The Irish women’s European Cross-Country winning team will be amongst the medal favourites in the 40th edition of the IAAF World Cross-Country Championships in snow-swept Bydgoszcz, Poland tomorrow.
With Fionnuala Britton merging the gap to world-class level by the month, as evidenced by her fine European indoor bronze medal over 3,000m in Gothenburg, Ireland have a clear leader to spearhead their challenge over the 8,000m course. Her coach, Chris Jones, has told her to treat it like a 5,000m race and believes “she shouldn’t have a problem with the fast start and I don’t expect her to be detached in the first 5k.”
A top ten placing is in the offing for Britton on a tough snow covererd course that includes a steep 100m hill.
With the absence of Ethiopia’s Tirunesh Dibaba and Kenya’s defending champion Vivian Cheruiyot from the women’s start list, there is no clear favourite for the race. The team competition will be a straight battle between Ethiopia and Kenya for gold, with a number of countries, including Ireland, potentially in contention to win bronze. Uganda and Bahrain, with a number of East African imports, have very strong teams while USA, Japan, Spain and France will also be in contention.
Linda Byrne isn’t surprised by the expectation surrounding the Irish challenge.
“I don’t want to put pressure on myself or my team mates,” said Byrne of the team that includes Britton (Kilcoole), Mary Cullen (North Sligo), Ava Hutchinson (DSD) and Lizzie Lee (Leevale). “I think we all know where we would like to finish but it’s not really smart to pile unnecessary pressure on ourselves before we begin.
“Personally, I need to have my best performance ever at the World Cross-Country and I know I am in shape to do that. I was 57th (her best placing to date) in 2008 and would be hopeful of the 30s. That would be fantastic.”
Now in the best shape of her life, the DSD athlete was “fed up” with running a few years ago but since turning to the roads has transformed her career with an Olympic appearance in the marathon in London that has spring-boarded her on to a new level of performance.
“I was just fed up with it,” said Byrne of her running after graduating from DCU with a Sports Science degree in 2008. “I think all athletes go through that at some stage. But my transition to road racing gave me a new lease of life and I enjoy racing on the roads these days.”
Byrne was a talented underage athlete and finished fourth in the junior women’s race at the European Cross-Country Championships in Tilburg, Holland in 2005.
Despite her success on the roads she believes that her best performances have come on the natural terrain.
“I think the marathon really suited me and showed me I can make a name for myself on a world stage.
“But I think it has been my performances over the country that have really been my best,” alluding to her pivotal eighth place finish that contributed to the surprise team gold in December.
“I hadn’t really raced cross-country properly in a few years and then all of a sudden I remembered that ‘this is where I made my name as a junior.’ “I think the Euro Cross was a perfect race for me, the way I ran it, and that gave me so much confidence.
“Eighth in the European Cross Country was a position I am very proud of. Also, my dream of competing in the Olympics gave me a huge boost and left me wanting more.
Such dreams have always been nurtured by a family she describes as “unbelievably supportive” and credits them for much of her success between cheering, washing and even pace-making.
“My dad (Liam) is like a child when it comes to my running – he can’t get enough of it,” said the 26-year-old, who lives in her family home in Rathfarnham, Dublin.
“He makes sure I’m on top of things and comes to all the races. My mam (Beatrice) comes to all the races too and only for her I would be starving with no clean clothes to run in! “My brother Brian used to be even better than I was when he was young and he still supports me so much and he was so proud when I became an Olympian. And then my boyfriend, Kevin Lawler, does all my running with me in terms of training and even a lot of the races. So it all works out really well.”
Your guide: world cross country championships
The senior women’s 8,000m race gets underway at 12.15pm with coverage on RTÉ Two and BBC2 from 12pm and 12.15pm on Eurosport.
Ireland are one of only five countries to have sent athletes to every World Cross Country Championships, with the event now in its 40th running.
Kenya and Ethiopia
Far and away the most successful countries in the history of the world championships, winning 119 of the 158 available team titles. The two countries have met 120 times where both have fielded full teams, with Kenya beating Ethiopia 78-42
Ethiopia’s Imane Merga is the slight favourite in the men’s 12,000m race as defending champion while the women’s race is equally open with Hiwot Ayalew (Ethiopia) and Margaret Muriuki (Kenya) the leading contenders.
There is a total of $280,000 (€215,000) of prize money on offer. Sean Callan, Harry Gorman, Brendan Ahearne and Charlie Cruise are among the number of select aficionados who travel around the world to support the Irish.
The Wicklow woman will be looking to make the top 10 and with conditions much like Budapest, a top five place could be attainable.
Is the average medal-winning score at the last few championships — a total that Ireland’s women are capable of, if they perform at their best.
Fionnuala Britton and Ireland to finish sixth.
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