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

In a meeting full of highlights for the Brits, arguablythe finest performance was that of Gemma Steel as she led a dominant women’ssenior team to the gold medals, but she was pushed all the way to the line byher compatriot and close rival, Kate Avery. The two ladies battled it out throughoutthe 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’srhythm. Steel went into the event as favourite and seemed determined to improveon last year’s silver medal behind Sophie Duarte, as she dug deep in the finalrun-in to overhaul Avery and just take the individual victory.

It wasparticularly ‘sweet’ to finally stand on top of the podium for Steel, as shewas 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 asenthusiastic as anyone about the prospects going forward for Steel, suggestingthat she sees her future in the marathon event after successes on the roads inrecent years.

Rhona Auckland’s slightly surprising individual win inthe women’s under-23 race could equally claim to have been the performance ofthe meeting by a Brit.

She broke clear of the field on the final lap and lookedto be moving towards a comfortable gold until tiring significantly in the finalstages, as the rest of the pack closed in on her, but found sufficient reservesto hold on and earn a well deserved win by two seconds. GB packed well in theevent but were edged into second place in the team competition.

The women’s junior race saw more success for Britain, butno individual gold this time, as track exponent Jess Judd made a welcomeappearance over the country, as she bids to build her strength up ahead of whatwill hopefully be a sparkling summer season over 800m.

Her second place withteammate, Lydia Turner close behind in third, ensured that with four in the topeight places that Britain took a convincing gold medal in the team placings.

Rather disappointingly, the men’s races were not asrewarding for the British competitors as the women’s races had been, with asolitary silver medal for the under-23 team all they had to show for theirefforts (as Russia swept the board at under-23 level). Without double Olympic championon the track, Mo Farah to spearhead their challenge, the senior men’s teamcould only manage fifth place overall as their leading finisher, Ross Millingtonwas also fifth in the individual event.

The senior race was dominated by theTurkish team, who filled the first two places as Kenyan- convert Polat KemboiArikan took a close win over another man originally from Kenya, Ali Kaya. Likethe women’s race, Arikan had been the runner-up in 2013, so it seemed somehowequitable that he should also move up a place this time. Last year’s senior men’schampion, Alemayehu Bezabeh was third.

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