Fionnuala Britton cut a frustrated figure when she finished fourth at the European Cross Country Championships in Belgrade yesterday, but vowed to bounce back from this disappointment.
Britton, who had won the last two titles, struggled from the outset and it was her nemesis, France’s Sophie Duarte, who claimed victory on the 8km course in 26:34.
“They went out hard,” commented Britton on the fast pace set by Norway’s Karoline Grovdal on a winding course which was firm and flat with one tight hairpin turn.
While Britton knew that Grovdal would not be able to sustain the pace, she never looked comfortable and ultimately failed to settle into her famed rhythm.
“I knew she was not going to keep that up,” said Britton of Grovdal. “There’s no point going into lactic [acid] in the first lap or two. I just never felt comfortable. I knew when Grovdal started to die and [Ana Dulce] Felix was there I needed to get after the others.”
The “others” included Great Britain’s Gemma Steele, who had a tremendous battle with Portugal’s Felix for silver — a battle that ultimately led to Britton ploughing a lonely furrow.
“Every time I thought I was gaining a bit, [but] because the other two [Steele and Felix] were battling each other I was never getting anywhere — so frustrating,” sighed Britton, who completed the course in 26:45.
Steele and Felix went at it right up the finishing straight in a frantic sprint to the line with the former having that extra resolve to edge the silver by two seconds in 26:39 to Felix’s 26:41. Great Britain dominated the team competition with a depleted Irish team finishing sixth.
Britton was pragmatic in defeat and admitted a medal would have provided some consolation even though, realistically, it was all about winning.
“I wasn’t going to be happy with a medal,” she said. “I wanted to win but a medal still would have been better than fourth. I felt like I was here to challenge for the win.
“I think you could just say they were better on the day. I was better the last two years, they were better this year. I’ll just have to come back and try again.”
This was Britton’s first real test since the World Cross Country Championships in March, having missed the summer through injury and a different racing schedule to previous years left one wondering had it been a mistake to alter the programme.
National endurance coach Chris Jones disagreed: “I don’t think the races would have made her any faster. The training wasn’t in a place where it needed to be. We’ve come into a very short window into this last block of work.”
While Britton may have been slightly disappointed with her performance, there was greater cause for concern for the championships as a whole with the amount of naturalised Africans now running for European countries. Globalisation is the evolution of society but it affects the continental championship with many athletes essentially purchased.
Ali Kaya of Turkey, formerly Kenya, dominated the men’s junior 6km race in 17:49 in which Clonmel’s Sean Tobin ran well for ninth in 18:18. Kaya was joined at the head of the race by Belgium’s Isaac Kimeli, again formerlyof Kenya. This trend followed in the women’s U23 and men’s senior races. Holland’s Sifan Hassan, hailing from Ethiopia, dominated the women’s U23 race to head Serbia’s home favourite Amela Terzic, who looked Sonia O’Sullivan-esque, over 6km in 19:40 to 19:46.
The senior men’s race was a replica of the junior men’s race, with Alemayehu Bezabeh of Spain and Polat Arikan of Turkey, essentially Ethiopia versus Kenya, separating from the field with ease over 10km.
Bezabeh, who beat Mo Farah in 2009 and was involved in a drugs case in 2010, cruised to victory in 29:11, with Arikan second in 29:32. Great Britain’s Andy Vernon pipped Belgium’s Jeroen D’Hoedt for bronze.
The Irish men matched their female counterparts with a solid sixth place finish with Michael Mulhare first home in 15th in a team that performed well.
Paul Robinson was Ireland’s other standout performer with a ninth place finish in the U23 men’s 8km race, won by Begium’s showboating Pieter-Jan Hannes.
But ultimately it was a day of what might have been for Ireland.
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