Ready to suffer in defence of her crown


ATHLETICS:As tactics go, the instruction to “really suffer, really punish them” might sound a little crude, but if Fionnuala Britton is to be first across the line in tomorrow’s European Cross Country that’s essentially what it comes down to.

It’s no secret that defending a championship title is often more difficult than winning it in the first place – and Britton’s challenge in Szentendre, just north of Budapest, is no exception. She is, naturally, now marked as the athlete to beat, and although a relatively new event, no woman has ever successfully defended a European Cross Country title in the 18 years it’s been staged.

Already, the journey out hasn’t proven as smooth, as yesterday evening the entire Irish team of 30 athletes had their flight diverted to Vienna, with Budapest airport completely shut due to electrical problems in the control tower – the rest of the trip thus completed by bus.

Then there’s the race itself: it’s no secret either that Britton doesn’t have the best sprint finish in the world, although that’s not saying she can’t finish quick. Yet the starting line-up is unquestionably stronger than in Slovenia last year, when Britton broke clear around halfway, was never again threatened, and her stunning victory landing Ireland’s first individual gold since Catherina McKiernan won the inaugural women’s title, in 1994.

There is nothing to suggest Britton isn’t running as well as last year, but there is a more daunting look about her opponents. Ana Dulce Felix from Portugal finished second last year, just four weeks after running the New York Marathon, then convincingly beat Britton to win the European Championships 10,000 metres this summer, and looked superb in winning in Tilburg last month.

Plus there’s Almensh Belete, the 23 year-old born and raised in Ethiopia, who since March of this year, has been running in the colours of Belgium. Belete actually beat Britton prior to Slovenia last year, and also looked the part last month when winning the Roeselare international.

“I certainly think it’s a stronger field than last year,” says Chris Jones, who took charge of Britton’s coaching two years ago, clearly adding an extra layer of steel. “But then Fionnuala is aware of that too, has been adjusting her preparations accordingly, she won’t lose this race because of lack of strength or conditioning.

“I have seen the type of work she’s done, how much she wants to win again, her desire, her determination, everything that would make her more competitive and just plain harder to beat.”

Jones comes from the old school of distance running and that suits Britton just fine: she might well be one of Ireland’s most dedicated athletes, of any sport, and yet her strength is her strength, rather than her speed, which is why Jones has instructed her to start suffering sooner rather than later.

“I want her to be aggressive throughout the race, really suffer, really punish them. It’s going to be tough, and it would be great to win another gold medal, but a medal of any colour would be very satisfying too, because they have proved rather elusive for the Irish in the past.”

Now 28, Britton has all the experience required: including junior and under-23 appearances, this will be a tenth European Cross Country for the Wicklow athlete. She’s declined all pre-race interviews, no big deal given that’s always been her preference: “I’m confident I can perform on the day,” she did say recently, “but of course it depends on how well everyone else performs.”

Conditions may well play a part, with freezing temperatures forecast for Szentendre – the course itself run around the Hungarian Open Air Museum. Britton prefers the soft going anyway, and the hope is that might help chill some of the opposition.

Ireland will require something special from the remaining five senior women to have any chance of a team medal, although that looks unlikely – but juniors Siofra Cleirigh Buttner and Sarah Collins mightn’t be far off.

Joe Sweeney made a brilliantly brave effort a year ago, putting himself in a medal position in the closing stages, before finishing fifth, although his form so far this year is less convincing. The big favourites look a class above, including Belgium’s Ayelaw Bekele the runaway winner last year.

Irish Teams In Budapest

MEN – Senior: J Sweeney (Dundrum SD), M Mulhare (Portlaoise), D Rooney (Raheny), B O’Neill (Dundrum), S Hehir (Rathfarnham), B Maher (Kilkenny).

Under-23: C Johnston (Letterkenny AC) D Fitzmaurice (Clonliffe Harriers), P Hogan (Ferrybank AC), S Mealy (Crusaders), J Travers (Donore Harriers), S Mealy (Crusaders).

Junior: S Kerr (Armagh), S Tobin (Clonmel AC), I Guiden (Clonliffe), K Mooney (Dundrum) and E Totten (Newcastle).

WOMEN – Senior: F Britton (Kilcoole AC), A Hutchinson (Dundrum SD), S McCormack (Clonliffe), L Byrne (Dundrum SD), L Lee (Leevale), S L Treacy (Moynalvey).

Under-23: U Britton (Kilcoole), L Behan (Kilkenny).

Junior: S Cleirigh Buttner (DSD AC), S Collins (Finn Valley AC), L Conroy( Mullingar Harriers), M Mulhare (Portlaoise), C McCarthy (Dundrum), M O’Sullivan (Tinryland AC).

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