Sunday 26 May 2019

Britton frustration turns to delight as Ireland grab bronze

The Ireland women's team (left to right), Ann-Marie McGlynn, Fionnuala Britton, Siobhan O'Doherty, Sara Treacy, Michelle Finn and Laura Crowe, after winning bronze in the team event at the European Cross-Country Championships in Bulgaria. Photo: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE
The Ireland women's team (left to right), Ann-Marie McGlynn, Fionnuala Britton, Siobhan O'Doherty, Sara Treacy, Michelle Finn and Laura Crowe, after winning bronze in the team event at the European Cross-Country Championships in Bulgaria. Photo: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE

Cliona Foley

What was taken with one hand was given back with the other.

Fionnuala Britton was in the mixed-zone trying to find the right words to describe her disappointment at finishing sixth in the European Cross-Country Championships when word suddenly came through that she had just led Ireland to a shock team bronze and her mood radically shifted.

It may only have been bronze but, given the way the race unfolded, that was as much as she could have hoped for individually and the team, collectively, had to work equally hard to win it, just pipping France by a point to make the podium.

With a lap to go, on a tough, frozen course in the Bulgarian ski-resort of Borvets, Britton was already reduced to fighting for third.

Last year's runner-up Gemma Steel and her British team-mate Kate Avery were out of sight, immersed in their own absorbing title tussle that was only settled when Steel got her nose in front on the finish-line to beat the young woman who won the US Collegiate title last month.

Absorbing

Behind them was an equally exciting battle for third, ostensibly between Britton, defending champion Sophie Duarte (France) and Britain's former three-time junior champion Steph Twell.

"I just had to look at it then as the medal race, I knew the other two girls were away and weren't going to be caught but there was still a medal to be won," said Ireland's two-time European champion, who had suffered the heartbreak of fourth last year and also in 2010.

The trio were still duking it out for that last podium place when, out of nowhere, two Africans arrived to overtake them all on the final hill, with less than half a lap left.

Sweden's European 5,000m champion Meraf Bahta and Belgium's Almenesch Belete - the first originally from Eritrea, the second from Ethiopia - somehow made up a lot of late ground and out-sprinted them to steal the last medal.

Like the women who had finished 25 seconds ahead of them, both were given the same time (28:52) but Bahta just nicked bronze. Duarte was fifth (28:58) and Britton was another second adrift.

She was clearly frustrated and immediately consoled by her fiancee Alan McCormack but her disappointment was quickly replaced by some relief and delight to discover that she had, at least, led the team to bronze.

"I'm just kicking myself that I wasn't with them (the two clear leaders) because, if I was, there was no way two African sprinters would have caught you," she admitted.

"I'm just glad the two people who passed me on that last lap don't matter for the team because I would have been even more sickened if we'd lost by a point. I would have felt I lost it for the girls.

"Going into the last lap I thought I can't lose places here because I knew we had a team chance. I knew every point was going to be vital.

"After the nationals I felt we had a team of real cross-country runners and everyone believed that if we battled for every last point we could scrape in."

Behind her were five women all battling just as hard as her to make up vital places and get into the 'first four to score' for team points.

Dunboyne's Sara Treacy (25) had the race of her life, overtaking at least three runners on the final lap to come 12th and next home, in 23rd, was Leevale's Michelle Finn (24).

Team captain Ann Marie McGlynn was 46th, with Borrisokane's Siobhan O'Doherty 47th and An Riocht's Laura Crowe 53rd.

Treacy was a non-scoring member of the team that Britton had led to gold in 2012 but this time she played a starring role.

A young intern doctor based in Dudley, near Birmingham, her hospital bosses let her work just three days a week and do "half the on-calls" to fit in her training.

"I heard someone shout 'bronze' at me on the second-last lap and I was like 'what?' On the last lap someone said 'there's one point in it' and I think I made up two or three places," Treacy said.

Finn, a former mountain-runner and the current Irish steeplechase champion who is not long home after graduating from Western Kentucky, did really well to make top 25.

Veteran McGlynn (nee Larkin, originally from Tullamore but now living in Strabane), had always believed they could nick a medal and had convinced her team-mates of it.

Feeling

"I just thought we could because of the type of girls we are," she said. "They were really up for it. We didn't say it publicly too much but I had a feeling, I really did.

"Someone shouted 'you're third' to me with three laps to go when I was 64th and I thought 'I'm getting a medal here!'"

Unlike Britton most of them are mixing work with training. O'Doherty is a physiotherapist in St Lukes hospital in Kilkenny and Crowe teaches science in Cork IT two days a week.

Their collective effort completed a full set of European team medals by Irish senior women.

A team gold was won in 2012 and, with Sonia O'Sullivan at the helm in fourth, a silver was won in Edinburgh in 2003.

If Mary Cullen or Ciara Mageean had been ready to race this year it might have had an even brighter hue but everyone agreed that a European medal is always hard-fought and deeply appreciated.

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