Guts and talent, but mostly guts.
Those were the overriding factors that carried Fionnuala Britton to a second successive European Cross-County title, the first ever female athlete to achieve such a feat. And given that previous winners include the likes of Paula Radcliffe, Hayley Yelling and our own Catherina McKiernan, Britton’s achievement on the snow white Budapest terrain is all the more impressive.
The DCU graduate has been in excellent form over the past few months and confirmed this with a confident front-running performance to take gold just two seconds clear of Portugal’s Ana Dulce Felix.
To crown her individual exploits, Britton also led home the Irish sextet to team gold, edging out France on count back as both teams finished with 52 points. Linda Byrne, another DCU protégé, was pivotal to this result, delivering a superb performance to come home in eighth place- Ireland’s second highest finisher.
Sunday’s starting line-up was unquestionably stronger than in Slovenia last year, with much of the pre-race talk centring on the intriguing dust up involving Britton, Felix – silver medallist 12 months ago – and Ethiopian born Almensch Belete, now running in the colours of Belgium.
Though Felix was a constant in the leading group over the eight kilometres, the big danger would come from Belete, who stayed on the shoulder of Britton until the final lap.
Given that Britton doesn’t possess the most potent sprint finish, if the 28-year-old was going to successfully defend her title, she was going to have to make her charge from early in the race. The Kilcoole native, just as she did in Slovenia, would have to really suffer, really punish her closest challengers.
It’s exactly the race tactics Britton adopted, hitting the front as early as the second lap, cutting out a merciless pace.
Approaching the half-way mark, the lead bunch had been whittled down to eight with Britton and Felix dicing for pole position. Two kilometres out, it was clear Ireland would be celebrating a medal even if its colour remained in doubt. Belete, ever threatening, chomped at the heels of Britton, but couldn’t summon the power to complete the overtaking movement.
As the bell sounded for the final lap, the Irish woman really started to turn the screw, blitzing her rivals to give Irish athletics a much needed boost after what has been a pretty tumultuous 12 months.
Thoughts have already turned to a possible three-in-a-row, by no means a pipe dream for Europe’s Cross-County Queen.