Four medals for GB at European Marathon Champs

Only a week after the opening of the season of ICF marathons with the World Cup, the European Championships took place between 13th and 15th June in Piestany, Slovakia.

Sprinters will be familiar with the course on the dammed river Vah at Piestany, which can be generous to racers with its slight following current. The annual junior international took place here only two weeks before the marathon in chilly conditions, but the sun was very much shining on the GB team this weekend.

Our team comprised the following:-

Magnus Gregory (Longridge) and Ross McMullen (Elmbridge), racing in the junior men’s K1 and K2 races
Elise Piercy (Elmbridge), racing junior ladies’ K1
Sam Plummer (Leighton Buzzard) in the U23 men’s K1
Jenny Illidge (Worcester) in the U23 women’s K1
Fay Lamph (Wey) and Lizzie Broughton (Richmond) racing in the senior women’s K1 and K2 races
Jon Simmons (Wey) and Keith Moule (Chelmsford) racing in the senior men’s K1 and K2 races
Andy Daniels (Longridge) and Tim Pendle (Norwich) racing in the senior men’s K2 race.

The European Championships entry was of a very high standard this year, meaning it would be hard to match our three european gold medals of 2013 (Amy Ward in junior K1, and with Sam Rees-Clark in junior K2, and Fay & Lizzie in women’s K2). The entry lists featured most of the names who had won senior and U23 world medals at Copenhagen.

Three long days of competition start with the junior singles races. At only 15 years old but with an impressive set of results behind him already, Magnus faced a tough task in the boys race, and was joined by Ross McMullen who had won the Bedford assessment race. A big start saw Magnus at the start of a large group heading into the first turn only 1800m from the start line. This upstream turn proved important in most races as it thinned groups out considerably, but Magnus’s positioning near the front saw him through clear. Very quickly Magnus and the Hungarian Gyorgyjakab broke away at the front of the race and established a lead of several minutes. Ross found himself in a challenging group of nine boats stretching from third to eleventh on the water. While the front runners were untroubled, the big group regularly fractured at portages and turns, while Ross made impressive efforts to come back each time he was held up.

The Hungarian finally too strong for Magnus in the final portage and broke away to win, but Magnus took an excellent silver medal, nearly five minutes ahead of third. Ross took tenth place only 30 seconds from the bronze winner. Tough break of the day went to the Portuguese Azevedo who was lined up to collect a bronze medal, only for judges to pull him out of the queue in favour of the German Pflugfelder at the last minute. Perhaps an omen of the football result to come!

While the boys were racing, Elise was contesting the junior ladies’ K1. A difficult start saw her separated from the front group of six, and despite chasing one of them down she had to settle for seventh place. Elise will still be a junior next year, unlike four of those who finished in front of her.

The U23 races also took place on Friday. Jenny Illidge made an impressive start to get into the front group, but was unable to keep with the pace of some of the 2013 world medallists who dominated the race, and finished tenth behind the winning Hungarian Vaczai. Sam Plummer, in his first year as a senior, faced a similarly tough task in a world class field, finishing eleventh only three minutes from the Norwegian winner Minde.

Following Ross and Magnus’ performances in K1, they had high hopes for the K2 the next morning, and their first few laps promised to deliver. Unfortunately fatigue caught up with them and they were dropped from the leading group of three, by the Hungarian and German crews. They were eventually caught by the chasing pack and had to settle for a sixth place which didn’t quite do justice to the quality of their race.

Lizzie and Fay, last year’s European K2 marathon champions, had made the decision to double up this year and test their ability to race both K1 and K2. At the same time, the big guns had come out to play and the women’s K1 start included a string of world champions in Csay, Cicali, Faldum and Bara. This group set a blistering pace to the first turn, where the current sent Lizzie into one of the turn buoys, into reverse gear and out of the front group. She and Fay set about chasing, and over 2km kept the gap at around 20 seconds. The portage thinned out the lead and chasing groups, leaving Lizzie just behind the front group with the Bulgarian (and ex-Hungarian world champion) Faldum. Lizzie waited until they were within striking distance before attacking the Bulgarian and rejoining Csay, Cicali and the Serbian Bedocs.

With Csay’s long experience dictating the race, Lizzie raced with great strength and intelligence to drop first the Serbian, and then the Italian, finishing 25 seconds behind Csay to claim the silver medal. Fay claimed seventh place just behind Bara.

If the women’s K1 was not enough excitement for the day, the men’s K1 was equal to it.The field here was exceptionally well matched, and saw a group of a dozen mix it up for almost the full duration. At the front, marathon champions Alonso of Spain, Ramalho of Portugal and Hamar of Norway were fighting a tactical war against the German three-time Olympic medallist Andreas Ihle. Rather than fall into a trap of paddling steadily, the marathon racers broke the sprinter down with sharp accelerations and better tactical use of the current. In the mix throughout was Keith Moule, who found himself in and out of the front group several times.

Things looked to be settled when Ramalho led Alonso and the Hungarian Boros away with a lap to go, but only 1800m later Keith was back leading a front group of ten only 3km from the finish, while Ihle was dropped. The final portage was taken at full pelt, and a slip-up getting in saw Keith’s boat fill with water, dropping him to a ninth place finish, extremely impressive nevertheless. At the front, Alonso led through the finish ahead of Ramalho and Hamar. Some aggressive steering in the finishing strait saw the Spaniard relegated to second, making Ramalho the champion.

Sunday’s K2 races are the fastest of the event and did not disappoint in terms of excitement. Fay and Lizzie were under constant pressure in the front group of the ladies’ race as reigning champions, and the Italian and Hungarian crews contained better rested athletes. These crews managed to get away, while Fay and Lizzie beat the Swedish pair to claim the bronze medal, and GB’s third of the competition overall.

GB have not claimed a medal in a senior men’s K2 championship since 1997, but this year we fielded two strong crews in Pendle/Daniels and Moule/Simmons. Tim and Jon hair paired up for a fourth place last year, while Andy had managed a fourth place at the 2010 Worlds, so there was plenty to hope for.

Tim and Andy managed to establish themselves in the front group from the start, while Keith and Jon got into the chasing group. The front group soon became five: the Spanish world champions
Alonso & Merchan, their compatriots Bouzan & Fernandez, the Hungarians Boros and Petrovics, and the Portuguese Brandao & Nanita. All of these crews had winning pedigrees but our boys were untroubled throughout. First to fall back were the Portuguese who valiantly chased the front four for several laps, led mostly by the GB crew as the Spaniards were content to wait.

Merchan and Alonso waited until the final portage to attack, putting in first in an attempt to go clear. Bouzan and Fernandez had seen it all before and caught them quickly, with our boys and the Hungarians close behind. The world champions led the complete group of four out of the turn, and with 200m to go Tim and Andy made a serious attempt to come past. But the race plan of the spanish crews paid off and they were able to take first and second by a quarter of a boat length from the British crew, the Hungarians having fallen back.

Many of the athletes racing for Great Britain at the championships had made a choice between attending the June regatta selections or going for a medal in Piestany. The potential sacrifice of a sprint selection demonstrates their commitment to being medal winners, and they delivered.

James Smythe, Team Manager.