Between the soft muddy surface and treacherous corners everyone said it was proper cross country running – only that also proved the downfall of the best of the Irish medal hopes.
In the end the not knowing will hurt Sarah Healy more than her fall – a sudden slip halfway through the European Cross Country effectively ending her gold medal hopes in the junior women's race, the team medal hopes falling with her.
Undaunted, Healy chased hard on the leaders only for the effort to prove too much and she finished ninth, one place behind Irish team mate Emma O’Brien. Before her fall the Irish team were in pole position; in the end they fell back to sixth, three points short of bronze.
The proper cross country course was a little kinder to others, American-born Ryan Forsyth finishing just one second off bronze in the under-23 race in his first appearance in an Irish vest, before Seán Tobin, clearly relishing the testing terrain, finished an excellent 10th in the senior men's race.
Steady rain had fallen on the Beekse Bergen Safari Park course in Tilburg, the Netherlands in the previous two days, the skies opening throughout the races too – making it openly sketchy in parts, especially around the tight bends: still Healy's fall came out of nowhere, running relaxed into a sharp right turn, gently clipping Carla Gallardo of Spain, which also took out the British runner Amelia Quirke.
Unbeaten all year in the under-18 ranks, Healy was conceding two years to much of her opposition in the under-20 race, and was ideally positioned at that halfway mark of the 4.3km race, running with the leading bunch and poised, it seemed, to make her move. Back on her legs as quickly as possible, only now with a gap of 15 metres to close, Healy chased hard and got herself back up to seventh. As the leaders pressed on however, that chasing exertion clearly cost her; O’Brien came in just ahead of her to finish eighth. (Quirke got up and managed to finish fifth.)
Still, two in the top-10, plus Stephanie Cotter in 25th, fell just short of making the team medal podium, the Irish women finishing sixth with 42 points, just three points off Turkey who won bronze with 39 (Switzerland fourth on 40, Italy fifth on 41). Nadia Battocletti did win individual gold for Italy, ahead of Delia Sclabas from Switzerland and Inci Kalkan from Turkey, while Dutch favourite Jasmijn Lau, aged 19, had to settle for fourth for a second successive year.
Healy took her fall in relatively good spirits, knowing she has two more years in the under-20 race, including when the European Cross Country comes to Dublin in 2020. “I’m not really sure what happened,” she said, “but that’s just the nature of cross country running. This is my first one (European Cross Country), and even though it didn’t really work out, exactly as I would have wanted it to go, I’m still happy that I competed well, the team finished sixth, and we had fun.”
Still, Healy had finished well clear of Kalkan when winning the 3,000m as part of her 1,500m double at the European Under-18 Championships on the track in July, and would certainly have fancied putting her finishing speed to the test over the last 800m.
Forsyth fell in another sense – just short – in the under-23 race. Going with the lead pack from the gun, he finished one second off bronze behind Hugo Hay from France, victory going to his team mate and defending champion Jimmy Gressier from France, his miscued celebration, slipping over the line, one of the highlights of the afternoon.
“I like to race aggressively,” said Forsyth, representing the Newcastle and District AC in Down, the Maryland native currently running at Colorado University, finishing 11th in the recent NCAA cross county. “I believe I should be up there and so should the team. It’s an honour to wear the vest.” The Irish under-23 team ended up sixth.
Tobin’s 10th place was aggressive and courageous, that race seeing the first European-born senior men’s champion since 2012 when Fhilip Ingebrigtsen from Norway broke the Kenyan/Turk dominance with a stunning victory – also winning the third gold medal of the day for his country and family, as younger brother and rising superstar Jakob, who in August won a European senior double over 1,500m/5,000m, won a third successive title in that grade, still only three months over the age of 18, also leading Norway to a first ever team title.
Tobin was duly satisfied with his performance: “A good step forward,” said the Clonmel athlete, who finished 15th last year, leading the team here to a fine seventh. “Coming back last year, I knew there was more there, because that was after a long season. It’s a solid performance, I knew the course would be challenging, sap the energy, but the system felt great the whole way, it was just the legs that were going a little jelly, but we’ll take it for now.” Kevin Dooney was next best in 26th.
Best of the Irish senior women, in her 10th appearance in the event, was Sara Treacy, who ran tough and smart to finish 26th – that race won by Kenyan-turned-Turk Yasemin Can for a third successive year. “I love this event and it’s great to test yourself against top competition,” said Treacy, who endured a series of injuries since the 2016 Rio Olympics.
European Cross Country, Tilburg: How the Irish fared
Senior men: Sean Tobin 10th, Kevin Dooney 26th, Kevin Maunsell 34th; Kevin Batt 55th, Mick Clohisey 67th, Damien Landers 78th; Team 7th
Senior women: Sara Treacy 26th, Ciara Mageean 43rd, Michelle Finn 51st, Annmarie McGlynn 57th, Fionnuala Ross 61st, Kerry O'Flaherty 64th; Team 11th
Under-23 men: Ryan Forsyth 4th; Brian Fay 29th; Paul O'Donnell 36th, Cathal Doyle 51st, Jack O'Leary 56th; Garry Campbell 80th; Team 6th
Under-23 women: Eilish Flanagan 16th; Aoibhe Richardson 25th; Roisin Flanagan 41st, Fian Sweeney 43rd, Siobhra O'Flaherty 54th, Sorcha McAllister 66th; Team 9th
Under-20 men: Darragh McElhinney 16th; Sean O'Leary 18th; Jamie battle 21st, Michael Power 60th, Fintan Stewart 75th, Daire Finn 86th; Team 5th
Under-20 women: Emma O'Brien 8th, Sarah Healy 9th, Stephanie Cotter 25th, Jodie McCann 35th, Sophie O'Sullivan 59th Laura Nicholson 60th; Team 6th
Mixed relay team 9th: Paul Robinson, Siofra Cleirigh Buttner, Claire Tarplee and John Travers.