Great Britain and Northern Ireland topped the medal table at the 2023 European Cross Country Championships in Brussels, Belgium after winning 11 medals in total and a record number of gold medals [7].

In challenging muddy conditions at Laeken Park, there were individual medals for Will Barnicoat [U23 Men], Megan Keith [U23 women] and Innes Fitzgerald [U20 women], while there were team titles for four out of the seven teams.

The U20 men’s team won team silver, while the relay won team bronze, and there were individual bronze medals for Abbie Donnelly [Senior women] and Matt Stonier [U23 men] on a frantic day for the Great Britain and Northern Ireland squad.

One of the finest displays of the Championships came from Megan Keith (Ross Cairns, Inverness) who produced one of the largest winning margins in European Cross Country history as she secured gold in the U23 women’s race. The Scottish athlete beat her nearest opponent by one minute and 23 seconds in one of the most dominant performances ever seen on the continental stage.

By the end of the second lap, she was already ahead by 21 seconds, and the gap just kept on growing with the gold looking more of a certainty as the race unfolded. In the end, she had time to give high fives to the crowd before crossing the line to win her first U23 cross country gold medal – matching her 5000m victory in the summer – following silver last year, and U20 gold in 2021.

Keith joined Emma Pallant, Jess Piasecki (nee Coulson), and Rhona Auckland as champions in the age group at these championships.

She also contributed to U23 women’s team gold after some excellent performances from the squad. Alex Millard (Bill Foster, Invicta East Kent) – bronze medallist in 2022 – was 11th, while Eloise Walker (Trevor Painter, Edinburgh) was the third and final counter in 15th which saw the GB & NI team as clear winners ahead of Germany and Spain.

Tia Wilson (Bill Foster, Bedford & County) and Lynn McKenna (John Montgomery, Shettleston) were 34th and 35th on their debuts, while Olivia Mason (Graeme Mason, Border) was 44th on her return to the British team fold.

Afterward, a delighted Megan Keith said, “I am very happy with that one. Innes had a flyer this morning so that certainly inspired me, and I wanted to put in another solid run for the team. It was tough but I am very happy to have won the gold medal.

“We knew it was a course that you could pay the price on if you started too fast, so I was intending to sit back on the first few laps and work on through, but I think everyone was a bit reluctant to go with the pace I set out at, so I committed to it and I am glad it paid off.

“It will be a very proud moment for me to be on the podium. It was the first race this year that all my family came to watch, so it’s extra special to win today.”

The next race that followed was equally as exciting for the British perspective as Will Barnicoat (Aldershot Farnham and District) followed U20 gold from 2022’s edition of the Championships with U23 gold in Brussels after a superb performance to outsprint the Frenchman Valentin Bresc.

Matt Stonier (Sonia and Chris McGeorge, Invicta East Kent) would also win a fantastic bronze to ensure that two Brits would be on the podium, with the team also winning gold.

Barnicoat and Stonier were always main players in the contest, holding their place in the leading group for long periods, and as the race unfolded, the pair were part of a breakaway three that looked set to consolidate medal positions as they headed into the final lap. Barnicoat and Bresc opened a slight gap on Stonier as they entered the last 800m and the pair would ultimately become embroiled in a battle royale to the finish line with the Briton edging ahead to seal the title.

Stonier led the rest of the British charge in third overall, with James Kingston (Mark Hookway, Tonbridge) in 21st which confirmed the team’s gold medal. Tomer Tarragano (Dean Miller, Brighton & Hove) was 27th across the line, with Henry McLuckie (Geoff Watkin, Isle of Wight) in 57th. Unfortunately, Rory Leonard (Morpeth) withdrew from the race near the halfway stage.

Barnicoat, who ensured the title stayed in GB & NI hands after Charles Hicks’ two consecutive U23 titles, said, “Last year I won the gold medal in the U20 race and people told me that it was a bit of a lucky win there. Today I confirmed that it wasn’t and that I can also win in the U23.

“To be honest I didn’t know what to expect today, because I didn’t run that well in the trials. The course suited me perfectly because I like the mud. In the end it was a tight finish. I just waited to attack in the last downhill and I was able to keep off the French athlete in the end.”

In the first race of the day, Innes Fitzgerald (Gavin Pavey, Exeter) set the tone for the team as she dominated the U20 women’s race to take her maiden European title. The Devon athlete led from the early stages and always looked in control as her quality shone at Laeken Park. With her teammates packing well behind, it was a double golden delight for Fitzgerald as the team also secured the gold medal.

Fitzgerald made her move to the head of the field on the first hill as the athletes sprinted away at the start, and she looked comfortable as she glided across the mud. As she moved away on the second lap, only France’s Jade Le Corre attempted to go with her pace, but that challenge soon faded as Fitzgerald pushed on to European success and became the seventh Briton to win a European women’s U20 title.

Jess Bailey (Matthew Long, Leven Valley) was the next British finisher across the line in eighth, and in winning that team gold, she now holds international medals in cross country, on the track, and in mountain running. Lizzie Wellsted (Colchester) was the third and final counter in the team standings, coming home in 13th place after a gutsy performance on her maiden appearance for GB & NI.

Katie Pye (Mick Woods, Aldershot Farnham and District) was 28th with Moli Lyons (Chris Jones, Cardiff) and Zoe Hunter (Jethro McGraw, Leeds City) 31st and 32nd respectively.

