Melissa Courtney plans to end year in style
WELSH RUNNER GOES TO TILBURG IN GOOD FORM AT END OF BRILLIANT 12 MONTHS
MELISSA COURTNEY hopes to bring to an end her superb breakthrough year in style with a good run at the European Cross Country Championships in Tilburg on Sunday.
The 25-year-old only decided to run last month’s British trials in Liverpool about two weeks before the race, but it paid off as she finished fourth in a highquality women’s field.
“Cross country wasn’t a big part of my plans,” she says, “but training was going well and I felt so good.”
This time last year she was part of the gold medal-winning mixed relay team at the Euro Cross in Samorin. Now, in the Netherlands this weekend, she runs the senior women’s race as part of a strong GB team which will be aiming to make its usual impact.
It comes at the end of a year that saw her win 1500m bronze at the Commonwealth Games in Australia in a 4:03.44 PB before later finishing fifth in the European 5000m in Berlin in a Welsh record 15:04.75.
Courtney also set a Welsh record at 3000m with 8:39.20 during a long but rewarding season. “The Commonwealth Games was definitely the highlight,” she says. “It was my first major medal and something to remember.”
She also enjoyed the challenge of combining 1500m and 5000m. “The longer distance is all about grinding it out and feeling uncomfortable,” she explains. “I enjoyed racing 5km, though. My mindset has always been quite gutsy and I do some big sessions with my coach to prepare for it.”
Her coach, Rob Denmark, certainly knows about racing 5000m – he won the Commonwealth title in 1994. So far this winter Courtney has been training with Denmark in Loughborough – and at the same track as her fiancé, the British decathlete Ashley Bryant.
She says it’s the longest period she’s spent at home all year after globe-trotting to Australia, Kenya, South Africa, Switzerland and elsewhere during a hectic 12 months.
But the travelling will soon start again because she’s due to go altitude training in Kenya in January followed by an indoor season targeting 3000m and then a summer of 1500m and 5000m racing with the IAAF World Championships in Doha the big target.
THE residents of Beekse Bergen
Safari Park on the outskirts of Tilburg will be accustomed to large volumes of people arriving on the premises. However, they might not be quite so used to the speed at which this particular group of visitors will be navigating their way around a course which sits next to the complex this weekend.
That’s because this Dutch tourist attraction in the south of the country provides the quirky venue for the 25th
Spar European Cross Country Championships, with some of the continent’s finest athletes battling it out for honours on a course which, although largely flat, looks like providing at least a little more of an authentic cross country test than what was essentially a grass track in Chia, Sardinia, two years ago and last year’s firm-going racecourse of Samorin, Slovakia.
Tilburg also hosted these championships in 2005 but at a different venue and also at a time when there were just four individual races – the men’s and women’s under-20 and senior races – being contested.
The under-23 events have since been added while the mixed relay, first staged 12 months ago, returns in 2018.
There are no fewer than 616 athletes from 38 countries to be found on the entry lists, including a 40-strong Great Britain squad which will be looking to continue the nation’s lengthy period of high achievement when it comes to these championships.
The British team has been top of the medal table on 11 of the past 12 occasions, while Samorin saw the women’s senior, under-23 and under-20 sides all capture team gold.
There was victory in the mixed relay, too, while Harriet KnowlesJones won a memorable individual under-20 gold and Andrew Butchart grabbed the first individual European Cross honour of his career with senior men’s bronze.
Neither will be competing this time around, illness and injury having affected both since, and there is indeed a very different look to this British team which features strength in depth, plenty of experience, a few new faces and a number of impressive comebacks from injury.
The British line-up have some inspirational stories to tell.
Seven-time European Cross medallist Kate Avery leads the side and has been enjoying a return to form, having struggled with injuries which included stress fractures since winning
the second of her two individual silvers at these championships in 2015.
Trials winner Charlotte Arter has also overcome injury struggles to make the start line, just weeks before she officially becomes a full-time athlete.
Jess Piasecki, third in Liverpool and competing at the European Cross for the first time since winning individual gold and team silver in 2012 as an under-23, continues her comeback following problems with injuries related to RED-S (relative energy deficiency in sport).
Verity Ockenden was second at the trials and has bounced back from a cycling accident earlier this year, which stopped her running for a number of weeks to take her place, while 2016 team silver medallist Pippa Woolven and 2017 mixed relay gold medallist Melissa Courtney, a Commonwealth 1500m bronze medallist for Wales earlier this year and interviewed on page 6, complete the side.
Turkey’s Yasemin Can will be going for a hat-trick of titles and, with Dutch star Sifan Hassan having withdrawn from competing through illness, home hopes will fall on former under-23 champion Susan Krumins, who has not taken part at the European Cross since that run 10 years ago.
Ross Millington, a team gold medallist two years ago, has been beset by issues since his appearance in the 10,000m at the Rio Olympics but he signalled his return at the cross country trials in Liverpool as he sped to victory.
The Stockport Harrier is joined in the senior men’s lineup by the quartet who followed him over the line at Sefton Park – runner-up Nick Goolab, Marc Scott, Charlie Hulson and Dewi Griffiths.
