Sonia O’Sullivan: Road to 2020 in Abbotstown starts now

Every Irish athlete at this year's Cross Country in Tilburg should have a set goal in mind

Build it and they will run. It’s beginning to feel that way now with the Athletics Ireland purpose-built cross country course at the National Sports Campus at Abbotstown.

A permanent start and finish line, distance markers throughout the course, grass, mud and undulations, all set in a natural environment of trees and old stone walls. Deceptively tough too, especially when you get to run around in proper cross country race conditions.

This was the testing course for many Irish runners on Sunday at the National Championships, numbers up across all races from juvenile to junior to senior,  where placing was all important with the team selections up for grabs across six races for the European Cross Country Championships at Tilburg in the Netherlands on Sunday week (December 9th).

It’s building as a proper team event too, and that’s the thing about cross country, it’s one of the few areas in athletics where athletes get to combine their individual efforts and race as a team on the international stage.


To run for your country, and know that whatever placing you achieve it will contribute to the team score, always adds extra incentive. It also gives hope to a lot of athletes who may not yet be at the kind of level where they can run times fast enough to qualify for European, World and Olympic Games.

This is an achievable goal for many, but it’s also an opportunity to stake a claim for a place on the Irish team and deliver a result that justifies their selection.

Abbotstown is also the venue for the European Cross Country Championships in two years’ time. The event was staged in Ireland once before, in 2009, and even though it was a well-run and well-supported event on the day there were no medals to give the home fans something proper to cheer about.

The best finishing positions were Mark Kenneally, eighth in the senior men, and Ciara Mageean ninth in the junior women’s race.

With two years advance notice, now is the time to plan ahead and ensure that we have the best possible athletes ready to compete and chase medals for Ireland in 2020.

Every person on the team needs to go to the start line with a set goal in mind, a realistic target to aim for and be able to evaluate their performance

An Irish team of 39 athletes has been named for Tilburg, one of the biggest ever for Ireland at any European Cross Country Championships.

As we witnessed last summer at the European Championships in Berlin, bigger doesn’t always mean better. It does give more athletes the opportunity to experience a much higher level of competition than many will be used to, plus make a mark that they can then improve on in the coming years.

Home turf

A number of athletes selected have competed at these championships before, know the protocol, and have already made a mark on this stage. So they have a ready built-in target.

For others, this is all new. But every person on the team needs to go to the start line with a set goal in mind, a realistic target to aim for and be able to evaluate their performance after as both an individual and contribution to the team.

I would encourage every single athlete on the team to take a piece of paper and put some time aside to set themselves a realistic target, a best possible result, and then also an acceptable plan B, so that when the going gets tough, and there’s no doubt it will, that there’s a reason to keep fighting to the line.

Sometimes this secondary goal is more important to the team than the individual result, as this is when athletes can make a difference, just looking around to find someone to latch on to and help carry them to the finish line fighting for every single placing. That’s such a big part of cross country running.

This is also a big test for Athletics Ireland, a sort of line in the sand ahead of Dublin 2020, effectively the starting point from which to build over the coming two years.

In the greater scheme of things the European Cross may not rank so highly internationally, but there’s no doubt it will mean so much to have athletes achieve success on their home turf in 2020, in front of the home supporters, and just think of all the young athletes that will be inspired, and want to be a part of that success in the future.

It seems appropriate then that the Beekse Bergen Safari Park course in Tilburg has some sandy sections to traverse.

Once the competition is over this goes beyond that line in the sand for Ireland, and the foundation will need to be built on over the next two years to ensure we have the athletes and teams that can utilise home advantage and deliver success – and not just with one or two athletes but across the board, men and women, junior and senior.

Ireland have never won a medal in the junior women's race    . . . there's plenty of scope to change that statistic in Tilburg

There’s already been so much international success for Ireland throughout 2018, for women and men, and across so many different sports, medals won in athletics, boxing, rowing, swimming, gymnastics, and not forgetting the stunning success of the Irish men’s rugby team and the women’s hockey team.

The successes keeps rolling in, it’s hard to even fathom narrowing things down for a review of the year compilation.

It’s the age old thing: success breeds success, and that’s exactly what needs to happen at European Cross Country level. After Sunday week, that line is drawn, athletes can accept their position, then immediately start working towards 2020. There needs to be a squad of athletes who make their mark, working to keep their position on the team growing and improving all the time.

Deliver results

I was recently told about what happens in a rowing team, and when a rower gets a spot in the boat. They will do everything they can to hold on to that seat in the boat, and it’s no secret that something similar is happening with the Irish rugby team, players wanting to keep their place on the team.

It is time to encompass a similar mentality in cross country running. Athletes that get on the team should then fight to hold the spot. Over time this will mean getting fitter and faster and improving year upon year, while always maintaining that spot in the team, building on your experience each year and solidifying a team to work together and deliver results.

If you look at the Irish junior women’s team there are three athletes returning, Laura Nicholson, Jodie McCann and Stephanie Cotter, who ran in the same race last year.

Emma O’Brien ran in the race two years previously, that’s four experienced runners, with Sarah Healy and Sophie O’Sullivan making their junior debut, both still eligible when the championships come to Dublin 2020 in the junior women’s category.

Ireland have never won a medal in the junior women’s race, finishing fourth best team in 2008, and there’s plenty of scope to change that statistic in Tilburg and develop it over the next two years, while also inspiring the drive for success across the rest of the Irish team.