Rivals lining up to threaten Britton’s crown

Wicklow runner aiming for an unprecedented third European Cross-Country title in a row

Fionnuala Britton on her way to victory in Budapest in 2011. Photo: Sasa Pahic Szabo/Inpho

Fionnuala Britton on her way to victory in Budapest in 2011. Photo: Sasa Pahic Szabo/Inpho

Sat, Dec 7, 2013, 01:05

No Irish athlete has ever won three major titles in succession. No woman had ever won two European Cross Country titles in succession until Fionnuala Britton did so last year. Tomorrow in Belgrade she’s looking to make that three.

No wonder no one is saying it’s going to be easy.

Indeed it’s only when he starts listing off the challengers to Britton’s title race as European champion does her coach, Chris Jones, fully realise just how difficult it’s going to be. Six of the top seven finishers from Budapest last year are back, all those who finished behind Britton loaded with fresh motivation for hunting her down.

It hasn’t been the perfect build-up for Britton, either: she was only seventh in her last race, two weeks ago, beaten by Sophie Duarte from France. Almensch Belete, the Ethiopian now running for Belgium, was fourth last year and boldly declaring her intentions to go better this time. Then there’s Ana Dulce Felix from Portugal, second to Britton both last year and in 2011, no longer willing to settle for second best.

That’s just for starters – and whoever finishes first at the end of the 8km race will have certainly earned it.

“Well we know Felix is really aiming for it, made a big statement she wants to win,” says Jones. “We’ve seen what Duarte has done this season, she is definitely improving, a serious contender. Belete is always strong too.

“Then there’s the Norwegian girl, Karoline Grovdal, a quality runner we know is targeting this race. The British team is looking very strong with Gemma Steel coming through very well, Steph Twell too. But what I’m actually hoping to see is a real strong charge at the front of the race, and hoping to see a strong group of athletes together to at least 5km or 6km. This is going to be a different race to last year, a different approach, because it’s a hugely different challenge.”


Icy course
The Serbians, we do know, haven’t laid on a particularly challenging course: staged at Friendship Park, in the heart of the city, there was some light snow falling in Belgrade yesterday but it won’t be the treacherous icy course of Budapest last year.

“It’s certainly flat,” adds Jones. “And it will be quite cold. But there are no major hills. Of course all races are different, anyway. But as a competitor, she’ll take it on. I remember last year it was such a different challenge too, trying to open gaps on the snowy surface. Fionnuala was relentless, relentless, in that race. If she can take that attitude into this as well she’ll be hard to beat.

“But, having said that, perhaps the intensity is lacking a little bit, given the lack of quality races. She just needs to stay confident in what she’s doing. Keep it simple, and not panic. Because overall, preparations have gone very well, after a period of setback over the summer. There is a bigger picture here too, and that message has been powerful all winter, that we’re looking at this cross country season a little differently.


Huge goal
“Fionnuala has always been known as a cross country runner, but would like to remove that tag a little bit. That means using this winter as more of a way of preparing for the summer. The European Championships in Zurich, next summer, are important, a huge goal. To concentrate on things that she needs to get better at, she has to change priorities a little.

“That doesn’t mean she doesn’t want the challenge, doesn’t want to put herself in the mix, but the priorities have slightly changed, yes. And I don’t mind saying it . . there aren’t many people around who actually think she can win this for a third time. Not anybody, really. That’s not being negative. That’s the size of the challenge. But her intrinsic motivation is second to none. She wants to do well, put herself out there, and give her best performance.”

Britton has adopted her typically modest approach to the challenge: she did win her opening three races of the season (both the Gerry Farnan and National Inter-counties in Dublin, and the Lotto Cup in Belgium), yet admits herself the run up to Belgrade hasn’t been as smooth as Budapest last year or Slovenia in 2011.

“It’s different to last year in that I didn’t have a summer season this time. I messed up the summer . . So I was never really sure where I was at. . . . I don’t like comparing, or looking back, because there’s nothing I can do about the shape I was in last year comparing to this year. I just have to deal with what shape I’m in this year. You have to believe in yourself as well, because no one else is going to do it for me.”


In reserve
Tactically, the challenge for the Wicklow athlete is to keep enough in reserve for the final showdown while also ensuring she doesn’t let it come down to a sprint finish, at least not without winding it up from some distance out. She had just two seconds to spare over Felix last year, and the flat 8km course (five 1,500m circuits, plus a 500m finishing shoot) does not lend itself to early breakaways.

Britton has to adopt the perfect tactics, and unless she gets those badly wrong, there is definitely a place for her on the medal podium. Exactly what step might well come down to pure aggression, and just because she’s mostly skin and bone doesn’t mean Britton can’t throw her weight around.

With the Irish women’s down four of last year’s six gold medal winning members there is unlikely to be any repeat of that performance, while the senior men’s medal chances rest with the performance of Paul Pollock, who has made no secret of his desire to get on the podium, too.

PANEL: THREE MAIN CONTENDORS TO BRITTON:

1: Ana Dulce Felix (Portugal): At 31 this might well be her best chance to strike individual gold, having finished second to Britton for the last two years, while also denying her the bronze in 2010, when Britton finished fourth. The reigning European 10,000m champion, Felix won’t want to leave it too late, either, and has the strength to get away early on.

2: Sophie Duarte (France): Beat Britton by seven seconds at the Cross de L’Acier two weeks ago, was sixth last year, and at 32 has certainly improved enough to challenge for a medal, backed up with a very strong French team that now includes former Kenyan Martha Komu.

3: Almensch Belete (Belgium): She wouldn’t be the first former Ethiopian to win a European title for her adopted country of Belgium, although her big threat last year didn’t fully materialise as she finished fourth, clearly not liking the snow or the longer 8km distance. But at 24 she’s coming closer to her prime and possibly feels she has the better of Britton this time.

ON TV: RTE2, noon-2pm; BBC2, noon-1.55pm.

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