Fionnuala Britton finishes sixth as Irish women take European bronze medal

Disappointment for Wicklow cross-country runner turns to smiles as she leads side to podium finish in Bulgaria

There was mud, there was snow, there was sweat, and in the end there was the pleasant surprise of bronze medals for the Irish women’s team at the European Cross Country championships in Samokov, Bulgaria.

Fionnuala Britton may have fallen short of making the individual medal podium – finishing sixth – but there was almost immediate consolation when it emerged she had helped lead the Irish team to win bronze medals, scoring just one point less than France, 87 points to 88.

Truth is the Irish women weren't expected to make the team podium: Britton was always eyeing an individual medal, and although she was still chasing that going into the final lap, running in fourth, she ended up sixth at the finish – with Britain's Gemma Steel winning the title ahead of team-mate Kate Avery.

Then came the race for the team prizes, and while Britain won that comfortably, scoring just 21 points, ahead of Spain, who scored 70, Ireland then flashed up in third.


Crucial to that was the fast finishing of Sara Treacy, who finished an excellent 12th. After her came Michelle Finn, in 23rd, and then Annmarie McGlynn, who closed her race with obvious determination for finish in 46th – and that was enough to just about squeeze the Irish quartet onto the medal podium.

Still, only twice before have Irish women won team medals at the European Cross Country, firstly bronze in 2003, in Edinburgh, when the team included the likes of Sonia O’Sullivan and Catherina McKiernan, and also in 2012, this time gold when Britton won the individual too.

The course in Samokov – run at the not minor altitude of 1,350 metres above sea level – lived up to its expectations of being extremely tough in places, although it should have suited Britton. She kept herself in a medal position for as long as possible, before Avery and Steel surged ahead around two-thirds the way through the 8km race, with Steel just edging out Avery in the final sprint for the finish, both running 28:27.

Meref Bahta, formerly of Eritrea and now running for Sweden, came through to clinch third, ahead of another African, Almensch Belete, the former Ethiopian now running for Belgium. Defending champion Sophie Duarte of France ended up fifth in 28:58, just one second ahead of Britton.

That will be disappointing for the Wicklow athlete, although Britton at least raised a smile when realising she'll get to stand on the medal podium alongside Treacy, Finn and McGlynn, along with Ireland's other two non-scoring finishers, Siobhan O'Doherty (in 47th) and Laura Crowe (in 53rd).

The Ireland men’s team finished in sixth position in their race, with paul Pollock the best finisher in 23rd position.

Polat Arikan led home a one-two for Turkey in the men’s race, pipping Ali Kaya. Spain’s Alemayehu Bezabeh came home in third spot, with the podium positions all going to African-born runners.

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics