On a beautiful afternoon at Holyrood Park, the 2017 athletics year started in earnest today with the Great Edinburgh XCountry, a match between Great Britain, Team Europe and the USA.
In the end Team Europe finished second overall, just three points behind the USA, with so many markers for the 12 months ahead.
In dry conditions – quite a contrast from the past where this event has been run in the snow and, as last year, in the mud – once more Turkey’s Yasemin Can showed her brilliance as she triumphed again to maintain her amazing form after her string of success in 2016.
And while all eyes were on Sir Mo Farah, it was his British teammate Callum Hawkins who demonstrated his growing impact on the sport.
This European Athletics Cross Country Permit event consisted of four races, with the best four scores in each team counting in the junior races and the best six scores counting in the senior races.
Here’s the story of the day…
JUNIOR MEN’S (6km)
At the SPAR European Cross Country Championships in Chia last month, Great Britain’s Alex Yee fell and was then knocked over again before finishing 11th with a gutsy performance and after his win here 12 months ago, he went into this race as the favourite.
Yee started well, and was bang at the front for the first lap with the main European challengers being Spain’s Adrian Ben Miguel Gonzalez and Romania’s Dorin Andrei Rusu.
By halfway, though, it was American Conor Lundy who had taken over at the front with Yee just behind but then the defending champion started to drift back as Israel’s Eshetu Worku came through into second for Team Europe alongside Gonzalez.
And then making his mark was American Noah Affolder and once he took over, the rest had to battle to stay with him.
Scott Beattie was coming through well for Britain but he lost his footing and slipped which affected his chances as Gonzalez led the European challenge.
But Affolder hung on to win in 19:29 from Gonzalez (19:34) and Lundy (19:36) with European athletes finishing strongly with Rusu (19:38) in fifth, Worku (19:39) in sixth and Ben (19:44) in seventh.
TEAM RESULT/MATCH SCORE AFTER ONE EVENT
1. USA 17
2. EUROPE 20
3. BRITAIN 42
JUNIOR WOMEN’S (4km)
Britain’s Harriet Knowles-Jones is one of the best junior athletes in Europe and she delivered again with a superb win.
The bronze medallist from the under-20 race in Chia took control early on and the rest were left chasing the places behind her.
In the end Knowles-Jones won by 10 seconds in 13:56 from the Netherlands’ Jasmijn Lau who added to her fine run from Chia where she was fifth.
It was a good test for the rest as Knowles-Jones stamped such command on the race with Lau staying strong throughout and always looking like she would make the top three.
Lau ensured she had enough speed to finish ahead of American Nevada Mareno (14:08) with the next best European athlete being Switzerland’s Delia Sclabas (14:24) in sixth, just as she was in Chia.
With four American runners in the top 10 – Alicia Mosnon (14:16) was fifth, Lauren Gregory (14:25) was seventh and Taylor Werner (14:30) was eighth – the USA won the team event to stretch their lead in the match.
1. USA 23
2. BRITAIN 24
3. EUROPE 34
MATCH SCORE AFTER TWO EVENTS
1. USA 40
2. EUROPE 54
3. BRITAIN 66
SENIOR WOMEN’S (6km)
Team Europe might have started this penultimate race in Edinburgh 14 points behind the USA but how that changed.
And it was no surprise because of the strength of the women’s team led by the top two from the SPAR European Cross Country Championships – Turkey’s Yasemin Can and Meryem Akdag.
If 2016 was an amazing year for Can, where she won the 5000m and 10,000m European double before her Chia glory, then 2017 has started in equally prolific fashion.
Back from altitude training in Kenya with Akdag, the pair moved in front on the first lap as Team Europe had complete dominance with Ireland’s Fionnuala McCormack in third.
But at the front, it was all about Can.
Akdag stayed with her on that first lap as they quickly stretched their lead before Can gradually broke away, leading by three seconds from Akdag at the end of the second lap as McCormack followed from Romanian duo Roxana Barca and Ancuta Bobocel.
Can has so much strength, pace, endurance and power, whatever the distance, whatever the surface. And while it was dry here in the Scottish capital, underfoot the course was bumpy and there were a series of streams and small bridges to contend with.
She was never troubled and by the bell, Can was 14 seconds in front of her Turkish teammate Akdag but all the time McCormack was edging closer and the double Euro Cross champion was not going to give up.
Biding her time, McCormack made her mark with 400 metres to go, soaring past Akdag and then keeping her footing on a tricky downward part of the course to ensure she would take second without being threatened.
Can, raising her arms in celebration as the line approached, won in 20:36 and it was some victory, a triumph of 21 seconds from McCormack, with Akdag (21:02) in third.
American Emily Lipari was fourth (21:17) and then came Bobocel (21:18) and Barca (21:21) with Charlotte Arter (21:23) in seventh as Britain’s leading finisher as the match emphatically swung the way of Team Europe, who won this event by 44 points and now led by 30 with just the senior men’s race to go.
1. EUROPE 28
2. USA 72
3. BRITAIN 72
MATCH SCORE AFTER THREE EVENTS
1. EUROPE 82
2. USA 112
3. BRITAIN 138
MEN’S SENIOR (8km)
In the end Europe missed out on winning the match by three points but the finale to this European Cross Country Permit event proved to be tremendous.
It was probably the first time a Knight of the realm had run a cross country race but on this occasion it was not about the exploits of Sir Mo Farah.
When Farah retires from the track after this summer’s IAAF World Championships in London, he plans to move to the marathon but he may have a battle to even be the British No.1 over that distance.
The person who could stand in his way is Scotland’s Callum Hawkins.
Ninth over 26.2 miles at the Olympic Games in Rio last summer, Hawkins produced a brilliant performance today to lead from the start before being pipped on the line by American Leonard Korir.
It was so close, with Korir winning by a second in 24:03, with Turkey’s Euro Cross champion Aras Kaya third for Team Europe in 24:21.
Hawkins and American Morgan Pearson had set such a pace in a race of two short laps and four long ones that Farah found himself in the middle of the pack.
For once Farah could not control things at the front but progressed through well to finish seventh in 24:49, one spot ahead of the next best European, Belgium’s Soufiane Bouchikhi (24:56).
It seemed that Hawkins had made enough of a break at the end yet Korir found that extra ounce of speed to pip him.
Hawkins still seemed happy and said: “I put it all out there but I was not the strongest man on the day. It is all gearing up for the marathon at the world championships where I have been pre-selected.”
Sir Mo said: “It was a hard day at the office. It was not what I wanted and I have a lot of work to do.”
1. USA 37
2. BRITAIN 70
3. EUROPE 70
FINAL MATCH SCORE
1. USA 149
2. EUROPE 152
3. BRITAIN 208
****LAURA MUIR added to her great week by leading Britain to victory in the 4x1km mixed international relay with a superb final lap as the team triumphed in 11:10 from the USA (11:17) and Scotland A (11:18). The race was not part of the match itself but was further proof of the speed of Muir, who broke the British 5000m indoor record a few days. She was Britain’s team captain here and said: “I wanted to do a good job and bring it (this victory) home.”