In a scene straight out of Santa’s grotto, it proved to be a winter wonderland for the Great Britain and Northern Ireland team at the 21st European Cross-Country Championships sponsored by Spar at the weekend, hosted by the Bulgarians in Samokov. On a testing and snowy course that was slippy on top, Team GB’s 36-strong contingent topped the medals table with nine medals across the six races, including an encouraging four golds. Consistency and depth of squad is usually something associated with other sports such as football, but is equally relevant to the cross-country teams at present as this was the second time in a row that they had returned from the championships with such an impressive haul of silverware, and bodes well for the future health of the sport.

In a meeting full of highlights for the Brits, arguably the finest performance was that of Gemma Steel as she led a dominant women’s senior team to the gold medals, but she was pushed all the way to the line by her compatriot and close rival, Kate Avery. The two ladies battled it out throughout the final lap, exchanging the lead several times as the finish line approached, in part due to the underfoot conditions that seemed to periodically upset Steel’s rhythm. Steel went into the event as favourite and seemed determined to improve on last year’s silver medal behind Sophie Duarte, as she dug deep in the final run-in to overhaul Avery and just take the individual victory. It was particularly ‘sweet’ to finally stand on top of the podium for Steel, as she was also third in the race in 2011. Commentating for the BBC, Paula Radcliffe (who has also previously won both individual and team gold in the event) was as enthusiastic as anyone about the prospects going forward for Steel, suggesting that she sees her future in the marathon event after successes on the roads in recent years.

Rhona Auckland’s slightly surprising individual win in the women’s under-23 race could equally claim to have been the performance of the meeting by a Brit. She broke clear of the field on the final lap and looked to be moving towards a comfortable gold until tiring significantly in the final stages, as the rest of the pack closed in on her, but found sufficient reserves to hold on and earn a well deserved win by two seconds. GB packed well in the event but were edged into second place in the team competition.

The women’s junior race saw more success for Britain, but no individual gold this time, as track exponent Jess Judd made a welcome appearance over the country, as she bids to build her strength up ahead of what will hopefully be a sparkling summer season over 800m. Her second place with teammate, Lydia Turner close behind in third, ensured that with four in the top eight places that Britain took a convincing gold medal in the team placings.

Rather disappointingly, the men’s races were not as rewarding for the British competitors as the women’s races had been, with a solitary silver medal for the under-23 team all they had to show for their efforts (as Russia swept the board at under-23 level). Without double Olympic champion on the track, Mo Farah to spearhead their challenge, the senior men’s team could only manage fifth place overall as their leading finisher, Ross Millington was also fifth in the individual event. The senior race was dominated by the Turkish team, who filled the first two places as Kenyan- convert Polat Kemboi Arikan took a close win over another man originally from Kenya, Ali Kaya. Like the women’s race, Arikan had been the runner-up in 2013, so it seemed somehow equitable that he should also move up a place this time. Last year’s senior men’s champion, Alemayehu Bezabeh was third.

Several of the GB and NI team are expected to appear at the traditional Great Edinburgh International cross-country meeting in early January, where they will be looking to put on a strong show for their home supporters and hopefully demonstrate the continuation of an upward curve in British distance running at present. The senior men’s field should see star billing afforded to Farah as he is planning to run in his first cross-country event for four years. 
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