All week the talk was whether Fionnuala McCormack could recover from 26.2 miles of racing in Valencia on December 5th in time for Sunday’s European Cross-Country at Abbotstown in Dublin. Turns out those powers of recovery are heroic.
Even with the natural excitement of the home event, it seemed a major task, but McCormack rose majestically to it, running herself into ninth place just seven days after running a new lifetime best at the Valencia marathon.
Given that marathon effort last weekend, this was among her very best runs, the 37-year-old former two-time champion coming very close again to leading the Irish women’s team onto the medal podium. They had won four in the last eight editions of the championships, including gold in 2012, and silver last time out in Lisbon, McCormack the leading scorer every time, only to end up fourth on this occasion.
They were the third-best-placed team at the halfway mark in the 8,000m race, and although Eilish Flanagan came through brilliantly to finish 15th, Aoibhe Richardson also judging her effort well to finish 23rd, they ended on 47 points, nine points off Sweden in third, victory there also going to Great Britain on 25 points.
Indeed that marathon effort of 2:23:58, moving ever closer to the Irish record which has stood untouched for over 23 years, appeared to take very little at all out of McCormack in a race that went out fast from the gun. Making a record 17th appearance, 20 years after her first run as a junior, the Wicklow runner also timed her effort exceedingly well, some of the leaders, including four-time defending champion Yasemin Can from Turkey, dropping right off in the second half of the race.
“The atmosphere was amazing, the crowd was great, and once I finished the marathon last Sunday, I was like, ‘that’s it, it’s about the European Cross-Country,’” said McCormack. “And overall I think everyone ran very well. I just really wanted to be here too, I’ve been around a long time but it still means a lot. I didn’t want to just come here and make up the numbers, running for the 17th time, I don’t ever count them anyway. I think I recovered well, it was tough out there, I gave it everything.
“Everyone was just shouting, ‘Fionnuala, come on Fionnuala’, which was just great to hear. It was so loud, and just great to be here again. It’s such a great event to be part of, I’ll never not come back here whenever I have the chance. We’d could hear the national anthem being played when we were warming up, that was special.”
It was among the most competitive women's race in years too, Karoline Bjerkeli Grovdal making it a senior double for Norway, boldly striking for home on the last lap and ending that wait for the gold medal. In the last five editions of these championships, Grovdal was on the podium each time, winning four bronze medals, then a silver two years ago in Lisbon. Maybe she knew Dublin would be the place to end that wait, having won the Under-20 back in 2009, when the championships were staged across the city in Santry.
By her own admission, National champion Michelle Finn was well off her best form in 46th, although she possibly went out a little hard, and on another day the Irish women might well have maintained that medal-winning tradition.
Also running commendably well was Sarah Healy, still just 20 and with two more years in the Under-23 ranks, who sat with the leaders for a long time before falling back on the last lap to finish fifth. The Irish team also finished fifth, that race won by Italy's Nadia Battocletti, a two-time former winner of the Under-20 race.