AFTER solid runs in both the Irish intercounty championships and at the Cross de l'Acier in France, Fionnuala Britton is one of the favourites for Sunday's 21st European Cross-Country Championships in Samokov, Bulgaria.
The course is located in the mountain resort of Borovets 10km south of Samokov and includes two significant climbs.
For Britton, the race has long been the focus of her winter training and even before her first of two senior victories in 2011, she took silver in the U23 race of 2006.
Like last year the biggest threat on Sunday comes in the shape of France's Sophie Duarte. Ten days ago, the pair battled it out at the Cross de l'Acier where Duarte just beat Britton for fourth place.
Britain's Gemma Steel, who beat both Britton and Duarte to win the Edinburgh Cross-Country last January, is another strong contender. She showed impressive form when winning the British trial and is backed up by a strong team that includes Steph Twell, Elish McColgan and Kate Avery. Britain, with four runners in the top 15, beat France for the team title last year.
Leading a strong Spanish team is Diana Martin, third in the steeplechase at the European Championships last August. Also entered is Norway's Karoline Bjerkeli Grovdal, who was fifth last year. Almensch Belete, the Ethiopian who runs in Belgian colours, is also entered, but has never made the breakthrough expected of her.
Anne Marie McGlynn of Letterkenny who finished 49th last year, will captain the Irish women's team. Also remaining from last year is Dunboyne's Sara Treacy.
In the men's race, Alemayehu Bezebah, the Ethiopian who runs for Spain, defends the title he won last year for a second time after returning from a doping suspension. Spain are favourites to retain the team title.
Paul Pollock again leads the Irish team and hopes to do better than last year, when he finished a disappointing 26th place and third of the Irish behind Michael Mulhare 15th snd David McCarthy 18th.
Included in the Irish team are Mark Hanrahan of Leevale and Raheny's Mick Clohisey, who pushed Pollock hard at the intercounties. Clohisey will captain the team.
Liam Brady of Tullamore and Raheny's Kevin Dooney led a promising men's U23 team, with Mary Mulhare and Maria O'Sullivan the most experienced members of the women's U23 squad.
Ennis Track Club's Kevin Mulcaire won the junior men's race at the intercounties in some style and competes at his second European Cross-Country.
Hope Saunders of Clonliffe makes her Euro Cross debut after a strong run at the intercounties.