Friday 18 January 2019

McCormack: I'll be back in bid to reclaim my title

Lizzie Lee (left) and Kerry O’Flaherty giving it their all in the European Cross-Country Championships in Samorin, Slovakia. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Lizzie Lee (left) and Kerry O’Flaherty giving it their all in the European Cross-Country Championships in Samorin, Slovakia. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

Cathal Dennehy

She had hoped for a miracle, even dreamt of one, but in icy conditions here in Samorin Fionnuala McCormack could only manage 12th.

No two-time former winner of the European Cross-Country Championships would be content with such a spot - and certainly not one as ambitious as McCormack, who was competing for a record-breaking 15th time at the event.

From the outset in the senior women's 8000m, things didn't look good - McCormack quickly opted out of the bat-out-of-hell pace set by defending champion Yasemin Can of Turkey, who routed the field.

Instead she favoured a conservative spend of her energy and huddled in the chasing pack, but in the latter half there was little response when she tried to change gears.

"Today wasn't the European Cross I'm used to but I didn't give up just because I wasn't battling for medals," said McCormack. "I just never really got going."

It was too early to say whether that was down to something amiss in her preparations or an altogether more troubling thought for the 33-year-old - that her best days could be behind her - but either way she was content with the approach taken.

Fionnuala McCormack. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Fionnuala McCormack. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

Having fallen short of the podium four times since her last individual medal in 2012, it was only natural that she try something different, and this year McCormack (right) chose to do just one cross-country race on the build-up, opting instead for a time trial on an indoor track and road races to sharpen her fitness.

It was a gamble that didn't pay off, but one she was nonetheless happy she took despite coming home a minute behind Can.

"I changed things from last year, it just didn't work out for me," she said. "You always have regrets unless you stand on the podium but I'm happy I didn't do the insanity thing: try to do the same thing and expect a different result."

Can became the second athlete in the history of the event - after McCormack - to win back-to-back titles, something that rubbed salt in the wounds for the Kilcoole native, who is adamant that she will return to the event in the future.

"It's of significance to me this time because up until now I was the only one who had won back-to-backs," said McCormack. "I dreamt I'd challenge her for the title and I knew it was going to be tough, but I honestly believe I did my best on the build-up. Maybe I'll try to stop her doing three in a row."

Behind McCormack, things weren't exactly bad for the Irish contingent, but they weren't especially good either. Shona Heaslip came home 34th ahead of Kerry O'Flaherty in 38th, with Michelle Finn 40th, Fionnuala Ross 47th and Lizzie Lee 49th - netting them a solid but unspectacular seventh in the team event.

At that point, there was no mistaking the gloom setting in among the Irish brigade, but a little over a half hour later a trio stepped up to save the day in the senior men's race.

Hopes had been pinned on national champion Paul Pollock, but the Belfast man found the wheels falling off his bid soon after it began as he faded to a 48th-place finish.

However, slicing their way through the field over the latter half of the 10,000m contest were Mayo's Hugh Armstrong along with Clonmel duo Kevin Maunsell and Seán Tobin.

Running together, encouraging each other and powering their way past their rivals, they netted an unexpected fifth-place finish for the Irish team - proof, it seems, that the distance-running decline in Irish athletics is starting to abate.

With a ferocious finishing kick, Tobin powered down the home straight to lead them home in 15th.

Pushing

"It was a good result," he said. "We were pushing together and we really felt like a team. There's more to come."

Next in was Armstrong in 19th, followed by Maunsell, who like the two in front was earning his first senior Irish cap, though at 36 he was 13 years their senior.

"I wasn't going to win the race so there was no pressure on me," he said. "I was loving it - looking beside me and seeing that I was running against Africans, fellas I'd seen on TV, and there I was mixing with them. I thought: this is fairytale stuff."

In the junior races, too, there was plenty of evidence to suggest the talent pipeline still flows.

Sophie Murphy of Dundrum South Dublin had an outstanding run to finish 10th, just 12 seconds behind the bronze medallist.

"I went out fast and felt strong," she said. "It's a big improvement on the last two years. I'm so happy."

Stephanie Cotter, Jodie McCann and Laura Nicholson all acquitted themselves well to finish inside the top 40, while in the junior men's race Fearghal Curtin led the Irish home in 22nd, with all five of his team-mates finishing well inside the top 50.

Irish Independent

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