Andy Vernon, who didn’t race in Liverpool due to a small niggle but has 2016 team gold and 2013 individual bronze to his name and got the selection nod due to his excellent record over the years, completes the team.
They will be up against a Turkish side which includes the Kenyan-born athletes who have caused past controversy
through the transfer of allegiance rule. Both last year’s individual champion Kaan Kigen Ozbilen and 2016 winner Aras Kaya feature in their line-up.
Norway’s side includes both Filip and Henrik Ingebrigtsen, with 1500m and 5000m European champion Jakob contesting the under-20 race, while Italy’s Yemaneberhan Crippa will feature in the senior race for the first time despite still being eligible for the under-23 contest. He has won eight championship medals, including individual honours at the past four championships, and also acquired some local knowledge by winning the recent Warandecross event, staged on the European Cross course.
Aldershot’s Amy Griffiths, the first under-23 at the trials and part of the British gold medal winning team from last year, returns for a race which does not feature either of the German duo which filled the top two places last year, Alina Reh and Konstanze Klosterhalfen.
Poppy Tank will get her first taste of European Cross action and will be joined by Dani Chattenton, Abbie Donnelly, Emily Moyes and Lydia Turner.
Denmark’s European under-23 3000m steeplechase champion Anna Emilie Moller, based in Britain and interviewed on page 10, will be looking to claim what would be only her country’s second gold medal in championships history.
Mahamed Mahamed is becoming an old hand when it comes to these championships and the Southampton athlete, 2016 under-20 individual bronze medallist and three-time team bronze winner, features once again.
He was not the first under-23 over the line at the Liverpool trials, however, with Emile Cairess edging him out in the closing stages and securing his European Cross debut in the process. John Millar of Ipswich will also be experiencing the championships for the first time.
Paulo Surafel, under-20 team bronze winner in Chia, returns while Patrick Dever is aiming for a third consecutive medal at these championships. Oliver Fox, finding form after battling with some health problems, will race for the first time in this event since his selection in 2015.
No athlete has won consecutive men’s under-23 titles but Frenchman Jimmy Gressier will be attempting to become the first person to do so as he defends the crown he won in dramatic fashion 12 months ago with a sprint finish.
This looks set to be a fascinating race, with Liverpool winner Cari Hughes, ninth in Samorin last year, and Khahisa Mhlanga (11th) leading the British challenge.
2016 team gold medallist Amelia Quirk returns to the team after missing out last year and
is joined by Anna Macfadyen, a silver medallist at this summer’s European Mountain Running Championships, and two other athletes new to the European Cross in Tiffany Penfold and Grace Brock.
The Irish team looks particularly strong and features European under-18 1500m and 3000m champion Sarah Healy, as well as Sophie O’Sullivan, daughter of former world crosscountry champion Sonia.
The standout name among the entries for this race is the aforementioned Jakob Ingebrigtsen, who barely put a foot wrong on the track this year and knows nothing other than the top of the podium when it comes to these championships.
The 18-year-old is looking for a third consecutive title and has been so bold as to already insist that he is aiming to make it four next year, before he has to leave the junior ranks.
Britain’s Jake Heyward was fourth behind the Norwegian at the World Under-20 Championships earlier this year and is relishing the chance to race him again.
The Welshman suffered from illness in Samorin and could only finish 30th. He has far loftier ambitions this time around after being a convincing winner at the Liverpool trials. Isaac Akers, runner-up to Heyward two weeks ago, will make his debut while Matthew Willis, 14th in last year’s race, Rory Leonard, Tom Mortimer and Jack Meijer complete the team.
Jess Judd has four European Cross gold medals to her name and the individual under-23 bronze winner last year will this time lead the senior mixed relay team in defence of their title.
She is joined by Alex
Bell, Phil Sesemann and
Jamie Willamson, the son of Scottish mile record-holder Graham Willamson and Carole Williamson, who won a team gold and team silver at the 1986 and 1984 World Cross Country Championships respectively.
The event will be available to watch live on the BBC Red Button, Connected TV, BBC Sport website and mobile app. The action will also be streamed live through the European Athletics website european-athletics.org
Look out for next week’s issue of AW, which will be packed with reports and images from Tilburg
Melissa Courtney: late decision to run Euro trials paid off with fine fourth place
Ready to go: Jess Judd (990) leads the mixed relay team while Melissa Courtney (third from left), Pippa Woolven (1033), Jess Piasecki (1011) and Kate Avery (949) will be in action in the senior women’s race
Verity Ockenden: bouncing back
Charlotte Arter: trials winner
Senior men: Nick Goolab (far left), Marc Scott (second from left), Emile Cairess (1205), Dewi Griffiths (2435) and Ross Millington (behindGriffiths) all ran well at the Liverpool trials
Defending champion: Kaan Kigen Ozbilen
Andy Vernon: a fine record
Experience: Mahamed Mahamed will go for under-23 honourswhile Yemaneberhan Crippa moves up to the seniors contest
Determined (l to r): Amelia Quirk, Cari Hughes and Khahisa Mhlanga
Amy Griffiths: teamgold in Samorin
Dominant: Jakob Ingebrigtsen has his mind set on further success