In the end it resembled a muddy battlefield, a return to the more traditional European Cross Country Championships that Brussels had promised.
But even in the long, exhausting drag around Laeken Park, the medals were decided along painfully narrow margins. As it turned out the Irish challenge ultimately fell on both sides: one team gold and an individual bronze, before two fourth places.
Suitably billed as the clash of the next generation, the men’s under-20 race finished with Ireland winning a first-ever team gold in that grade, after finishing runner-up the last two years.
Under the predictably tough underfoot conditions – reasonably firm in some parts, an absolute slog for the rest – Nick Griggs lined up for his final under-20 race against two of the similarly lauded talents of this age, Axel Vang Christensen from Denmark and rising Dutch star Niels Laros.
The race was soon reduced to these three, and just when Laros appeared to have timed his last surge to perfection, Christensen came again in the final 100 metres, passing Laros just before the line to win gold by a single second – as narrow as they come.
Then came Griggs, still just 18, his individual bronze medal critical to Ireland winning gold, as Niall Murphy and especially Jonas Stafford rounded up the three-to-score by nailing ninth and 10th, Stafford chasing down over a dozen runners on the last lap.
Ireland’s tally of 22 points was enough for gold ahead of Britain’s 24, reversing the result from Turin this time last year, when they came from behind to beat Ireland.
But the hope and excitement that Fionnuala McCormack might also run herself on to the medal podium, despite running the Olympic marathon qualifying time just seven days ago, later fell just short as she finished in fourth place, for the fifth time in her career, having also won back-to-back titles in 2011 and 2012.
It was nonetheless a remarkable performance by the 39-year-old mother of three, the 11th top-10 finish for McCormack in this her 18th appearance in the European Cross Country, more than any other woman.
Norway’s Karoline Bjerkeli Grovdal made history of her own, becoming the first woman to win a third senior title. The race was the first time a women’s international cross-country was run over 9km, and McCormack – after her marathon effort last Sunday – once again displayed her remarkable powers of recovery, moving up to fifth by halfway.
As Grovdal moved further clear, winning in 33:40, Italy’s Nadia Battocletti came through for silver in 34:25, with Britain’s Abbie Donnelly winning bronze in 34:42. Then came McCormack in 35:00, with the Irish team medal hopes drifting away as they ended up eighth on 68 points, with Britain winning the gold with 18.
“I could see the girls in front of me, and on a course like that everyone goes through bad patches, different parts are tougher,” said McCormack. “And there were definitely times I could see them struggling in front of me.
“But you want to get on the podium, so for me it is a bit disappointing, but it was great to be in the race, and chasing down a medal, and the Irish support out there was unbelievable.”
So to the climax of the day, where despite the similar support and encouragement, the Irish senior men fell agonisingly short of a team bronze, ending up fourth. This was a proper battle too, Yann Schrub from France outlasting everyone to win a first senior gold for France, the home support helping Belgium win team gold.
With Cormac Dalton enjoying the race of his life, coming through for eighth, Ireland were running one point ahead of Norway in third going into the last lap, only for Norway to reverse that order, thanks in part to Magnus Myhre coming though for second; Norway finished on 32 points, Ireland on 45.
“I’m ecstatic about my run, about as good I could have hoped for,” said Dalton, the 25-year-old from Mullingar. “It’s just bittersweet to come fourth in the team standings, but we gave it our all.”
Indeed they did, Kevin Mulcaire first leading the charge, before finishing 37th, Keelan Kilrehill coming through to be the best Irish to score in 17th, then Hugh Armstrong in 20th, with Brian Fay 22nd, still not quite enough to land a first senior men’s medal in 23 years.
In the women’s under-20 race, Ireland finished fifth, having been in the silver medal position early on. Anna Gardiner was top Irish finisher in seventh, as 17-year-old Innes Fitzgerald delivered a flawless victory for Britain.
In the under-23 races, Danielle Donegan ran an excellent race to finish best of the Irish women, nailing another top-10 place in eighth, the team finishing in 11th, before Oisín Spillane was best of the men in 28th, one place ahead of fellow Clare man Dean Casey, the team down in 10th, having won gold two years ago.