Shona Heaslip breezes past Olympians to win cross-country title

Shock win in 8km race earns runner a place on senior European Championships team

It takes considerable strength and character to win an Irish senior cross-country title, and out of nowhere, it seemed, Shona Heaslip found exactly that, even more so than the two Olympians she was up against. Over the now-permanent cross-country course at the National Sports Campus in Abbotstown, Co Dublin, Heaslip found herself chasing Ciara Mageean and Kerry O'Flaherty as the eight-kilometre race came to its climax, only to suddenly breeze past them both for the utterly unexpected victory.

Aged 22, her priority was in fact the under-23 title, but instead the Kerry woman has gained an automatic qualification spot on the Irish senior team for next month’s European Championships in Chia, Italy. The team will be lead by Fionnuala McCormack, who at around the same time was winning the IAAF International in Madrid and now looks intent on winning gold in Chia.

For both Mageean and O’Flaherty, the Europeans also await, and while clearly not content with finishing third, Mageean also saw some positives. She’s returned to cross-country to build on her track season, which saw her run the 1,500 metres at the Rio Olympics and win bronze at the European Championships in Amsterdam.

“Obviously I enter a race to try to win,” said Mageean, “so I’m a little disappointed. At the same time, these are seasoned cross-country runners and this is really my first proper senior cross-country. So to come away with a medal is okay, and it also fulfils my main aim of being over in Italy next month for the European cross-country, with another Irish vest.


“I know I need to build some strength to stand a full indoor season and a full outdoor season. And I’m training all winter anyway, and I don’t train to train, I train to race. But the two girls first and second ran a great race, and that’s what it’s all about, the heat of battle, and I enjoy that. Don’t get me wrong: I’m walking away a little disappointed, but that makes me stronger for the next time, rather than walking away content with third.”

O’Flaherty (35), who ran the 3,000 metres steeplechase in Rio, edged past Mageean just before the finish to claim second place, although by then Heaslip was home and dry, her winning time of 28:13 giving her plenty of breathing space.

“I know, it’s kind of crazy,” said Heaslip, who runs with An Ríocht AC in Tralee. “At one point I was running beside Ciara, thinking ‘I shouldn’t be here, she was on TV during the summer’, but I felt good, knew I was in good shape, and I knew if I could catch them on the last hill I had a chance, not leave it until the last straight, because they have the faster finish.”

Coached by Niamh O’Sullivan, a veteran of the Kerry running scene, Heaslip did win the Celtic Games cross-country last year in Edinburgh, but still no one expected her to claim outright victory.

Victory 10 years on

The men's senior race was less about the future of Irish cross-country and more about revisiting its past, as Mark Christie claimed the title he won for the first and, until now, last time 10 years ago – and, at 31, he clearly appreciates it even more now.

The Mullingar athlete – who works in Dublin and, like Mageean, is coached by Jerry Kiernan – also left two Rio Olympic marathon runners in his wake, with Mick Clohisey taking second place and Paul Pollock having to be content with fifth.

There was no denying Christie, who put himself at the front from the start, then edged clear over the final kilometre of the 10-kilometre course.

“I did fall out of love with cross-country running for a while, tried to focus on the track,” he said. “Like trying to qualify for Rio on the track, over 5,000 metres, I needed to run sub 13:20. And I put huge pressure on myself, and was gutted when it didn’t happen.

“This year, I wanted to get back to that cross-country, and it means so much more, 10 years on, because maybe you don’t appreciate it when you’re younger. This one is definitely special.”

The junior titles went to Jack O'Leary, also from Mullingar, who is briefly home from a US scholarship in Iona College, and Sophie Murphy, from Dundrum, Dublin.

Raheny Shamrock won the senior men’s team title for the first time in the club’s history.

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

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