Innes Fitzgerald U20 winner. Photo: British Athletics

After celebrating with her teammates, Fitzgerald said, “I am really pleased and so happy to come away with the win, particularly as I wasn’t satisfied after last year. I think I showed everyone what I had, and this is more than I could dream of. I wasn’t intending on leading things, so when I saw that I was alone at the front, I just kept going and kept pushing myself.

“We had such a strong team, so I am very pleased to win team gold. We knew we had a chance, and everyone knew they had to push through and try the best that they could, so I am really proud.”

There was even more team gold success in the penultimate race of the day, this time for the senior women as Abbie Donnelly (Rob Lewis, Lincoln Wellington) secured her maiden European medal with individual bronze after a stunning performance.

Donnelly, who has been a key member of British cross country teams for a number of years, got her breakthrough after committing in the early stages. She followed the breakaway move of Norway’s Karoline Bjerkeli Grovdal – who would eventually win – and it was a tactical decision which would pay the ultimate award. Although Nadia Battocletti would pass her for silver, Donnelly held on for her first senior international medal. 

Jessica Warner-Judd (Mick Judd, Blackburn) – competing in her ninth European Cross Country Championships – was the next British scorer in fifth after a typically hard-fought performance. Izzy Fry (Chris and Sonia McGeorge, Newbury) was the third and final scorer in 10th, with a fast-finishing Poppy Tank (Luke Gunn, City of Plymouth) coming through in 11th, an improvement from 13th last year.

Amelia Quirk (Mick Woods, Bracknell) and Niamh Bridson Hubbard (Philip O’Dell, Blackheath & Bromley) would back their teammates up with top 20 finishes themselves; 16th and 19th overall to complete a stellar team performance.

The U20 men’s team came agonisingly close to team gold, but it was Ireland who secured it by two points, however, it was an excellent effort from a team full of new and young talent.

Sam Mills (Exeter) – who was fourth in Turin last year – committed early on, and despite the eventual top three pulling clear of the rest of the field, Mills worked hard to match his fourth position. He battled well over the challenging course, and he’d eventually finish in fifth place.

Trials winner Henry Dover (Shaftesbury Barnet) was very close behind his compatriot and was overjoyed with his sixth-place finish at his first European Cross Country Championships. Rowan Miell-Ingram (Wendy Miell-Ingram, Radley) was the third counter as he battled to 13th.

Next across the line for GB & NI was Andrew McGill (Michael Johnston, Livingston) in 22nd, while Sam Hodgson (Shireen Higgins, Windsor Slough Eton & Hounslow) was 25th and Louis Small (Stella Bandu, Ashford) narrowly behind in 29th.

In the third race of the day, Khahisa Mhlanga (Andrew Hobdell, Herts Phoenix) produced a stellar effort to anchor the senior mixed relay team to the bronze medal.

With teams able to change their running orders during the legs as the race was ongoing, the British team led after three legs, and with Mhlanga entering the final lap with a 55 second lead, other teams had their male athletes lined up for the final lap which would prove significant. Despite a brave effort, she was just reeled in by France and Netherlands with over 150m to go.

Joshua Lay (Anthony Love, Rugby and Northampton) got the team off to a fantastic start as he battled to hand over to the second leg in second place, and from there Bethan Morley (Bill Foster, Leeds City) extended GB & NI’s advantage as she took the lead in the early stages of her 1500m lap. The debutant enjoyed the second half of the contest and pulled away to give Adam Fogg (Coventry) the opportunity to open up a huge advantage on the rest of the field. And, that he did.

Mhlanga set off on the final lap with almost a minute advantage and ran an excellent 1500m but was just pipped in the final section heading into the finish, but it was a valiant effort which earned the quartet team bronze.

A sterling run from Hugo Milner (Derby) saw him finish fourth, just pipped to the medals, in the senior men’s race as the team finished fifth overall.

Milner was in the mix for an individual medal as he was in the leading group for much of the race, and even though Frenchman Yann Schrub accelerated away to win on the final lap, Milner still had a chance to win silver and bronze as he entered the final 1000m. However, he admitted he didn’t have the final acceleration like Magnus Tav Myhre (NOR) and Robin Hendrix (BEL) so would ultimately end the race in fourth place behind the pair.

Calum Johnson (Gateshead) was the next Briton across the line after a strong finish, coming home in 23rd, just ahead of Zakariya Mahamed (Idris Hamud, Southampton) who was 27th in his first senior race at the Championships.

Debutants Angus McMillan (Don McMillan, City of York) and Alfie Manthorpe (John Wood, Sheffield & Dearne) were 38th and 44th respectively, while team captain Callum Elson (Cambridge & Coleridge) finished his campaign in 59th.

The Great Britain and Northern Ireland medal tally:

Gold (7): Will Barnicoat [U23 Men],Innes Fitzgerald [U20 Women], Megan Keith [U23 Women], Senior Women’s Team, U23 Women’s Team, U23 Men’s Team, U20 Women’s Team

Silver (1): U20 Men’s Team

Bronze (3): Abbie Donnelly [Senior women],Matt Stonier [U23 Men],Senior Mixed Relay Team

There will also be a highlights programme on BBC Two and the BBC iPlayer between 17:00-18:00 on Sunday 10 December.

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