Cross country running returns to its roots in Tilburg

SPAR European Cross Country Championships
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Runners had to contend with testing underfoot conditions at the SPAR European Cross Country Championships in Tilburg on Sunday

It was a day which had everything: a series of brilliant races, history made with champions successfully defending their titles and, the weather. There was rain, there was sun, it was cold and there was mud. 

As Tilburg proved on Sunday, there is no other event like the SPAR European Cross Country Championships and cross country running returned to its roots on a traditional, European-style course at the Beekse Bergen Safari Park.   

The competition provided a fitting finale to an amazing year of European athletics - which was reflected on by President Svein Arne Hansen at the pre-event press conference - from the drama on the track of Berlin to this spectacular farewell to 2018.

It is simply not just a case of running your own race. That is virtually impossible because of every other element and all of the variables which have to be considered. 

The tone was set from the moment the gun fired for the opening race - the women’s U20 race - when two runners slipped and were faced with a big of group of rivals in the distance which they had to quickly join. 

For some, the rain which came lashing down might have meant a quick revision of just how slippery the course had become - and some longer spikes to adjust accordingly - but it did not matter what experience you had. When conditions change, the mindset has to change with it. 

Take Turkey’s Aras Kaya, the 2016 men’s senior champion who won bronze this time in 28:55 as Norway’s Filip Ingebrigtsen won gold (28:48) and Belgium’s Isaac Kimeli took silver (28:51).

“The course was really, really muddy,” said Kaya. “That made it ever harder to run. I tried to push harder but with the mud and the up and downs, it was really hard.”

On the track, conditions rarely alter during one race. The unexpected of what lies ahead at the European Cross Country Championships makes it not only a brilliant spectacle for those watching on the course and the millions tuned on television, but provides a challenge to an athlete like no other. 

Filip’s brother Jakob was another who was experiencing something new and summed it up perfect by saying it was “fun”. 

“The course was really tough,” said Ingebrigtsen. “I have never done anything like before, so it’s fun for me to compete in these conditions. With all the mud, it was difficult to get in the rhythm. It was tougher than expected but it was fun.” 

And for Ingebrigtsen, 18, it was historic, too, as he won a record third U20 men’s crown in a row with the prospect of a fourth to come in Lisbon next December. 

And to think that Sergiy Lebid’s record of nine senior crowns looked like it would never be matched. Who can predict anything now such has been the emergence of this younger Ingebrigtsen who won his third gold medal of the year after his European 1500m and 5000m triumphs in Berlin August. 

Jimmy Gressier, of France, is fast becoming a social media hit with repeats of his celebrations as he retained the U23 title, with a great run and a dive across the line which ended with him on his knees - and even muddier.

And then there is Turkey's Yasemin Can, who showed what a force she is. She played her tactics to perfection to become the first woman to win the senior title three times, let alone three times in a row, as she held back enough speed to secure victory, defeating the brilliant challenge of Switzerland’s Fabienne Schlumpf in the race of the day. 

Never mind holding her footing, Can chose to beat the elements by wearing a tracksuit top, one more little addition which normally an athlete would not have to experience.

But that is cross country - it is all about the most incredible of tests.

Roll on Lisbon!