The women’s 20km race walk at the European Race Walking Cup in Alytus, Lithuania on Sunday (19) produced the race of the day - and the result of the day if you are Lithuanian.
The country’s fine form at team level finally produced the goods on an individual basis for Zivile Vaiciukeviciute. Bronze medallists two years ago, the home nation was fancied to do well as a collective again, and maybe Brigita Virbalyte-Dimsiene would be in the lead group.
But she looked slightly shocked as her understudy at the European Championships last year lapped her in the closing stages. Even then the fierce fight for gold was far from over.
Vaiciukeviciute inched ahead of Spain’s Raquel Gonzalez but then Laura García-Caro picked up the pace to push the joyful Lithuanian all the way to the line.
Halfway through the final lap, Garcia-Caro was making ground, but as both made the final turn, the eventual winner dug deep to forge home.
From the start, defending champion Antonella Palmisano set out her stall and for half a kilometre European champion Maria Perez gave chase before easing back to settle in a group of 10.
Two laps later, Perez was disappearing back down the field and already 43 seconds behind the leader. The European champion from last year was clearly in trouble, and going backwards.
Despite her status as event poster girl in her hometown, maybe the pressure also got to Virbalyte-Dimsiene, who walked a national record 1:27:59 for fourth at Berlin 2018 - but was never in contention today.
Instead the baton was picked up by Vaiciukeviciute who set a national U23 record with 1:28.07 in that same race to finish fifth. She was right up with a group of six as Palmisano turned the screw but the best laid plans of race favourites often go astray and lap 13 proved unlucky for Palmisano as her early strength visibly drained.
Vaiciukeviciute and Gonzales drew level, and although the Italian tried everything she knew, the elastic snapped at at the 14km checkpoint.
For the first time in the day, local voices were cheering a possible home win and even the course commentator got in on the act to urge the crowd to up the decibels with ‘Vaiciukeviciute’ as a chant turned into three syllables. It was evident the medals were headed to the front three at 15km (1:11:54) and when Gonzales’s head was thrown back trying to gulp air over the closing stages, 23-year-old Vaiciukeviciute knew she was about to win her first major honour.
On a warm afternoon in Alytus, Vaiciukeviciute set a season’s best of 1:29:48 to defeat the Spanish duo of Garcia-Caro (1:29:55) and Gonzalez (1:30:17). Perez faded to eleventh in 1:34:08 while reigning champion Palmisano, who was such a convincing winner in Podebrady two years ago, was a non-finisher.
The Spaniards won the team title with 16 points from Italy (27 points) but the only disappointment for the home fans was Belarus pipping Lithuania to team bronze - 33 to 36 points.
Karlstrom takes the biggest win of his career in a European-leading time
Born in Sweden but made in Australia is close to the truth for Perseus Karlstrom who claimed victory in the men’s 20km race walk in Alytus in a European-leading time of 1:19:54.
Wearing fancy dress yellow and blue Viking helmet in the last 200 metres - which brought back memories of Karsten Warholm’s celebration at the IAAF World Championships in London two years ago - complete with fetching pigtails, the 29-year-old celebrated his first major victory by moving from third in Podebrady right to the top of the podium.
The Swede has spent several successful western winters in Australia and even has an Australian coach in Brent Vallance.
A trio of high profile wins at 20km this year in a row bodes well for Karlstrom ahead of the IAAF World Championships in Doha later this year and he played the waiting game to perfection in Alytus.
From the gun, Great Britain’s Tom Bosworth and defending champion Christopher Linke were first to show and shot through the three kilometre mark in 12:03 - but ominously a chasing group heaving with talent were biding their time.
The Brit inched ahead by two seconds at 5km (20:05) with Miguel Angel Lopez the first of a 12-strong throng, a further 11 seconds in arrears.
That gap from Bosworth to Linke grew wider by lap six, and the immediate chasers were down to seven. By the eight kilometre mark in 32:05 for the fair-haired leader, Bosworth was nine seconds to the good over Linke and 22 seconds ahead of the lead group.
Halfway was reached in 40:11 but the group with designs on a win had swallowed up Linke and cut the deficit to 13 seconds. With five laps remaining, the Briton was reeled in by Karlstrom and Spain’s Diego Garcia - and no wonder. The pair notched 3:48 for the fastest kilometre so far.
Karlstrom showed he meant business as he discarded his dark glasses on the penultimate lap, and so did European bronze medallist Vasiliy Mizinov - one of two neutral athletes competing in the 20km race walk.
Cleverly biding his time at the back of the chasing group, he lit the afterburners to pass Garcia and claim silver in 1:20:18 and five seconds ahead of the second Spaniard.
Bosworth rallied to hold on to fourth in 1:20:53 and his effort was not without reward. Backed up by Callum Wilkinson in ninth in 1:21:54, Great Britain won their first ever medal at the European Race Walking Cup with team silver behind Spain and in front of Ukraine.
European champion Alvaro Martin and former world and European champion Miguel Angel Lopez were the other scoring members for Spain in fifth (1:20:59) and sixth (1:21:00) respectively while reigning champion Linke slipped down to 12th in 1:23:21.