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Based on current form, Great Britain’s Megan Keith would have been considered one of the favourites for the senior title at the SPAR European Cross Country Championships in Brussels on Sunday (10).

But Keith has opted for the U23 race and the prospect of winning her second age-group title in 2023 after her 5000m victory at the European Athletics U23 Championships in Espoo where she broke away with five laps to go to dominate the final. 

Despite opining that she had “off seasoned too hard,” Keith looked razor sharp on her season’s debut at the Cardiff Cross Challenge where she defeated a strong international field by 17 seconds and the 21-year-old dispatched the seniors with ease at the British trial race. She won by a seldom-seen margin of 53 seconds in muddy and heavy underfoot conditions in Liverpool, which could be similar to those she will face in the Belgian capital.

For posterity, the record winning margin at a SPAR European Cross Country Championships is 39 seconds in 2019 when Denmark’s Anna Emilie Møller defended her U23 title in Lisbon. 

The silver medallist behind Nadia Battocletti in 2022 – and the U20 winner the year before in Dublin – Keith led the Brits to the U23 team title in La Mandria Park just outside Turin twelve months ago and she will be flanked by another strong team including fellow Scotswoman Eloise Walker and last year’s bronze medallist Alexandra Millard, both of whom should also be in contention for individual medals this year.

But the biggest challenge to Keith individually is likely to come from Spain’s Maria Forero who moves into the U23 ranks this year after succeeding Keith and winning the U20 title in impressive fashion last year. 

The Nordic countries have been a growing power in recent editions of the European Cross Country Championships and their challenge will be led by Norway’s Ina Halle Haugen and Finns Nathalie Blomqvist and Ilona Mononen, the U20 bronze medallist last year. With only three runners to score, the Finns could be in contention for a rare team medal.

Could there also be a first ever medal for Lithuania at the European Cross Country Championships this year? 

Greta Karinauskaite has proved herself on the track this year by winning silver in the 3000m steeplechase at the European Athletics U23 Championships before only missing the final at the World Athletics Championships in Budapest by one position. 

Karinauskaite recently finished a creditable 17th in the ultra-competitive NCAA Cross Country Championships but a lot will depend on how well she has recovered from a long journey across nine timezones from California Baptist University where she studies international business. 

Also watch out for Amina Maatouj from the Netherlands who follows a similar path. The bronze medallist in the 5000m at the European Athletics U23 Championships, who studies at Duke University in North Carolina, placed ninth at the NCAA Cross Country Championships and arrives fresh from setting an outright 3000m lifetime best of 8:46.89 indoors in Boston.

No Hicks but a strong GB contingent to contend for men’s U23 title

Despite the absence of two-time champion Charles Hicks who would have been eligible to defend his U23 title, the British team will still have high hopes individually and collectively.

The team is headed by European U23 10,000m champion Rory Leonard and Will Barnicoat, who charged past a toiling Nick Griggs to win the European U20 cross country title last year before running a typically tactically astute race to win 5000m bronze at the European Athletics U23 Championships. 

But both Leonard and Barnicoat were beaten at the 9.8km trial race in Liverpool by 1500m specialist Matt Stonier who finished fast to finish second, pipping Leonard on the line for the second spot on the podium.

For an athlete who can boast a world class 1500m lifetime best of 3:31.20, a British U23 record set in July, the U23 race in Brussels will be held over a distance of 7km and should be even more to Stonier’s liking. 

Stonier also goes to Brussels with a point to prove on the continental stage after finishing out of the medals in fourth in the 1500m final at the European Athletics U23 Championships when most pundits had him as the favourite for gold. 

One of the biggest challenges to the strong British contingent should come from Denmark’s Joel Ibler Lillesø who moves into the U23 ranks after a lauded career as a junior which saw him win the European U20 5000m title in 2021 and break a certain Jakob Ingebrigtsen’s European indoor U20 3000m record in 2022. 

Lillesø, who is now coached by Tomasz Lewandowski, will be keen to finish his season on a high note after injuries forced him to miss the majority of the track season. 

With Hicks choosing not to defend his title and last year’s silver medallist Zakariya Mahamed graduating into the senior ranks, the only returning individual medallist from last year is bronze medalist Valentin Bresc from France, a nation which won three successive U23 team titles from 2017-19.

Ireland have been perennial team medallists in the age-group races in recent years – including champions at home in Dublin in 2021 – and last year’s U20 bronze medallist Dean Casey leads the Irish hopes this year in Brussels.

Other medal contenders include European U23 3000m steeplechase champion Alejandro Quijada who leads a strong Spanish team, Portugal’s European U23 3000m steeplechase silver medallist Etson Barros and Derebe Ayala and Adisu Guadia from Israel.

Steven Mills for European Athletics

A complete entry list for the Brussels 2023 SPAR European Cross Country Championships is available here. The championships will be streamed in their entirety on the All-Athletics platform from 12:05 local time (CET) and will be accompanied by expert English-language commentary.

There will also be extensive race day coverage of the championships on the European Athletics website and across European Athletics’ social media channels.

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