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Athletics: Gold run goes according to plan

Fionnuala Britton is undeniably shy. She doesn't like doing interviews, they're not her thing. In the run-up to the European Cross-Country Championships she avoided all media attention despite being Ireland's best medal hope.

But she is part of an exclusive cross-country club now, the gold medal club, along with Sonia O'Sullivan, John Treacy and Catherina McKiernan, so the Wicklow native knows she has to give a little bit of herself.

And so we agree to meet in DCU where she lives and trains to relive last Sunday's race with her long-time advisor, Enda Fitzpatrick, director of the university's athletics academy. Chris Jones is Britton's coach and has been for over a year but Fitzpatrick has been involved with her training for almost a decade. He knows her inside out.

When we meet, she is dressed in a Santa suit after taking part in a charity Santa dash. The baggy, oversized suit disguises just how slight her frame is.

Britton rarely sees her races as they get little TV coverage, so watching it now is a novelty. She giggles nervously when she first spots herself at the starting line, almost embarrassed to be watching. From the outset she looks calm but determined and why wouldn't she? Britton had a plan.

Exactly a year ago, in the same race, she was pipped for a bronze medal in Albufeira. It was a devastating loss especially because her arch rival Binnaz Uslu, who beat her into second place in the European under 23s, had come back from a drugs ban to take the silver medal. Right there and then in Albufeira, Britton had decided that she was never going to let that happen again. In fact, she decided that when the championships came around a year later in Slovenia, she was going to win gold.

In the months that followed Britton became a force to be reckoned with. She worked well with Jones, a trust built up between them and the training suited her. She got a little bit stronger, her nutrition improved and along with everything her confidence grew. Slowly but surely her hard work started to translate into better times.

"I knew Fionnuala was different this year," says Fitzpatrick. "A few times when she had no one to train with I went up to the track on the bike and did the session with her. Her form was just exceptional. I felt that no matter what race she ran she could have finished with a personal best.

"Then I saw her in the Gerry Farnham in the Phoenix Park and I was blown away. I thought there was no way she could maintain the pace she'd started with and she did and probably could have kept going for longer. After that I just knew she was going to win gold at the European Cross-Country Championships. She was a different animal."

In the lead up to the race, Britton had rated her competitors. She knew who was a threat and planned her run accordingly. In her mind she had covered every possible scenario so no matter what happened she would be prepared to deal with it. She didn't want a repeat of last year and this drove her forward. Getting ahead early and burning off the others one by one was the plan.

There was no clear favourite going into last Sunday's race, no previous champion involved so the main contenders were keeping an eye on each other at the line.

When the gun went off and the pack took off down the hill, Britton was surprised by the pace. She didn't want to go too hard too fast, Enda had warned her not to be at the front at the very start. Often athletes get over-excited over the first 200 metres, get themselves into oxygen debt and then panic.

Britton was wary of this so she had a plan in place for the first 700m and that entailed keeping calm and monitoring her main rivals. Once she could see the girls she'd identified before the race then she was happy. It was Uslu, though, who she was watching most closely. There was so much history between them that in the run-up to the race she couldn't keep the Turk out of her mind. Ironically, the pair had ended up sharing a room a few weeks previously in France at a meet. Even though Britton went on to beat her by 32 seconds in that race after what happened last year in Albufeira, she refused to rule Uslu out as a serious contender.

After half a kilometre the field split and most of the favourites were at the front. Britton didn't know that a gap had formed so early. She thought all the runners were together. But she knew she was where she wanted to be and her plan was to stay there. She cruised on and 1km later was out in front. She hadn't meant to take the lead so early but, as it turned out, it was just an easier place to be. There was a lot of cutting across so it was safer at the front. She could pick her path and the others had to follow.

For the next few hundred metres, Britton drifted in and out of the lead but never lost sight of her plan.

Britton never looked back. In her mind, this would have shown weakness so she relied on others to keep her informed. She sees the same faces every year. She has markers on the course she aims for, her dad is always one, and he gives her the lie of the land as she passes. Last week another one was the announcer at the start line; he was an informant for her, telling her where everyone was. Another one last week was renowned coach, Brother John Dooley; he was hanging over the hoarding with an Irish flag encouraging her every time she passed.

After 2km she was leading a pack of three at the front with Italy's Nadia Ejjafini and Portugal's Ana Dulce Felix. Uzlu was beginning to drop off and Gemma Steel from Britain was chasing the pack.

A couple of kilometres later, it was just Britton and Ejjafini, with the Italian runner tucked in behind her, clipping her heels. It is annoying but Britton doesn't react, even though she can't understand why Ejjafini is so close when there is no wind, no need to shelter. Before the race Chris Jones had warned that Ejjafini was one to watch.

Looking back, she couldn't fathom why the Italian didn't do any of the work. They could have taken half a lap each and pulled further away from the field but Ejjafini was having none of it.

Not long after Britton and Ejjafini broke away, Steel started to attack. Britton admits she started to get a bit worried, she could hear the British supporters getting excited. She knew Steel had to be running well because she had made up ground. But Britton kept cool, she ran past Brother Dooley again and he spurred her on into the last lap. Then her sister Una appeared at the side of the track and gave her the push she needed to go all the way. "I saw Una as I started the last lap. She told me that I wanted it more than the others and she was right. I just thought, it's only a mile, in training I've done this millions of time. I knew then I was capable of it."

So Britton ploughed on, the memory of last year driving her. With 500m left she was still worried. She didn't feel safe until the last 150m when she heard the announcer say they had a winner. It was only then that she allowed herself to smile, to believe her dreams had come true. When she crossed the line she barely looked like she'd exerted herself. She hugged her team manager, Anne Keenan-Buckley, and then walked around in disbelief until the stewards allowed her to go down to her parents. And when she saw them reality set in. After years of hard work she was European Cross-Country champion.

So close to the Olympics, though, there is barely time to savour the achievement. So what now for Britton? She's already run the qualifying time for the steeplechase; she is only one second off the 5,000m time and also has designs on the 10,000m. In truth, she's not sure exactly what her plans are yet. She is going to let Chris Jones make them because they've worked perfectly so far.

Sunday Indo Sport