McKiernan hopes she may yet be world champion


CATHERINA McKIERNAN will be back for at least one more attempt on the prize which has eluded her in tantalising fashion over the years: victory in the World Cross Country championship.

After finishing seventh behind the tiny Ethiopian, Derartu Tulu in this year's race, McKiernan vowed that she will redouble her efforts to corner a title which even the most implacable of her rivals would scarcely begrudge her.

"I like to think that one day - perhaps in Belfast in two years time - it will all fall into place for me and that the championship will be mine," she said.

"It was a shortage of training which, in the end, beat me today. I thought I might just get away with it, but the time lost through injury took its toll on the last climb.

"To that point, I had run well. But there was nothing left in my legs when the others put on the pressure and when I couldn't respond to that break, I knew there was no way they were going to come back to me."

Earlier, the Cavan woman, the silver medallist on four consecutive occasions before fading to 13th place in Cape Town last year, had tripped in the charge from the gun and almost come to grief on the artificial surface.

That cost her valuable ground, but out in front it was the familiar frame of O'Sullivan who, in the words of McKiernan, "didn't come to hang around" which took the competitors through the first kilometre in precisely three minutes.

That kind of pace was designed to sort out the accomplished from the merely ambitious, but immediately behind the leader at the two kilometre mark, reached in six minutes nine seconds, came the two Kenyans, Lydia Jeromei and Jepkemboi Barsosio, with the feared Ethiopians, Tula and Getenesh Wami, just off the pace.

O'Sullivan took her foot off the pedal briefly, but was back in the lead with 3,000 metres to go, at a stage when Britain's Paula Radcliffe and the Spaniard, Julia Vaquero began to look menacing for the first time.

With Fernanda Ribeiro a late withdrawal because of injury and the Romanian, Elena Fidatov running a long way below the form which put her out of reach of all challengers on the Grand Prix circuit, it wasn't the kind of plot which many had envisaged in this, the first championship to carry prize money.

Even as the drive began to leave O'Sullivan, so McKiernan, almost unnoticed, made her way to the front. When the bell sounded for the start of the last lap she was a metre or so clear of Radcliffe and Vaquero.

The move was promising enough to invoke some of the biggest cheers of the day from Irish supporters but, sadly, within another 80 metres, we sensed that it was no more than an empty gesture of defiance by an athlete who had run out of time to complete her endurance work in training.

By the time they levelled out again, McKiernan had drifted back to sixth place and now, barring a little miracle, there was no way back for her. But even as she fell off the pace, so Radcliffe took on the Ethiopians in a finish of captivating grandeur.

Against most expectations, she broke the defending champion Wami with 220 metres to go but then, with the hard work apparently done, she couldn't cope with the renewed challenge of Tulu and was passed on the run to the line.

"When I got ahead of Wami, I thought to myself: `Hey, I'm going to be the first to win the junior and senior titles at these championships'," she recounted. "But soon, very soon, I knew there was more work to be done and when Tulu arrived on my shoulder, I sensed she would be too strong.

"I was in good shape - as was Catherina McKiernan. But this championship has improved in standard to the point where you have to be running superbly to get into the top 10, let alone win it."

Behind the leading group, Valerie Vaughan and Una English worked away diligently to escape from the mid 30s and to get themselves into a position from which Ireland was able to secure the team bronze medal. The other two members of the team did not have their placings taken into account. Maureen Harrington finished 108th and Pauline Curley 117th.

The Irish performance confounded the British team manager, Dave Clarke, who had a £100 bet with an official that his team would finish ahead of the Irish.

Ethiopia took the senior women's team prize, thus denying Kenya the supreme fulfilment of winning all eighty titles on offer.

African runners dominated men's senior race with such authority yesterday that the leading European born runner, Julio Rey of Spain, had to settle for 9th place. Five places further back was the Briton, Jon Brown, who had done all the right things in the approach to the championships but still found himself comprehensively beaten by the Africans on the day it mattered most.

Up front, Paul Tergat of Kenya, winner in 1995 and again last year, appeared to be destined for the indignity of a rare cross country defeat when headed on the final circuit by the world 10,000 metres record holder, Salah Hissou of Morocco.

But Hissou's supporters reckoned without the grit of the champion, who braced himself for the counter charge with 800 metres to go and delivered so abundantly that the Moroccan, for all his talent, was irreparably broken.

After making fluent progress in the second third of the race, Seamus Power from Clare slipped to 49th place, still a fine placing, but Tom McGrath, unable to find anything extra in the urgency of it all, could finish no higher than 129th.

Maria Lynch was in 107th place, the same number as that on her back, in the junior women's race, won by Kenya's Rose Koskei, and Gareth Tumbull of Belfast was 52nd behind another Kenyan, Elijah Korir, in the junior men's event.