WITH the defence of her European crown now just a month away, Fionnuala Britton competes in her first big cross-country race of the season on Sunday -- the Cross Internacional de Atapuerca in Burgos, Spain.
The race is the first leg of this year's IAAF cross-country series and is traditionally used as an important form-finder by Europe's top mudlarks.
Britton's opponents will include Kenya's Linet Masai, Mercy Cherono and Priscah Jepleting and Ethiopians Belaynesh Oljira and Hiwot Ayalew, who were both fifth-placed finishers in their Olympic events last summer. Masai has been runner-up at the World Cross-Country Championships for the last three years and Jepleting is a former silver medallist at that level.
Britton has been the top European finisher in Burgos for the last two years, finishing sixth last year and fourth in 2010.
She romped home by over a minute in the first big domestic cross-country event of the season -- the Gerry Farnan -- after returning home from a three-week spell of altitude training in Font Romeu.
The European Cross-Country Championships take place in Budapest on December 9 and the inter-county championships (in Tattersalls, Ratoath on November 25) will act as trials.
Also in Burgos will be David McCarthy, who led Ireland to the U-23 title at the 2010 European Cross-Country Championships.
Ava Hutchinson, Sara McCormack, Michael Mulhare, Ed McGinley, and Clonmel schoolboy Sean Tobin are also Spain-bound.
New Irish cross-country manager Teresa McDaid, who is busy planning for the upcoming European Championships, has Irish marathon champion Paul Pollock and Joe Sweeney on board, while Maria McCambridge is assessing her recovery after winning the Dublin marathon.
McDaid is waiting on word back from Mary Cullen, Mark Kenneally and Andrew Ledwith, while the men's teams could be boosted by the inclusion of David Rooney and Brendan O'Neill and U-23s Shane Quinn and Jake Byrne.
Ciara Mageean, 1,500m silver medallist at 2011 World Junior Championships, has had to rule herself out of the entire 2012 cross-country season as she recovers from injuries shipped this year.
Elsewhere, interest in Athletics Ireland's Remembrance Run (5km) in the Phoenix Park on Sunday (11.0) has already exceeded expectations.