'Frustrated' Fionnuala Britton fails to seal Euro treble deal
'No excuses' as defending champion loses grip on cross-country crown
FIONNUALA BRITTON has suffered some painful fourth places before, but none as frustrating as the so-called 'rubber medal' she got at the European Cross-Country Championships yesterday.
History beckoned again for Ireland's two-in-a-row champion at Friendship Park in Belgrade, where she came seeking an unprecedented treble, but sometimes athletics is as simple as someone else being in better shape than you on the day – which is exactly what transpired.
What we learned from the epic last-lap battle for the minor medals was how much respect her previous two European titles should command.
When France's Sophie Duarte broke clear of the seven-woman lead group with 3,000m left it was clear she had brought Britton's crown with her.
Over the final lap the 29-year-old from Kilcoole was left literally gritting her teeth in a desperate bid to make up the 15 metres that lay between her and the mammoth tussle ahead between Britain's Gemma Steel and Portugal's Ana Dulce Felix, who kept swapping places.
Try as she might, Britton just couldn't find the kick to reel them in.
Duarte came home five seconds clear in 26 minutes and 34 seconds; there were only two seconds between Steel (26:39) and Felix (26:41) and just 11 between the top four.
Steel (28) reversed her order of two years ago with Felix (31) in a marvellously gutsy performance; the Portuguese athlete had been runner-up for the past two years, so was arguably more heartbroken than Britton.
It was frustration, not sadness, that was etched on the deposed champion's face.
"It was so frustrating, I just could not get back up to them," Britton said.
"Every so often I could see they were dying but then they'd go at it again. Every time I felt I was gaining on them, they started battling with each other and I wasn't getting anywhere."
Unlike last year's frozen, hilly, twisting course that really suited a natural mudlark like Britton, yesterday's was flat and fast.
That dictated a different approach from Ireland's usual front-runner, and when Norway's former junior champion Karoline Grovdal made an early break Britton did not panic.
The legacy of a chest infection that forced her to prematurely end her track season last summer undoubtedly played some part when a final surge of power was needed.
Britton refused to use that as an excuse, saying: "You could say I missed the summer or you could say that I was better than them the last two years and they were better than me today."
But she did admit "I just never felt comfortable" and her coach Chris Jones acknowledged that they had lost a vital month of training that had forced them to play catch-up and curtailed her ability to race this winter.
"The last three weeks' training have actually been perfect, just not enough speed-endurance preparation was there," he said. "But you couldn't ask more of Fionnuala today, she absolutely got the best out of herself."
Duarte (32) was fifth in the 2007 world steeplechase final and had, worryingly, beaten Britton in a cross- country race in France last month.
"She ran the 5,000m at the World Championships last summer, she has a 15:15 PB, has moved over from steeplechase and has a new coach so I knew Sophie was a threat," Britton said. "When there were gaps early on I was like 'I'm not going to drift back here, this is my race as much as everyone else's.
"When I got back up with them I was trying to convince myself I was comfortable, but I really wasn't," she explained. "I wasn't able to get up with them and relax again before the break came when Sophie split them.
"If someone won this race easily the event wouldn't get the respect it deserved," she reflected.
"It feels better to win something that is hard and it feels better to win after I've been fourth so at least I know how that feels."
Finishing fourth at European Cross- Country in 2010 spurred the Wicklow woman to her first title in 2011, and she vowed that she will be back looking to reclaim her crown in Bulgaria next year.
"Oh definitely, Sergey Lebid (Ukraine's long-time men's champion) has done it nine times so why not!" she quipped wanly.
With only Britton available from Ireland's top-four finishers last year there was never any chance of retaining their team title. Britain took gold with four runners in the top 15; Meath's Sara Treacy (31st) and Dublin's Ciara Durkan (36th) were next best Irish in a sixth-place team finish.