The running tale of Fiona Everard is familiar up to a point. A reasonably bright prospect as a young teenager, as often happens any slow or even notable progress was repeatedly stalled by injury on top of various other growing pains.
The first real sign her luck was about to change, her persistence might pay off, came just under a year ago, when Everard won the National Novice Cross-Country, the entry-level competition ahead of intermediate and then senior.
That was over a short but testing 4km course in Conna, in her native Cork, and coincided with her move west, studying for a Masters in Biomedical Science at the University of Galway while also starting with a new coach, Matt Lockett.
Everard followed that with further progress on the track, winning the Inter-Varsity 5,000m title last April, in only her second-ever race over the distance.
Then came the quite startling progress rarely witnessed in the sport, Everard winning Sunday’s National Senior Cross-Country over a brutally tough course around Gowran Demesne in Kilkenny. Reasonably firm underfoot in some parts, an absolute slog in others.
No Irish athlete has made that winning leap from novice to senior in less than 12 months and, in truth, few people ever imagined she would. Including Everard, still running for her home club Bandon AC, growing up in the small nearby village of Enniskeane.
Now 25, Everard displayed suitable shock and delight, her win also guaranteeing her selection for next month’s European Cross-Country in Brussels, on December 10th, where she’ll lead the Irish women’s team who last year won bronze medals.
Brussels will mark her first international appearance at any level, and Everard rightly suggests that novice victory last December was the turning point, coupled with the influence of Lockett, who teaches in Galway, and was formerly Athletics Ireland’s National Endurance Coordinator.
“I think before that, I was constantly getting injured,” she says. “I had stress fractures and a few bone injuries, and then Matt took me on this time last year, I think last October, and he had the long-term goal in mind.
“So I think that really helped me. I got a consistent year under him, which I just hadn’t had in ages. So hopefully we’ll keep that going, but I’ll be sticking with whatever he tells me anyway, it’s working.”
The name is already familiar to some in the sport; Fiona is a cousin of Eoin Everard, the Kilkenny distance runner who has won several Irish titles on the track, and finished 15th in the senior race on Sunday, helping Kilkenny City Harriers land the men’s team title.
With European Athletics pressing for complete gender balance in the sport, the senior women raced the same 9km distance and course on Sunday as the senior men, the longest distance Everard had ever run in cross-country.
The title was certainly wide open, last year’s top four finishers (Sarah Healy, Ciara Mageean, Michelle Finn, Ann Marie McGlynn) all absent, pre-race favourite Íde Nic Dhómhnaill also withdrawing through illness.
After the front-runners were narrowed down to four, Everard coasting alongside far more seasoned runners such as Mary Mulhare, Fionnula Ross and Danielle Donegan, she made the decision to go for broke, winning by a clear margin of 37 seconds.
“When it went to 9km, I just kept telling myself it’s just another 1km, not the biggest difference. Then when we passed 8km I was thinking I wouldn’t mind finishing now.
“For the first couple of laps I was making more of an effort to sit in, and was thinking in my mind ‘best case scenario make the Euro Cross team’, if I’m in the top three. So I didn’t want to risk that, by doing anything silly early on.
“Everyone before was telling me the mud should suit me, and in training I do love the hills, so I tried to just think about that.”
Bandon AC has enjoyed plenty of success on the track of late, with sprinter Phil Healy and Nicola Tuthill in the hammer, and that’s where Everard hopes to ultimately make a name for herself.
“A small step up, yeah,” she says with a smile. “This summer really was the first summer in a while I even got on the track, did some 5,000m, still didn’t have a great summer, had a few health problems, so hopefully next year I’ll be at another level.”