Thursday 14 December 2017

Athletics: Golden girl Fionnuala Britton makes history

Cliona Foley

Cliona Foley

NEVER look back! That is the golden rule of athletics, because to do so, especially in a sprint finish, gives your pursuers a whiff that you are weakening mentally, if not physically.

But Fionnuala Britton never faltered or doubted, not even for a split-second, when she made history 20km north of Budapest yesterday.

Never once, in a heart-stopping finish, did she look behind her, to the point that she didn't even know who was chasing her down in those frantic last 200 metres.

Only when she had crossed the line, to become the first woman to ever retain the European cross-country title in its 19-year history, did the Kilcoole woman turn and see who had forced her to explore the depths of her reserve.

All around her, people were screeching "she's behind you" like a hysterical pantomime crowd, after Portugal's Ana Dulce Felix, who had earlier dropped to sixth, made an extraordinary comeback to chase Britton down with the finish line in sight.

Felix also finished second in Slovenia a year ago, but back then Britton had been able to ease off the throttle on the run-in and still win by seven seconds.

This victory, in a classic cross-country test of endurance and bottle on a treacherous landscape of frozen snow, was something else entirely.


Britton came home in 27:45, two seconds clear of Felix, with Holland's Adrienne Herzog a further second adrift, but, as usual, cold statistics don't tell the full story.

For a start, Britton was the defending champion. The ability to retain your title, when there is a target on your back, is the barometer of sporting greatness and she never once shied from that challenge, front-running from gun to tape to demonstrate her true grit.

And the drama of the climax, coupled with the superior quality of the field and the testing sub-zero conditions, meant her second European title was even more special than the first.

"When you like cross-country, you're used to these conditions. They weren't so bad," she insisted.

"But it's definitely more exciting because of the team (gold) and also, the last 100m were definitely more exciting, even for me!

"At the end I could hear the cheering getting more and more frantic, I could hear people shouting 'she's coming, she's coming!'

"I didn't know who it was, I just knew someone was coming," she revealed. "The whole race was completely different to last year's because I never felt I was out on my own at any time.

"I could see, from the shadows, that I was never safe for a medal because there were always three people there at all times."

In the end, like all hunted animals, Britton stayed ahead of the chasing pack on pure fear, with nothing left in the tank but her own resolve.

She may only be a 5'2" slip of a thing, and look a lot younger than her 28 years, but Britton summoned all of her experience and courage to produce the race of her life – one that unequivocally now ranks her alongside Irish cross-country legends like John Treacy and Catherina McKiernan.

"It was downhill to the finish, I knew she was really close but there's nothing you can do then but just run as hard as you can. I knew I had to get over the top of that hill in first place," she explained.

"The juniors and U-23s had said that the finish would come quicker than you thought after you got over that log, but it certainly didn't feel like that to me."

In the midst of the baying crowd was her coach, Chris Jones, shouting instructions at pivotal points.

"I'd told her, 'you won't see the gaps on this surface so you've just got to be relentless in your belief', and she was," said an emotional Jones. "She never faltered, she was just amazing.

"I got to her on the corner of the third lap and said, 'this is it, this is it.' On the last lap they were all tired and Felix was already looking back and when she looked back I knew!" he grinned.

The track speed that Britton has built up over the past year – running personal bests at 3,000m, 5,000m and 10,000m and competing at the London Olympics – really showed here.

With just over three kilometres to go, it looked set to be a two-woman tussle between herself and Belgium's relatively unknown Almensch Belete but, by the bell, Britton had burnt off the Ethiopian-born 'wild card' and it was Felix and Herzog who had caught up with her.

Helping Ireland to win their historic team gold truly capped off a dream day.

"It's perfect really," she enthused. "When I crossed the line I couldn't believe I'd done it myself and then, when I looked up on the screen and we were two points clear, I couldn't believe it! I don't think it's all really sunk in yet.

She insisted that her 2011 crown had not weighed heavily on her.

"A year is a long time and we've all probably raced against one another since and, in a way, it's come around so fast.

"You can't be afraid of anyone and last year did give me a lot of confidence going into the track season," Britton said.

"We've been talking about a team medal since September, but we didn't really believe we could get gold, so that's made it an even more special day."

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