixth successive team gold medal at the European Cross Country Championships after winning U20 team gold in 2015 and 2016 as well as three team and individual U23 titles between 2017 and 2019.
Reflecting on his individual performance, Gressier said: “It is difficult to beat Jakob these days, he is truly the best in the world - even in cross country he is undefeatable - so I can only focus on improving, so I stand a chance of beating him at some point. In the meantime, it’s a real pleasure to race next to a true champion like him.”
Behind France with 13 points, Spain took the team silver medal with 30 points while Norway were third with 47 points, packing just ahead of hosts Ireland who finished with 51 points and whose charge was led by Brian Fay in tenth.