Only the untouchables of cross country running make it look this easy, and in defending her National Inter-counties title Fionnuala Britton sent out a clear message of intent about what title she's gunning for next.
After surrendering her back-to-back European Cross Country titles last year, Britton is back in serious business. No one could come within a minute of her here, and if anything, her performance on the sports fields of Dundalk Institute of Technology was the most impressive of her now five national titles.
The Wicklow runner has three weeks to maintain this form ahead of the Europeans, set for the ski resort of Samokov, Bulgaria. There will be hills. There will be snow. There will be more serious competition. And the way Britton is running, that’s exactly what she wants.
"I planned to sit it for a while, but I get a bit nervous, with other athletes around me, so I decided to just go, and run from the front," said Britton, who covered the 8km distance in 26:59 - one minute and five seconds ahead of Cork's Michelle Finn.
Britton simply floated over the wet, slippery surface as if running on a treadmill, never once appearing out of breath. “Yeah, I suppose it’s races like that remind you why you love cross country,” she added.
In winning a fifth Inter-counties title, Britton joins two previous untouchables in Catherina McKiernan and Anne Keenan-Buckley.
Now, after finishing fourth in Belgrade last year, after her back-to-back titles in 2011-2012, the motivation to win back the title in Samokov runs deep. Next up is the IAAF Cross Challenge in France, next Sunday, leaving her two weeks before the Europeans.
“Well I suppose I have to believe I’m running better than last year, because I really do want to improve on last year,” added Britton, who also announced her recent engagement to Dublin distance runner Alan McCormack.
“It’s easy to say now, three weeks out, that I’m not nervous or anything like that, and I am confident of where I’m at. But you can never be sure until you get there. I know, going into 2012, I was very determined to win. After winning one, you don’t want people to think it was down to luck. You want to prove you’re good enough to win it again, which I did. This time, after finishing fourth last year, getting on the podium would be an improvement, so I am definitely aiming for that, yeah.”
Defending men's champion Paul Pollock admitted he came to Dundalk with nothing definite to aim for, having only returned to training six weeks ago, after a two-month lay-off with a hip muscle tear. Instead, the Belfast doctor tore up the final hill of the men's 10km race, opening up a crucial little gap on Cork's Mark Hanrahan and Dublin's Mick Clohissey.
After that nothing but pure dogged determination got Pollock to the line first, just two seconds ahead of Hanrahan - a track specialist - with Clohissey another two seconds back. It made a for terrific climax to an intriguing race, which even Pollock seemed genuinely surprised to have won.
“I only got back running six weeks ago, starting out with two miles, in 15 minutes, and nearly vomiting at the end of it,” said Pollock. “Then after about two weeks it just started to click, got back up to 100 miles in training, after running a local cross country, in London, when I finished second.
“So I’d no idea what form I was in here. I just sat back, and even that last lap was about hanging in, and thankfully I still had it for a sprint finish. But I didn’t think I was coming here to win, no. So I’m very, very happy with that. I didn’t expect to be back this quickly, so hopefully there’s plenty more to come, before the Europeans.”
Both Hanrahan and Clohissey are also guaranteed their selection for the Europeans: and in finishing second to Britton, so are Finn, and Laura Crowe, who finished third. The junior men's title went to the strong finishing Con Doherty from Westport, Mayo, running in colours of UCD, the former bronze medallist in the World Junior Triathlon championships as deft on the country as he remains on the bike and in the pool.