Pollock enjoys golden return from foot injury as Heaslip triumphs
Cross-country will always be synonymous with courage, but in the end, as shown at the Irish Life Health National Championships, there is simply no substitute for class.
That was the case in both senior races yesterday as Paul Pollock and Shona Heaslip proved a cut above their rivals on the national cross-country course at Abbotstown, changing gears at different points in their races but finishing with the same reward: gold.
If there was one downer on an uplifting day - where the crowds both on and off course were as big as this writer has seen at the event - it was the absence of Fionnuala McCormack, who opted to run a 4km time trial on the indoor track at Abbotstown last Thursday instead as she prepares for the European Cross-Country on December 10.
Not that Heaslip, who swept to the front on the final lap, felt this in any way devalued her second successive title. "To win it once is amazing, to win twice is unbelievable," she said. "I knew it'd be a really hard race, but I knew I had the training done."
Heaslip was a surprise winner when taking gold last year, but this time around she had a target on her back, a pressure happily embraced by the professional dancer. "I love performing," she said. "I'm used to it with Irish dancing so I thrive on that pressure."
A student at IT Tralee, for much of the year Heaslip combines training and study with her work with the Celtic Sevens in Killarney, though this year she has reduced that from six nights a week to two.
Second home yesterday was Kerry O'Flaherty, who believes the Irish team has medal potential at the Europeans in Samorin, Slovakia, saying: "We know when we come together with Fionnuala as our leader we can win a medal," she said. "It'll be tough but we're going to give it a really good go."
Fellow Rio Olympian Michelle Finn took third, with her Leevale clubmate Lizzie Lee fourth.
The men's race was a far more placid affair, at least for Pollock, who surged to the front on the penultimate 2km lap and soon built a lead that he held all the way to the line.
"Once I went I got a gap relatively comfortably I could just ease back and cruise home," he said. "That was a nice feeling because it very rarely happens."
It offered a sweet sense of redemption for the former champion, given he was ruled out of the World Championships in London a few months ago with a stress fracture in his foot. Indeed Pollock had only resumed training in late September, but he was just different class.
The Annadale Strider still works a couple of days a week at a London hospital, where he is an locum doctor, though he says that on the countdown to the Europeans that will now be put on the back-burner.
"At the minute everything is in one piece," he said. "I always have a niggle but it's about managing them. I'm looking forward to the race in two weeks' time."
If there was little unexpected about the senior races, the junior events threw up a surprise, with Craig McMeechan of North Down sprinting to victory in a thrilling junior men's contest. Race favourite Darragh McElhinney of Bantry could offer nothing on the final lap, eventually taking sixth and securing the U-18 title as Brian Fay of Raheny and McMeechan fought out the finish, with McMeechan proving the stronger.
"My aim today was top six," he said. "I didn't expect to win in that loaded field."
The junior women's title was won by Stephanie Cotter, but it's taking nothing from the West Muskerry athlete to say she'll only feel like the champion on paper.
That's because an U-18 athlete, Laura Nicholson of Bandon, beat her comfortably to the line in the same race. The pair will now join forces on the Irish team for the trip to Samorin.
"It's my first major international," said Nicholson (17). "I can't wait."