Cold and muddy conditions will greet the Irish athletes when they arrive to the Bulgarian mountain resort of Borovets this evening for the 21st European Cross-Country Championships.
Samokov is the official host city but it is in Borovets at an altitude of 1,350m that Fionnuala Britton will look to add her third European cross-country title.
Twenty years ago, on the December 10, Catherina McKiernan won the inaugural European Cross-Country Championships, held at Alnwick in England. Only 4.5km in distance, McKiernan triumphed in the final 50m to fend off Spain’s Julia Vaquero.
“It was one of the hardest races I ever did,” recalled McKiernan. “It was early December so I wouldn’t have been that sharp. I’d been second three times in the World Cross-Country Championships (1992, 1993 and 1994) so I felt I should be able to win the Europeans. It was the first European Championships so I wanted to win it and I put a bit of pressure on myself.”
Britton will be peaking for the 7,913m race on Sunday and will carry the hopes of the Irish team in an event where she already has two fourth place finishes.
To get back on the podium, Britton will have to overcome the likes of last year’s defending champion Sophie Duarté of France, along with British duo Gemma Steel and Kate Avery.
Another new contender will be Meraf Bahta of Sweden, who won the 5,000m at the European Track and Field Championships in Zurich.
Some teams have arrived early to adapt to the altitude but the mud will be more of a factor than the lack of oxygen in the air. “It’s a tough course and very muddy,” said Mikke Ekvall of Sweden who will run in the senior men’s race and tested the course yesterday.
Testing conditions should suit Britton and she has proven herself on various terrains and temperatures. At the 2007 World Cross-Country Championships in Mombasa in Kenya, the Wicklow woman finished an excellent 14th in sweltering conditions, while in 2012 she won her first European title in Budapest in cold and icy conditions.
The Kilcoole athlete has gone through a relatively sticky patch for the past 12 months but a podium position on Sunday will give her a boost into the new year as she builds towards a fast marathon.
When McKiernan won the inaugural Euros 20 years ago, it was a sense of relief as she crossed the line.
“It was a relief really,” admitted McKiernan. “The pressure I put on myself and the expectations of others and to be able to deliver the goods gave me a good sense of relief.”
A podium finish for Britton on Sunday will provide much relief after a frustrating fourth place finish in Belgrade last year.
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