Thursday 5 December 2019

McCormack on cloud nine after sister act at nationals

Fionnuala McCormack, left, with her sister Una Britton of Kilcoole AC after winning gold and bronze medals in the senior women’s event at the National Cross Country Championships in Abbotstown
Fionnuala McCormack, left, with her sister Una Britton of Kilcoole AC after winning gold and bronze medals in the senior women’s event at the National Cross Country Championships in Abbotstown

Cathal Dennehy

For Fionnuala McCormack, yesterday's Irish Life Health National Cross Country Championships in Abbotstown was not only about winning her ninth senior title - and nor was it just about making a statement of intent ahead of the upcoming European Championships in Lisbon.

It was about her sister act, too, getting back in the winning habit over the surface she loves best. There have been many bigger days in the 35-year-old's career, but few will have felt better than this.

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From gun to tape, her performance was flawless; a composed, classy exhibition of cross-country running that demonstrated why she has few global peers in this realm.

But while the performance itself left her pleased, what brought her most pleasure was what happened next: after crossing the line she made a swift 180 and ran back down the course to cheer younger sister Una to the bronze medal.


They soon stood proud on the podium, the first siblings ever to accomplish the feat in this race.

"It's a great day for our family, for our club," said McCormack. "I could hear the commentary and also family and friends telling me she was chasing me home."

From the start, the two-time European champion stamped her supremacy on her rivals in the 8,000m race. After a mile she was already out of sight.

"I kind of regretted that after the start because I knew if you start hard, you have to keep going hard."

Just six weeks after clocking a huge personal best of 2:26:47 at the Chicago Marathon, there was every chance McCormack could have had heavy legs in the damp, sticky underfoot conditions - but it turned out to be the very opposite.

One of the few who can find their rhythm amid the chaos of cross country, she whirred around Abbotstown in splendid isolation, reacquainting herself with her first love in the sport.

At the finish she had a whopping 101 seconds to spare over runner-up Mary Mulhare, which likely says as much about the worrying depth in Irish distance running as it does about McCormack's brilliance.

Soon after Mulhare hit the line to take a well-deserved silver, along came Una Britton, McCormack's 29-year-old sister, whose bronze medal proved just reward for years of persistence in the sport despite little previous success at national level.

"I love running and I've loved it all the time, whether I was coming last or getting lapped or now when you're at the good end of it," said Britton.

"If you love it you'll stick with it. For the last few years I've always wished I was up here but I got injured on and off and now I've had a good long spell of not being injured so it paid off."

Britton paid tribute to the role her sister played in her success, and both will be named today on the Irish team for the European Cross Country in Lisbon on December 8.

"I've looked up to her for years and she's always been there supporting me," said Una.

For McCormack it was vindication of her younger sister's ability.

"I knew she could be top three and it was a case of convincing her because she often doesn't have that confidence in her own ability. It's special to be on the podium with your sister."

Meanwhile, Darragh McElhinney bounced back from injury struggles to defend his title in the U-20 men's race, the Glengariff star coming home seven seconds clear of Keelan Kilrehill despite admitting he had struggled with a long-standing hip problem for the latter half of the race.

"It's not been a smooth season," said the UCD student. "I had problems with my hip and my back and I've been getting physio three times a week for the last six weeks, but we've come out the other side and I think I've got through it. I'm happy out."

Jodie McCann of Dublin City Harriers took the U-20 women's 4,000m race in convincing style, coming home 23 seconds clear of Danielle Donegan of Tullamore.

"My plan was to take it easy for the first kilometre then try push on as hard as I could," she said.

"It was tough in the mud but I am a real cross country runner so I loved it."

The race was missing defending champion Sarah Healy, the European U-20 1500m silver medallist, who struggled to overcome a virus in recent weeks and will now miss the upcoming Europeans.

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