Sonia O’Sullivan: Ireland’s best will be going for glory at Abbotstown

European Cross-Country Championships is a chance for our athletes to shine

Róisín Flanagan, Michelle Finn and Sarah Healy during the Irish Life Health National Cross-Country championships at Santry Demesne in Dublin on Sunday.  Photograph: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Róisín Flanagan, Michelle Finn and Sarah Healy during the Irish Life Health National Cross-Country championships at Santry Demesne in Dublin on Sunday. Photograph: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

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A cool, crisp and sunny day – you couldn’t ask for better conditions for a cross-country race, and that’s exactly how it was at Santry Demesne last Sunday for the National Inter-Club Championships.

The event also doubled up as the selection trials for the upcoming European Cross-Country Championships, set for December 12th, and about 16km west, away from the city, at the Sport Ireland purpose-built cross-country course in Abbotstown.

The best thing about last Sunday was the number of athletes that came and ran, and the number of spectators that came and cheered from the sidelines. It made for some real competitiveness across the four selection races that helped pick 40 athletes across the races – senior, under-23 and under-20, men and women, and the 4 x 1,500 mixed relay – seven strong traditional cross-country teams in all.

There are so many athletes of interest across the board for Irish fans that make the trek to Abbotstown in just over two weeks’ time

On paper it may be one of the best teams we could hope for, plus that novelty of the 4 x 1,500m mixed relay event that opens the cross-country door to athletes more suited to shorter distance: Ciara Mageean, Síofra Cléirigh Büttner, Andrew Coscoran and Luke McCann.

This team includes the best Irish athletes over the middle distances from the 2021 season just gone by and could really only be strengthened by the addition of Sarah Healy, who has instead chosen to compete at the under-23 level, which is a bit of an anomaly of an event, when you consider Healy finished second overall on Sunday - the big difference being that the under-23 event is run off 6,000m as opposed to 8,000m for the senior women.

Healy is ranked in top three European under-23 over 1,500m, one mile and 3,000m from this past season so her best chance of a medal comes in the under-23 event where, if she gave up that opportunity, she would be dependent on her relay teammates and it’s never been a clear-cut event. The 4 x 1,500m relay event can get messy with athletes running at speed around tight corners and soft ground.

That’s the thing with cross-country: you can never quite predict what the conditions will be like a few weeks later, especially at this time of year. The firm, fast-running grounds experienced at Santry last weekend could all turn to mush at Abbotstown. Then it becomes a totally different, unpredictable event favouring the strength and endurance runners over the more track-favoured athletes looking for an outlet during their winter base training phase.

Unlucky

Healy was unlucky three years ago in Tilburg when, as a European youth champion over 3,000m and 1,500m and junior 3,000m silver medallist, she slipped and fell and finished up in ninth place when she was highly favoured to win a medal. Individual redemption in the under-23 would add to her progress from junior to senior ranks that saw her run over 1,500m at the Tokyo Olympics this summer.

There are so many athletes of interest across the board for Irish fans that make the trek to Abbotstown in just over two weeks’ time – no less than Nick Griggs, the current European junior 3,000m champion, still just 16 years old, who handily won the junior men’s race in Santry.

The women’s senior race will be boosted by the selection of Fionnuala McCormack, who plans to return just one week after the Valencia marathon which she is down to race on December 5th.

Hiko Tonosa celebrates winning the senior men’s event during the Irish Life Health National Cross- Country Championships at Santry Demense in Dublin on Sunday. Photograph: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Hiko Tonosa celebrates winning the senior men’s event during the Irish Life Health National Cross- Country Championships at Santry Demense in Dublin on Sunday. Photograph: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

There was time when athletes took weeks and months to recover from running marathons but now, with the new-age shoes that boost recovery after such long efforts and smarter training, preparation and recovery methods, it’s not impossible for McCormack to return just one week later and help the Irish women get up on the podium once more where they have been on five previous occasions: winning gold in 2012, silver in 2003 and 2019, and bronze in 2014 and 2015. McCormack has been a scoring member on four of these teams.

The women’s team is comprised of four Tokyo Olympians in Michelle Finn, Aoife Cooke, Eilish Flanagan and McCormack, and is the strongest we could hope for, with the addition of Aoibhe Richardson who finished fourth last Sunday and Róisín Flanagan, sister of Eilish, both members of the under-23 silver medal team when the European Cross-Country was last held in 2019 in Turin.

Impressive runs

The senior men’s team will be led by national champion Hiko Tonosa and backed up by the selection of Cormac Dalton and Brian Fay who both turned in impressive runs at the recent NCAA Championships, which also took place last weekend in Florida.

Ryan Forsyth will also return having finished fourth at under-23 level in 2018 alongside Paul O’Donnell and Emmet Jennings who all finished within six seconds of each other in Santry last weekend.

Darragh McElhinney picked up the silver medal in the senior event last weekend but, similar to Sarah Healy, will opt for the under-23 event over 8,000m where the European junior 5,000m bronze medallist will have his greatest chance of getting close to the podium.

To me this looks like one of the overall strongest representations that we can have across all the races. If you build it, they will come may be the mantra for the national purpose-built cross-country course at Sports Campus Ireland.

This is the attraction of a home championship, the first here since 2009, when there were high hopes but no reward for all the effort put in.

This event was postponed last year and for athletes and coaches working quietly to get things done and ready for battle on December 12th, this just may be the best opportunity for Ireland to deliver its best results on the European stage, on home turf or away.

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