Britton surrenders European Cross Country title with fourth-placed finish

Champion has to settle for fourth in Belgrade but vows to challenge again in future


There will be regrets – not for the way Fionnuala Britton surrendered her European Cross Country title, only for the competitor inside her head.

Because in the end there was nothing left undone: Britton was never in a medal winning position, and finished fourth only after giving all that she’d got. So she missed the hat trick of titles too but not without ever targeting the goal.

And yet the competitor insider her head immediately started running the race all over again, and it wasn’t the losing that hurt Britton as much as the not winning. That, after all, is what makes champions in the first place.

“Coming out here I wasn’t going to be happy with just a medal,” she Britton. “I wanted to win. But then, a medal would still be better than fourth. And I thought about looking behind me on the last lap, because I was thinking ‘God, I’m really struggling here’, but by then it didn’t make any difference if I finished fourth or fifth. I need to be first, second or third. Once you’re out of the medals, you’re just another person in the race. I always felt I was here to challenge for the win. I wasn’t here to make up the numbers.”

Only strongest survive
It’s said that Belgrade has been attacked 100 times over the course of its long history, and it felt that way over the course of this race too, as one-by-one, Britton’s rivals lay down their challenge. Naturally enough only the strongest survived, and that order began with Sophie Duarte from France, who at age 32 underlined the formbook to win the gold medal, five seconds ahead of Britain’s Gemme Steel and the now perennial runner-up Dulce Felix from Portugal. Britton was another four seconds back, in the loneliest position of all.

Indeed she’d been there before – fourth in 2010, before winning those back-to-back titles. But admittedly she struggled to hit that freewheeling motion over the twistingly fast Belgrade course, clearly lacking the bounce that had marked her winning momentum of the last two years. It didn’t help that Norway’s Karoline Grovdal exploded the race from the starting gun, before eventually ending up fifth, and what that meant was Britton was always trying to close gaps, if not cover them.

“Well Grovdal went out very hard,” added Britton, “and I knew there was no way she was going to keep that up. But I never felt comfortable. And the race didn’t really calm down at all. I knew the gaps vary early on, but I felt it was my race as much as anyone else’s.

“I just needed to get back up. And then when I did, I just had to convince myself I was comfortable. But I wasn’t, really. And I knew someone was going to make a move around 3km to go. I just didn’t get back up to them soon enough to be able to relax again. And when Duarte went that just split it again. I knew was a threat. She got it right this time, and I got it wrong.

“Then every time I felt I was gaining on Felix and Steel, because they were battling each other, I wasn’t really getting anywhere. And that was so frustrating. I just couldn’t get back onto them. I could see them there, and every so often it looked like they were dying more. And then they’d just go at it again.”

All this game against the back-drop of Britton’s limited race preparation, given the fact she’d missed the entire summer season through illness. Not that she was using that as any excuse: “Yeah, you could say that. Or you could just say those three were better on the day. I was better the last two years. And I’ll try again next year. I suppose if someone was going out and winning it easy every year I don’t think the event would get much respect. It does feel better when you win something that’s hard. And it feels better when you come back after finishing fourth. At least I know what that feels like too.”

Her coach Chris Jones reflected that feeling, that nothing more could be done: “Well a more challenging course might have suited Fionnuala, because her speed endurance isn’t quite where it needs to be,” he said.

“We saw the power that Duarte had to move off the front like that, and is in brilliant shape. But there was nothing Fionnuala could have done differently. She was absolutely right in the way she ran it. I really think she got the best out of herself.”

What Britton has already made it clear that this won’t be the last of her title chances – at age 29 there will be other days. So too perhaps for the Irish women’s team, who also surrendered their title, ending up seventh overall, with Sara Treacy next best finisher in 31st.