McCormack finds a silver lining in bronze for Ireland
After a performance filled with patience, persistence and sheer dogged determination, the Irish senior women's team were left with a sweet sense of déjà vu when they won bronze medals at the European Cross Country Championships in Hyères, France yesterday.
As always, it was Fionnuala McCormack, their leader, who best embodied those traits, the two-time former champion running a coy and typically courageous race to finish fourth.
And inevitably, McCormack was left nursing some regrets about her run, but her frustration gave way to pride at having led her team to bronze medals for the second successive year.
Great Britain took victory in convincing fashion, placing three athletes in the top 10 and racking up a tally of just 33 points, well clear of silver medallists France on 78. Ireland, with Lizzie Lee finishing 13th, Caroline Crowley 23rd and Ciara Durkan 43rd, finished on 83 points, 12 ahead of Spain.
"Fourth as an individual is obviously disappointing, but when you have a team behind you come home with a bronze medal, you can't complain," said McCormack. "It was all about the team today."
That was exactly the sentiment McCormack expressed often on the build-up to yesterday's event, that having spent much of the autumn preparing for the Chicago Marathon, her individual aspirations would be kept in check.
At the same time, no one returns to a domain they've conquered twice before and accepts the role of bit-part player, and when the field set out on the last of six laps yesterday, it became clear McCormack was on the hunt for a podium finish.
At that point, she was in sixth, having run a conservative opening half, sitting deep in the chasing pack as Sifan Hassan of the Netherlands blasted her way around the course at the front.
Lizzie Lee, meanwhile, was adopting a very different approach to McCormack, getting out hard, running in the top 10 on the first lap, and holding on for dear life thereafter. "I'm a marathon runner so the plan was to use my strength," she said. "The girls were planning to come through the field, but I've never come through a race in my life, so I went out really hard and got into a groove."
Others, like Caroline Crowley - who was making her international debut -followed McCormack's approach, preferring to be in the position of hunter and knife through the field over the last three laps.
That's exactly what McCormack did over the final kilometre as several of her rivals, who had gambled and chased the early move of Hassan, began to pay the price. "I knew we had gone off very hard and people were going to come back," she said.
In the end, Hassan held on to win in 25:47 ahead of Britain's Kave Avery (25:55). Back in third, Norway's Karoline Bjerkeli Grovdal took several desperate glances behind her down the home straight, where she caught sight of McCormack's charging finish. But the line came in time for her and Grovdal took bronze in 25:57.
Just three seconds later, McCormack crossed the line, finishing fourth for the third time in this event. "I'm just sick of it," she admitted afterwards.
However, it was indicative of her mission in Hyères that, unlike her competitors, McCormack immediately stopped once she crossed the line and turned to await her team-mates' arrival.
With a decent Irish contingent dotted around the course, her team-mates were being made aware of where they stood in the medal hunt. "We knew we were in a medal position," said Lee, who entered the home straight among a group of nine athletes, seven of whom she held off to finish 13th in 26:41. "I've never sprinted that fast in my entire life. It was thrilling to turn around then and see a debutante had scored for Ireland."
Before Lee could catch her breath, she would catch sight of that debutante, Caroline Crowley, motoring up the home straight to finish 23rd.
In cross country, though, the fourth scorer is usually the make-or-break performance, and only when Ciara Durkan crossed the line in 43rd did the Irish team realise they had done enough for bronze. "Everybody kept shouting at me that we need one more [scorer]," said Durkan. "I knew I couldn't let them down so I caught two more people at the end. I'm really, really happy."
There was to be no successful encore for in the senior men's race, with the Irish team finishing 11th and last on 181 points. In a race dominated by athletes of East African origin - won with embarrassing ease by Turkey's Ali Kaya - Mick Clohisey led the Irish home in 37th place ahead of Paul Pollock (45th) and John Coghlan (47th).
Jack O'Leary was the highest Irish finisher in the age-group races, finishing 23rd in the junior boys' event, marginally ahead of Kevin Mulcaire, who was 25th.