O'Sullivan some way off top speed

 

Sonia O'Sullivan will leave the Algarve this morning in the sombre knowledge that she has a lot of hard work ahead of her to reclaim her place among the elite of middle and long distance running.

Fifteenth place in the world cross country short course championship, just 24 hours after finishing seventh in the longer equivalent, would represent an acceptable return for the great majority of athletes.

When you've been to the summit, however, it isn't easy to view job satisfaction in those terms and as O'Sullivan reflected on her return to big time competition after an absence of 18 months, her reaction was at times, confused and emotive.

Just half-an-hour earlier, she was but a distant spectator as Kutre Dulecha of Ethiopia produced a startling late run to pip Zahra Ouaziz of Morocco and the Kenyan Margaret Ngotho in the last few strides of an eventful 4,000 metres journey.

On Saturday, she had a closer view of an equally flamboyant finish as Derartu Tula surged to beat her Ethiopian teammate, Gete Wami in another vast celebration of African supremacy but the sense of under achievement still haunted her.

In the euphoria which preceded the return of Ireland's most celebrated athlete, not enough stress, it seemed had been placed on the problems of finding top gear so soon after motherhood and the lack of meaningful races in the intervening months, had blunted the old competitive edge.

Viewed in that light, it's likely that when the initial disappointment has subsided she will find solace in the fact that running on strength alone and riddled by self-doubt after such a long absence, she still managed respectable placings.

Asked by one journalist if she was surprised by O'Sullivan's inability to get into the firing line, Britain's Paula Radcliffe, who ran quite magnificently to finish in the top five in both races, said.

"The only thing which surprised me was that she ran so well. It's only nine months since she gave birth and when I looked at her recent track results in Australia, I figured she wouldn't count here. I think she can take a lot of heart from this."

Much of the post race speculation centred on how the Irish woman might have fared had she skipped Saturday's programme and concentrated on the shorter event. But it wasn't a line she was prepared to buy.

"Even if I hadn't run on Saturday, it would have been just as hard today," she said. "It's very tough to get up and stay on that kind of pace. I considered I was fit coming here but I soon found that I wasn't fit enough to live with pace like that.

"In the past, very few were at this level of fitness for these championships but now they are. Before I arrived in Portugal, I had no hard races, ones in which I had to go hard from the start. And it told.

"I just didn't have the speed in my legs to win here but I'm not about to panic. It's all about priorities and my priority is to win in Sydney in September. Of course. I'd love to have struck gold here but I've plenty of time to get it right.

"I could have hid and stayed at home but I had to run to find out just where exactly I'm at in my preparations for the Olympics. What I discovered is that I'm fit enough but not as yet, ready to win big races."

"The bottom line is that I need to get faster. And by concentrating on 3,000 and 5,000 metres races on the track in the summer, I aim to succeed."

As in Saturday's race, the old speed which would have established her among the early leaders was missing. And when she failed to make contact with the leading group by the half-way stage, it was already apparent that there was simply no way back for her.

By the time she reached the bell she was a long way out of contention in 21st place and utterly unable to quicken. To her credit, however, she ran on strongly and with many of those in front suffering in temperatures of 80 degrees plus she made up eight places on the last circuit without ever threatening to close with the leading group.

Up front, Radcliffe, who had to be carried off the track after finishing fifth in the long course race, was again bravery personified in taking on the Africans. But after looking certain to take silver, the tanks ran dry on her with just 120 metres left.

Even as the English woman began to thread air, Ouaziz was embarking on an apparently winning win only to discover that Dulecha, a former Junior champion, was going even better. And in a last desperate surge, the Ethiopian got up to win on the line.

Rosemary Ryan, who had exceeded expectations in finishing 20th in Saturday's race, again proved herself an excellent international competitor in the making by running into 28th position with Anne Keenan Buckley placed 67th.

Keenan Buckley did well to recover so quickly from a harrowing experience on Saturday when she faded dramatically on the last lap, an uncharacteristic lapse which cost the Irish the bronze medals in the team event.

It would be nice to record that Paul Tergat's unprecedented five-year reign as men's long course champion ended in a manner befitting the greatest cross country runner of them all, but unfortunately, it didn't happen that way.

After finishing third behind Mohammed Mourhit, the naturalised Belgian who was in Mark Carroll's slipstream in the recent European indoor championships, Tergat launched a ferocious attack on his own management team, accusing them of preparing the Kenyan squad in haphazard fashion.

That smacked of sour grapes after Mourhit, refusing to be intimidated by the Kenyans swarming around him throughout the race, kept his composure to sprint clear and win by a second from Ethiopia's Assefa Mezgebu in a time of 35 mins minutes even, for the 12,300 metres trip.

Peter Matthews in 72nd place, was best of the Irish with Noel Berkeley 73rd, Cian Mcloughlin 77th, Dermot Donnelly 83rd, Paulo Doglio 89th and a disappointing Seamus Power bringing up the rear in 101st position.

Mark Smyth (71st) was first Irish runner home in the men's Junior race won by the Kenyan, Robert Kipchumba Kipkorir, the latest in a seemingly endless stream of gifted African distance runners.