In the final part of our race previews ahead of Sunday's SPAR European Cross Country Championships, we focus on the men’s and women’s senior races – with both defending champions back.
Gemma will need all her steel again
There could hardly be a more competitive line-up than that for the senior women’s race in this Sunday’s SPAR European Cross Country Championships.
It features the winners from the last four years in defending champion Gemma Steel, of Great Britain, Sophie Duarte, of France, the gold medallist in 2013, and Ireland’s Fionnuala McCormack (nee Britton), who triumphed in 2012 and 2011.
But that is just the start.
Throughout the field is a series of leading runners such as the Netherlands’ multi-gold medallist Sifan Hassan, Spain’s Iris Maria Fuentes-Pila and Austria’s Jennifer Wenth, who will be in contention.
But if there is hope that the race could be closer than it was 12 months ago in Samokov, well that is virtually impossible as Steel beat her British teammate Kate Avery by a margin so small that both runners were given the same time of 28:27.
A memory which only adds to the occasion this weekend in Hyères because Avery has the chance this time to go that one stride quicker and take the title.
She still left Bulgaria with a gold in 2014 as Britain’s senior women won the team prize, a foursome which included Steph Twell, who was seventh in the individual race, and who has something many of the others do not have heading into these championships.
At the end of last month, Twell won the Cross International Hyères Mediterranee on this course, an experience which could prove invaluable on Sunday.
Steel’s success in winning her first senior individual title rubber-stamped what a superb servant she has been of the SPAR European Cross Country Championships. She had finished second behind Duarte the previous year in Belgrade and third behind McCormack in Velenje in 2011.
Duarte, who was fifth in Samokov, is part of an immensely strong French squad that will be looking for a podium place, with European marathon champion Christelle Daunay and European 10,000m silver medallist Clemence Calvin among those alongside her. They could take some stopping in the team race.
Hassan, the under-23 champion in 2013, showed her ability on the track in winning the European 1500m title in Zurich last year before taking the European indoor title in Prague in March. She has stamina and speed, and will surely be among the leaders throughout.
Fuentes-Pila’s ninth place in Samokov was crucial as it led Spain to team silver and the winning quartet is back in full with Trihas Gebre, Diana Martin and Lidia Rodriguez all running.
McCormack might have stressed that her marathon training has meant she is more focussed on Ireland’s team’s glory than her own this time, but she cannot be ruled out of individual success such is her outstanding record at the championships.
And while Wenth is Austria’s only runner, she is a consistent performer in the distance finals at championships and could be a threat.
Women’s senior race: Start time: 1:30pm (CET). Distance: 8.08km
Arikan hopes to be in the party mood
Not since Ukrainian legend Serhiy Lebid won the eighth of his nine gold medals in Brussels in 2008 has the men's senior title been retained at the SPAR European Cross Country Championships.
If that gap is bridged in Hyères on Sunday, Turkey's Polat Kemboi Arikan will have a birthday weekend to remember.
Arikan turns 25 the day before and as he bids to repeat his triumph of 12 months ago, once more he might have to fend off the challenge of a teammate before the celebrations can really begin.
At 21, Ali Kaya would probably dominate the under-23s race but as he showed in last year in Samokov, he can do more than hold his own among the seniors. In 2014 Arikan beat Kaya in the final stride, with both sharing the time of 32:19.
Another classic offering should be served up again with Turkey looking strong contenders to keep hold of their team title. Their squad is completed by Ramazan Ozdemir, who was in the winning team in Bulgaria, Mehmet Caglayan, Hasan Pak and Sabahattin Yildirimci.
Like 12 months ago, Spain will want to have a say in that at the Hippodrome du Var and their team includes Alemayehu Bezabeh, the double individual and triple team champion who was third last year in the defence of his title.
He was 11 seconds behind Arikan and Kaya, and in a strong Spanish squad, he will be ably supported by 2010 runner-up Ayad Lamdassem and, among others, Antonio Abadia and Roberto Alaiz, who helped the nation win team silver last year.
Florian Carvalho, who was fourth in Samokov, leads the French team, while Great Britain’s Ross Millington, who was fifth, is back again.
Germany’s Florian Orth will pose a threat while Norway have Henrik Ingebrigtsen, one of Europe’s most consistent medal-winners over the past six years.
While his recent success has been on the track - he has won 1500m gold and silver respectively at the last two European Athletics Championships and 3000m bronze at this year’s European Athletics Indoor Championships - he is also a cross country veteran, including victory in the under-23 race in 2012.
Men’s senior race: Start time: 2:12pm (CET). Distance: 10.11km.