Team gold caps an epic day as Britton defends her title in emphatic fashion


EUROPEAN CROSS COUNTRY CHAMPIONSHIP:After 4km it was hats off. After 6km it was gloves off too, at least for some of them. After that it was every woman left fighting for herself, the only thing to decide it in the end being who really was tougher than the rest.

By then, our throats were hoarse and hands numbed beyond belief, but if Fionnuala Britton was to win this race from the front, in sub-zero temperatures, do it the damn hard way, do what no woman had ever done before, it was going to come down to every last breath, not just her own.

“Sure I could hear the panic in your voices,” Britton told us afterwards, conscious, obviously, of the roars of encouragement coming from every corner of the icy course out around Szentendre.

“And that did get me worried. Everyone was shouting, ‘she’s coming! She’s coming!’ And all I could think was, ‘well I can’t do anything else about it . . .’ I didn’t even know who was coming.

“I could hear my coach Chris Jones shouting at me too, on every lap, telling me ‘gotta go, gotta go’. I heard a lot of people shouting. And it did all help, in different ways. I could never really see what was going on behind. But coming to the finish there was really nothing left, I was just going as fast as I could. There’s nothing you can do. I just needed to get over the top of the last hill, first. But I never felt safe, and part of me was thinking they were just lining up to fly by me on the last downhill.”

Two years ago, in Albufeira, they did fly by her, including Portugal’s Ana Dulce Felix, and Britton ended up fourth: this time, a faster, stronger, more robust athlete was in no mood for such a late surrender, the speed at which she finished truly astonishing for a runner not renowned for her so-called kick.

Tougher course

“Well, I think for anyone watching those last 100 metres it was more exciting than last year. And even for me it was, too. I suppose it was a tougher course here too, and there were more of us involved this time. For a good while last year, I was away, always felt safe for a medal, but I never felt safe here.

“I didn’t want to leave it that late, but everyone was still there. I didn’t really want to put myself out there so early on either. But winning last year definitely gave the confidence I needed, here, but so too did the track season, and the improvements I made there. But there’s never any margin for error when you’re trying to win.”

Ireland has enjoyed happy days like this, going back to Catherina McKiernan’s win in the inaugural European Cross Country, in 1994, yet the prize that followed – a first ever women’s team gold – took it to a whole new level.

“It’s something we talked about since September,” added Britton, “and half of us were there in Dublin, in 2009, when it just didn’t work out for us. Although I don’t think we really believed we could win the team gold as well.”

Truth is even team manager Teresa McDaid never predicted gold, yet deserves credit for the keeping the team focused after the resignation of Ann Keenan-Buckley two months ago; still, all six Irish women gave credit to Keenan-Buckley too, for first planting the seed for this victory.

Bitter wind

With a bitter wind, it was in every sense a day for the pure cross specialist: in finishing eighth Linda Byrne ran her best since finishing fourth as a junior, back in 2005, and for Ava Hutchinson, her team-mate in the London Olympic marathon this summer, finishing in 20th place was her best finish ever.

Lee is only a recent convert, having previously focused on road and triathlon, but as it turned out her 23rd place, having nailed the Spanish runner Lidia Rodriquez right on the line, was ultimately the difference between silver and gold.

“To be honest, we were thinking third, maybe second,” said Byrne, her top-10 finish well ahead of even her own expectations. “So to win gold is incredible. Everyone stepped up, worked off each other. And I think maybe the conditions suited us, not much worse than we’d normally run it . . . But it’s one my best runs ever, yes, to win a team medal . . .”

For Britton to become the first woman to successfully defend a European Cross Country title in the 18 years it’s been staged, the way she did it, will be hard to top. Three-in-a-row? “Well, if next year comes around as fast as this one did, we’ll see,” she said.

Breandan O’Neill ran strongly to take 22nd in the senior men’s race, won very impressively by the Italian Andrea Lalli, although Joe Sweeney couldn’t come close to his fifth place finish of last year, finishing in 27th.

“To see the women team win gold, after what we did in 2010 (at under-23), I think the country is stepping up,” said O’Neill. “Hopefully the senior men can step up next year, too.”

Roll on 2013, indeed.

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