Fionnuala McCormack leads Irish Cross Country charge

Fionnuala McCormack will again lead Irish hopes at the European Cross Country Championships in Chia, Italy on December 11.

The two-time European champion was selected by Athletics Ireland yesterday as part of their 28-strong team and she looks to be coming into form for another podium finish. McCormack (Kilcoole) had a fine win on Sunday at the IAAF permit meeting in Alcobendas, Spain and she will be hoping to lead another strong women’s team which includes UCD’s European `1500m bronze medallist Ciara Mageean.

The 32-year-old ran comfortably on t Ethiopian Olympic steeplechase finalist Etenesh Diro’s shoulder for the first half of the race before breaking away. She maintained top gear to cruise to a 38-second victory, 200 metres ahead of the Ethiopian.

McCormack has produced fourth, sixth and fourth place finishes respectively at the European championships after her back-to-back victories in 2011 and 2012. She will be eager to return to the continental podium in the Italian city of Chia.

Asked post-race in Spain about how her pre-championships form compares with that of 2012, McCormack was cautious.

“That was long ago so I don’t remember now exactly, but I feel OK now and look forward to fighting in Chia.”

The Irish women’s team also includes European 3,000m steeplechase finalists Kerry O’Flaherty (Newcastle) and Michelle Finn (Leevale) who also competed at the Olympics in Rio. It is rounded out by An Riocht’s Shona Heaslip who won the Irish Life Health National Cross Country Championships on Sunday which incorporated the trial. They will be hoping to replicate last year’s bronze medals in Hyeres, France.

The team will, however, be missing key members from last year’s team in Lizzie Lee (Leevale) who has chosen not to focus on cross country this year and Caroline Crowley (Crusaders) who missed the national championships due to a hamstring injury. She has been named as a first reserve though.

The senior men’s team includes marathon specialists Mick Clohisey (Raheny Shamrock) and Paul Pollock (Annadale Striders) who both competed in Rio.

Mark Christie (Mullingar Harriers) rolled back the years to win the senior trial on Sunday and is no stranger to European competition. The Mullingar man finished fifth as a junior at the European cross in 2004 leading the team to silver medals.

Fellow Mullingar Harrier, Jack O’Leary, heads the junior entries and will be looking to build on his 23rd place finish from last year.

O’Leary returned from his US scholarship at Iona College to convincingly win the junior men’s race and was in ebullient mood afterwards.

“People questioned my decision to go to the States and change coaches before the Europeans but it’s paying off now,” said O’Leary post-race in Abbotstown. “I don’t want to talk too much but I feel I’m in a very good position to produce a good performance at the Europeans. We’ll see what happens.”

The main opportunity for medals in Italy will lie though with McCormack and the women’s team. A team medal will require two other top twenty finishing positions alongside McCormack who looks to be back to her very best form.

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