Today supporters from home and abroad flocked to Laeken Park for the much-anticipated SPAR European Cross Country Championships on home soil. Thanks to a wall of sound of cheers, the Belgian delegation was successful. The two senior teams both snatched a medal and individually Robin Hendrix excelled with a surprising bronze. Norway’s Karoline Bjerkeli Grøvdal ran herself into the history books in Brussels by securing a third consecutive title.
The 29th edition of the SPAR European Cross Country Championships will linger in the memory of Belgian athletics fans for a while. For the first time in 15 years, the spectacle took place in Brussels again, where a real mud run awaited. 3,000 tickets had been sold well in advance, and the supporters gathered en masse around the course today.
Despite strong performances by Belgian junior athletes, we had to wait until the penultimate race of the day before any medals were won. The Senior Women’s team unexpectedly bagged a bronze medal. Lisa Rooms and Chloé Herbiet had to go to their limits to do so though. The two Belgian leading women surprisingly squeezed into the top 10, finishing sixth and ninth respectively. Thanks to Juliette Thomas’ 23rd place, they managed to narrowly keep the French team at bay. It was unique, as no Belgian women’s team had ever been on the podium before. At the very head of the race, Karoline Bjerkeli Grøvdal provided another stunt. She can start calling herself one of the most successful European cross-country athletes ever thanks to her third title in a row. The Norwegian was out of category and held off silver medallist Nadia Batocletti by just under a minute.
In the Men’s event, Isaac Kimeli was one of the big favourites for medals, but last year’s number three struggled to find his feet in the sludge. He eventually finished eleventh. Fortunately, his training mate Robin Hendrix kept the medal dream alive by running consistently in the front. He ran the race of his life and gave a shout out for bronze at the finish. The joy intensified when John Heymans ran a tough race to finish sixth and helped the senior team to the top of the standings. This gave Pieter-Jan Hannes, who ran his very last race ever today and crossed the line in 31st place, a farewell in style. Frenchman Yann Schrub relieved Jakob Ingebrigtsen as the new European Champion.
The most thrilling race was undoubtedly the mixed relays, where Belgium was briefly allowed to dream of a medal. Ziad Audah was the first to relay in front of a delirious crowd, but after that our country systematically dropped back. Ruben Verheyden eventually crossed the finish line in fifth place, far behind the French. Final runner Alexis Miellet started the race in third with a big gap behind the first 2, but caught up with everyone.
In the U20s and U23s, Britain came top three times. Megan Keith won with a giant lead in the U23s. Jana Van Lent was in with a chance of winning a medal in the same race for quite some time, eventually crossing the finish line in seventh place. Yorick Van de Kerkhove watched from afar as Brit Will Barnicoat won the sprint for gold and finished a tidy tenth a few seconds later. Innes Fitzgerald provided the other British triumph by winning the U20s race. Finishing nineteenth, Charlotte Penneman can also look back with satisfaction. Niels Laros already has a rich array of gongs, but for now, not a European cross country running title in the U20s. The Dutch super talent was beaten in the sprint by Dane Axel Vang Christensen. The first Belgian Simon Jeukenne came a strong seventh.
With 11 medals in total, including seven golds, Great Britain more than hit the jackpot. With fifth place in the medal standings and eight top 10 places, the large Belgian delegation can speak of a successful performance on home soil. On to the European Running Championships, the first European Championships of road races to be held in Louvain and Brussels in 2025.