World-class return not enough for perfectionist McCormack
Six months after giving birth, this was the comeback of a champion, a classy, courageous effort that showed few can fight like Fionnuala McCormack.
On a day when a wealth of world-class talent was reduced to wreckage, bodies dropping to the ground like bowling pins after the finish, the 34-year-old Wicklow woman was one of the few still standing.
Never before had we witnessed a World Cross Country Championships quite like this, the organisers in Aarhus, Denmark constructing the most vicious course in the event's history with mud pits, sand pits, water pools and a succession of rolling hills dotting the course.
One of them, a steep incline up the roof of the Moesgaard museum, was especially sadistic.
But such adverse environments have long been relished by McCormack, and so it was here.
She finished 18th in the women's 10.2km race, just four places down on her best showing at the event.
She was also the second non-African across the line, with Danish heroine Anna Moller 15th and Hellen Obiri of Kenya taking gold.
On a day that pushed athletes to breaking point, McCormack's appraisal of the course was in line with her approach to running: the harder the better.
"The course was good fun," she said. "They built it up to something brilliant and they actually pulled it off. The crowds out there were unbelievable."
Having missed the vast majority of 2018 while pregnant, McCormack relished this return to the international scene, fighting through the 118-strong field.
"I was saying to myself that the top-25 is what I really wanted, but in the race itself I wanted top 15 so I'm a little bit disappointed I didn't get it."
But for all that such perfectionism may be well-intentioned, this could only be called a roaring success.
McCormack resumed running a little over a month after giving birth in September and in the five months since, she has returned to something very near her best.
"I was lucky nothing was complicated (with the pregnancy) so I got back into it as quickly as I could."
And as for that course? "It was real cross country," she said. "This was proper tough - real hills, real muck, real water, everything was real about it and the support was as well."
Elsewhere there was little to cheer for the Irish, with Sara Treacy finishing 73rd in the women's race.
"I'm not happy with that," she said. "It was a really tough race and really long - you're hurting for a long time."
Seán Tobin led the way in the men's event, the Clonmel man far from satisfied with 62nd in a race won by Joshua Cheptegei of Uganda.
"I wanted to go out conservative and after the first lap my quads went to jelly," he said. "The last three laps I just said, 'keep going.' I got my arse handed to me today. We've got a lot of work to do if we want to come back and be competitive."
Kevin Dooney was 105th in the same race, while in the U-20 race Darragh McElhinney was 53rd and Jamie Battle 68th.
"The first lap I was like, 'I'm f***ed,' then the fourth lap I was grand," said McElhinney. "The course is mad. It'd give Takeshi's Castle a run for its money."
In a bid to help the sport connect with the masses, organisers allowed members of the public to contest the senior races, with athletes required to step off the course if in danger of being lapped.
One such athlete was Leevale's Donal Coakley, who gave a blunt assessment of the experience: "horrendous".