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Ingebrigtsen the big draw as stars of the future and present meet at Cross roads in Dublin

Cathal Dennehy


Presence of the Olympic champion will leave a long-lasting glow for those who make the trip to Abbotstown

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Our correspondent Cathal Dennehy in action during the U-23 men's race at the 2007 European Cross Country Championships. Dennehy finished 30th in Spain but by the time the Europeans came to Dublin in 2009 he was more familiar with an MRI scanner than any start line. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Our correspondent Cathal Dennehy in action during the U-23 men's race at the 2007 European Cross Country Championships. Dennehy finished 30th in Spain but by the time the Europeans came to Dublin in 2009 he was more familiar with an MRI scanner than any start line. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Fionnuala Britton crossing the line to win the 2011 European Cross Country championships. Photo: Getty

Fionnuala Britton crossing the line to win the 2011 European Cross Country championships. Photo: Getty

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Our correspondent Cathal Dennehy in action during the U-23 men's race at the 2007 European Cross Country Championships. Dennehy finished 30th in Spain but by the time the Europeans came to Dublin in 2009 he was more familiar with an MRI scanner than any start line. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

US distance runner Ed Eyestone once said that the start of a cross country race is “like riding a horse in the middle of a buffalo stampede. It’s a thrill if you keep up, but one slip and you’re hoof prints.”

On the inside of my right knee there’s a scar attesting to that, left there 15 years ago this week by the slash of an unknown spike. The start of the U-20 race at the 2006 European Cross Country had been a good one, and as I charged towards the first bend in a field in northern Italy, I was well within the top-15 spots in which I’d hoped to finish. Then an ankle tap from behind meant it all came crashing down.

If you ever find yourself in this scenario, it’s worth remembering that rising too fast amid a herd of stampeding runners will likely result in a knee to the head, and once you do make it back to your feet, tailed off behind the pack, it’s not a great idea to dash through the next kilometre like a scared rabbit on speed – not when there’s five more to run after that.

My abiding memory of the 18-minute horror show is hitting the line in 85th place (just 70 shy of the goal) and receiving a pat on the shoulder from Irish teammate Kevin Lawler, who came 86th. “I think we should take up volleyball,” he said, and I could only laugh at my literal sullying of the Irish singlet.

I fared better the following year, a 30th-place finish in the U-23 race leading to a text from a fellow runner telling me I could be top-10 in that race the following year and win a medal in two years’ time, when the championships came to Dublin.

Only by then the best-laid plans had long gone awry, the inside of an MRI scanner becoming a far more familiar sight than any start line. But standing alongside the course in Santry during that 2009 edition, along with 7,000 others, a thought entered my head: cross country has come home.

Pound for pound, very few nations do it better, and next weekend in Abbotstown 40 Irish athletes will pull on the green vest, with medal hopes aplenty across the seven races. If it’s anything like the last edition in Dublin, it’ll be well worth the admission fee (€8 for adults, free for U-16s).

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The true beauty of Euro Cross is that it’s about far more than the day itself, and that four-hour exhibition of European distance-running. It’s about the stars of today, yes, but it’s also a window into the icons of tomorrow.

Go back to 2009, and the athletes who raced through the tunnel of noise created by the fans in Santry. Competing for Ireland were Ciara Mageean, ninth in the U-20 women’s race, and Fionnuala Britton (now McCormack), who was 11th in the senior women’s event. Neither set the world on fire then, but Britton went on to win two European Cross Country titles alongside her many other achievements, while Mageean – after years of injury – became a two-time European medallist on the track.

A look deep into the results shows several stars who lit up the world stage years after testing themselves over the natural terrain. Abdi Nageeye of the Netherlands, seventh in the U-23 race in Santry, won Olympic silver in the men’s marathon this year. Britain’s Alistair Brownlee was 48th in the same race in Dublin before going on to win two Olympic golds in triathlon.

Then there’s Mo Farah, who ran himself to collapse in Dublin, the Briton stretchered away to a waiting ambulance after finishing a distant second to Spain’s Alemayehu Bezabeh.

History, of course, has left a dark cloud hanging over that race. Bezabeh was arrested a year later as part of a doping investigation in Spain after being caught carrying a bag of his own blood in preparation for a banned transfusion, which earned him a two-year ban.

Farah went on to conquer the world, winning four Olympic golds and six world titles between 2011 and 2017, all arriving after his move to Oregon to work under Alberto Salazar, the coach who was banned for four years in 2019 for a series of doping offences. Farah has always denied doping allegations.

The Irish, of course, can’t preach too loudly about such things, given Martin Fagan was the second man home for the host nation in Santry. Two years after that race, the Mullingar Harrier tested positive for EPO, claiming he injected the drug for the very first time the day of that test in what remains one of the unluckiest coincidences in the history of Irish sport.

All that murkiness aside, Dublin 2009 remains one the best editions of the Euro Cross, the only downer for home fans being the absence of an Irish medal on the day.

Traditionally, this has proven the happiest of hunting grounds for athletes in green, with seven individual medals and 10 team medals in 26 editions to date.

Only two Irish athletes – Catherina McKiernan and Fionnuala McCormack – have won individual gold, and with McCormack set to compete in the Valencia Marathon tomorrow, it’s unlikely she’ll feature near the front of the senior women’s race in Abbotstown just seven days later.

When scanning for potential Irish medallists, the U-20 men’s team looks the most likely, with outstanding 16-year-old Nick Griggs coming off a year where his performances have been as fearless as they were flawless.

Sarah Healy and Darragh McElhinney shouldn’t be far away at U-23 level, ditto the mixed relay, but outside of that there’s still everything to fight for, with top-20 finishes feeling as a good as gold for many – a springboard to launch a career that could end just about anywhere.

For proof of that just look to the senior men’s race, where Olympic 1500m champion Jakob Ingebrigtsen will return five years on from his debut at the event – the Norwegian winning the first of four consecutive titles at U-20 level back in 2016.

At 21, Ingebrigtsen has already reached the pinnacle of the sport, and the presence of this A-list star will leave a long-lasting glow for those who make the trip to Abbotstown next weekend.

He’s the kind of athlete who doesn’t come to these shores all too often – a metronomic, majestic runner – and one who likely won’t race here again. As good as his opposition is, it’s hard to see him stopped – so long as he avoids a hoof print to the head.



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