Throwback Thursday: An unprecedented European clean sweep

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Charlotte Purdue competing in the Marathon. Photo: JULIAN MASON via Flickr

In 2008, six young British women left a mark on the European Cross Country Championships that quite simply, could never be topped.

As the under 20 women’s race in Brussels came to a close, the Brits capped off a dominant performance by ensuring every single member of the team crossed the line before any other country competing, taking the biggest win ever seen at the championships.

With this years competition in Tilburg approaching,  for the first time since the clean sweep, none of the same athletes will feature.

All are well-established seniors, but the last ten years have seen them go off in plenty of different directions, with some more fortunate than others.

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Perhaps the most well known out of the six is the actual winner Steph Twell, who back then already had six continental cross country golds to her name, individually and as part of a team.

Her achievements as a youngster certainly grabbed the attention. Prior to the championships, she was awarded the title of European Athletics Rising Star after winning 1500m gold at the World Juniors and making the semi-finals of the Olympic Games.

European gold that year was therefore another sign of her prodigious young talent, with the Telegraph earmarking her, along with Perri Shakes-Drayton, as two young stars to watch out for at the 2012 Olympics.

While Twell is an established British international, the 29-year-old has suffered her fair share of injuries, with the most infamous being the ankle fracture that kept her out of the London 2012 Olympics.

However the multiple international medallist has remained resilient and continued to be one of our top distance runners, adding Commonwealth and European track medals to her many European cross country titles.

The cross country and track medallist also recently made the big move to the road, completing her first ever marathon in 2:30.11, to instantly go second in the British ranks.

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Similar fortunes were in store for club-mate and 2008 runner-up Charlotte Purdue, who in the following track season went on to take 5000m silver at the European Junior Championships.

Like her team-mate Twell, injuries have often hindered her path, with the first being a stress fracture at the age of 18, which ruled her out of any cross country action in 2009-10.

However, the 19-year-old came back strong, just missing out on 10,000m bronze in the 2010 Commonwealth Games, before grabbing an emphatic gold medal in the European Cross Country Championships.

Since then, knee surgery, a foot injury and a thigh injury earlier this year have been unwelcome disruptions for Purdue in a period that has seen her make the top 15 at both the World Cross Country and Marathon Championships.

Purdue has had to show a great deal of resilience from an early age in the sport and still remains one of Britain’s top long distance runners across a range of disciplines.

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For Lauren Howarth, running has quite literally been a battle for time, as she balances her busy schedule as a junior doctor that often sees her working 80 hours a week.

Howarth at first cut her doctor’s hours down to part-time, before easing in to her lifestyle today as a runner and a doctor.

2008 saw her pick up the first of 11 British vests, competing at the World Juniors in the summer before her bronze medal behind Twell and Purdue.

The next year saw her finish as the highest Brit and the second-highest non-African at the 2009 World Cross Country Championships, before once again competing in the Europeans, as she began to establish herself as a GB international.

2013 season was a particular highlight, as she finished sixth in the 2013 European Indoor 3000m final, and also ran at both the European and the World Cross Country Championships.

Now at the age of 28, Howarth has had to show a lot of mental strength to stay among the top distance runners in the country and also progress her main career. But now it seems the Leigh Harrier is settled in her routine and it may not be long before we see her pop up in a British vest again.

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Fourth-placed Emily Pidgeon was perhaps the most interesting case of them all. While her other compatriots were considered to be huge young talents, Pidgeon was in a league of her own, possibly 2005’s equivalent of Jakob Ingebrigtsen.

At 14 she became the youngest ever middle distance runner to represent Great Britain, with age also being the only barrier that stopped her going on to run at the 2003 European Cross Country Championships.

However, it wouldn’t be long until the young prodigy graced the international stage again, finishing 20th in the World Under 20 Cross Country Championships at the astonishing age of 15.

That summer also saw her clinch European Junior gold in 5000m barely a month after turning 16, leading to her even being dubbed ‘the new Paula Radcliffe’  by some.

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Like Twell, she was earmarked as a huge prospect for the 2012 London Olympics, as she continued to bulldoze her way through the junior ranks.

But unfortunately she also had an unwanted fight with injuries which had a huge effect on her running. Even at the time of the 2008 race, Pidgeon was below the level she had been expected to race at.

In the end, the former European Junior medallist retired from the sport altogether in 2014 at the age of 23.

Since then she has stayed in athletics circles, marrying world indoor medallist Andrew Osagie. And while Emily’s career ended unfortunately, the memory of being part of Britain’s greatest ever junior side is something that will always stay with her.

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Also an athlete to take her leave from the sport was fifth-placed Emma Pallant, who even won European cross country silver and gold later on, before a serious knee injury that required surgery.

With Pallant struggling to get back to grips with athletics afterwards, she took the advice of her mentor – a certain Dame Kelly Holmes – who insisted she leave athletics behind and become a multi-eventer.

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Now 29-years-old, the former international cross country runner is in her element, taking on triathlons, Ironmans and also becoming a two-time world duathlon champion, as her sporting career goes from strength to strength.

Prior to this she regularly trained alongside her aforementioned Aldershot club-mates Steph Twell and Charlotte Purdue when they were all young and developing runners.

But while she has taken a very different direction from them, it is one that now sees her pretty much living the dream.

The sport is certainly not without its setbacks, but the multi-sport scene seems to suit Pallant.

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Then there was the youngest of the group, Laura Park, who perhaps turned out to be the most unfortunate of them all. Still an under 17, Park finished sixth that day, joining her team-mates in a huge embrace as she completed their clean sweep.

Along with Howarth and Purdue, she would also make the trip to Jordan in March the following year for her second World Cross Country Championship appearance, finishing 64th overall as her distance running career continued to pick up speed.

However, this race would be one of her last, with the Cumbrian having injury struggles of her own that meant she competed in the Scottish East District Championships over eight months earlier before taking a break from the sport.

As with Pidgeon, the break eventually became Park’s retirement from the sport, with a race at the Eaglesfield Paddle 5K in 2011 being the only action she saw after she had decided to take her break.

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While competing, Park had been a truly talented young runner, quickly establishing herself as one of Britain’s top prospects after barely a handful of races.

National cross country titles, GB vests and even a victory in the World Mountain Running Trophy junior race were all achieved during her short career.

A decade down the line from the Brussels tournament, all the athletes can boast of strong achievements. They were all hot distance running prospects in their own right.

The clean sweep at the European Championships will always stand out as one that they can all share and one that is pretty much impossible to better.

Read last week’s throwback about Sonia O’Sullivan.