The traditional pre-event press conference for the SPAR European Cross Country Championships saw a packed audience in the quaintly named Adventure Room at the Beekse Bergen resort in the Dutch city of Tilburg, which will be the venue for the 25th edition of the competition.
“We have a record number of participants and what looks like a record number at a press conference,” joked European Athletics President Svein Arne Hansen to open proceedings. However, with almost 600 runners expected to be on the start-line of the seven races on Sunday, it looks likely that the previous high of 561 athletes who competed in Samorin 12 months ago will be exceeded.
The level of media interest in this year’s championships demonstrates the high profile of the competition and the Dutch athletics family’s enthusiasm for cross country, with an estimated 8,000 spectators predicted line the course.
“This follows up some fantastic championships we’ve had already – Gyor (the European Athletics U18 Championships) was great and Berlin 2018 was something special – and a fantastic year for European Athletics we’ve had so far,” added Hansen.
Dutch Athletics Federation President Eric van der Burg was the deputy mayor of Amsterdam during the time when the city staged the European Athletics Championships in 2016 and he predicted that people will also look back on this event fondly in the years to come.
“In Amsterdam, we had the slogan ‘Like Never Before’ and this time it’s ‘Creating Crossovers’ because about the athletes and athletics fans who are here but we want to take this event into the lives of people who don’t normally love athletics and show them about how beautiful our sport is,” commented van der Berg.
“We also have a special ‘Holland Hill’ on the course. When we heard that the Belgian fans were going to congregate on one corner then it was obvious that we have to create our own spot,” he added, although space might be at a premium with local media reports that up to 10,000 spectators may line the course on Sunday.
The course itself, in the middle of a wildlife park, is certainly unique in the history of the SPAR European Cross Country Championships – and is among the reasons why van der Berg thinks that the championships will resonate with many people from beyond hardcore athletics fans – and got enthusiastic applause from the runners present at the press conference.
“My room is right in front of the lions so some of the other members of the team set up some speakers and started playing in some noises through the window,” recounted Spain’s Adel Mechaal, who finished second in Samorin 12 months ago and who is also the reigning European indoor 3000m champion.
“It’s quite something, you don’t normally associate elephants and camels with the Netherlands,” joked Jessica Piasecki, Great Britain’s 2012 European U23 champion who is returning to compete in this event after an absence of six years.
On a more serious note, Piasecki quickly ran the rule quickly over what the runners will have to deal with underfoot on Sunday.
“It’s challenging; it’s got different sections: muddy bits, dry bits, it could be anybody’s day. This is quite a ‘European’ course, twists and turns and logs.
Mechaal added, “I came here thinking it was going to be so muddy, but it was not so muddy [at the course inspection earlier on Saturday] so I’m now ready to fight for a medal again.”
His thoughts were echoed by local star Maureen Koster, the 2015 European indoor 3000m bronze medallist who is part of a strong Dutch senior women’s team. “It has changed a bit from two weeks ago [at the Warandecross, a European Athletics Cross Country Permit Meeting on the same course which was also a test event for these championships] but I expected more mud so it’s still pretty fast,” she explained.
Perhaps the most vociferously supported of any athlete in Tilburg will be Dutch U20 hope Luuk Maas, who was the winner of the U20 race at the Warandeloop and a member of the Tilburg Road Runners.
The 19-year-old has been in fine form this winter and leads Dutch ambitions of getting a medal for just the second time in this category. “I think I will have between 20 to 25 close family and friends here tomorrow besides all the other Dutch athletics fans,” said Maas, who has been a frequent visitor to the wildlife park on family visits in the past when he hasn’t had his running shoes on.
By contrast to Maas, at 33 Michel Butter is one of the oldest runners in the Dutch squad but had never visited Beekse Bergen before. He also couldn’t pass up the opportunity either of having his family watch him in action.
“I had to tell my two-and-a-half year old daughter that I was going on holiday but she could come too,” joked Butter, who will be competing in his 12th SPAR European Cross Country Championships, a feat only two other men have surpassed.
He is also one of the few runners this year to have also competed in Tilburg the last time the championships were here, back in 2005.
“A lot has changed since then, not just the course. I used to have blond hair and earrings and look at me now,” he joked, reflected on his own image as a more sober family man, also expressing a desire to emulate or improve on his best championships finish on ninth from 2008.