Fast Running’s Blaithin Shiel was out in Lisbon supporting the Irish squad this weekend in a super competitive European Cross Country Championships that saw great success. 

Hills were the order of the day at the European Cross Country Championships in Lisbon. The course, not for the faint hearted and separated the mountain goats from the rest. Ireland brought home two team silver medals and two individual bronze medals, our first of any colour since 2015, boding well for our turn to host these championships at Abbotstown in 2020.

Efrem Gidey in his first outing for Ireland since becoming a refugee here held onto second place for most of the race and finished in a smashing third. He said “I am so happy, this is a great opportunity for me.”

Darragh McElhinney finished a fine 12th in the under 20 race “to be honest in the middle laps I was dying and it was the prospect of a team medal that kept me going. I knew that Efrem [Gidey] was right up the front and I could hear Keelin  [Kilrehill] behind me as well.

We pulled it out of the bag anyway I mean we came here looking for a team medal. I was a small bit disappointed with my own placing but to be honest it doesn’t really matter at all now that we are after getting a team medal.”

At the time of interview Ireland had been listed as placing third in the team event, however this was later changed to fourth on count back. No doubt a disappointing change of events, but it shouldn’t take away from a fine team performance by the lads.

Photo: Michael Hynes of Raheny Shamrock

Cotter leads U23 women to team silver

Stephanie Cotter brought home Ireland’s second individual medal of the day and led her team mates onto the podium with an excellent run behind Moller of Denmark and Lau of the Netherlands.

Supposed by twins Eilish and Roisin Flanagan, who finished in ninth and 17th respectively, only the Dutch team fared better and it was an excellent run by the Irish team.

This comes on the back of the trio going 1-2-3 at the NCAA Division Two Cross Country Championships in Sacramento last month, finishing in the same order as today on the bigger stage.

“If you’re not coming home in an ambulance you’re not giving enough”

Under 23 man Jack O’Leary had plenty to say on the course. “I was too aggressive in the first 5km that probably came to bite me in the ass a little. With two laps to go going through your mind is like ‘Jesus can I get to the end here’.

Liam Brady (team captain) gave us a very good speech before, he had this expression at nationals that if you’re not coming home in an ambulance you’re not giving enough.” Jamie Battle took it one hill at a time “I just focused on the next hill and the next hill to try break it up as I went along.”

On the terrain O’Leary said “the southern countries might say it was mucky but for the Irish it was very fast. Just the hills were insane. I would have loved to have the Strava on the watch and see the elevation gains.” On the very steep downhill “you have to just try and open your legs and it’s very tough when you are absolutely dying, it’s a big mental battle telling yourself open up the stride open up the legs.”

We asked Jack how the course compared to other races he has run, to which he responded “oh it was a very cool race, I don’t think there was one stage in the race when you were actually on level always either climbing or going down. I don’t think you’d find any course that can be that hilly unless you’re racing on Everest or something.”

Downhill madness at the finish

The under 23 women of silver, delighted with their reward, agreed, “it was a crazy course” said Claire Fagan. The finish line was particularly steep “it was mad at the end went downhill and into the finish like that was crazy because I’ve never done that before and your legs are going so fast.”

The unrelenting hills meant that places we’re changing by the half lap. Fian Sweeney said “you were always working and thinking you’d have the downhill to pick up momentum and then the next hill came around. Personally it was just such a mental battle the whole time, you felt like you were going back because some people are super strong on the hills and some are super strong on the downhill. I caught people going up and then lost it going down.”

Photo: Michael Hynes of Raheny Shamrock

Brave run from Tobin

Sean Tobin in the Senior race moved very well through the first few laps, hitting the bell lap in 13th. He faded to 18th.

Speaking afterwards to Fast Running, with his bare and bloody feet, barely able to stand on them, he said “there is so much friction underneath my foot I just kept getting blisters as I went and those last two laps I was trying my best to move but I felt like there were bubbles on my feet and could feel the blisters popping.”

“I couldn’t even get around the hill on the corner I was just suffering from that, so obviously I lost four of five spots on the last lap. Part of it was fatigue but my feet are just fucked.”

Hoping to place higher, he knew a top 10 was there for him but “fitness wise we gotta be really pleased but I’m just disappointed about those feet. I think a top ten was there and I hate to come out with an excuse but I was just gritting my face and I couldn’t even think about the race my feet were just going.”

Coach Feidhlim noted however that Sean placed in the top 20 at the last three cross country championships, two of them with him so “that’s some achievement.”

Inspiring the next generations

Eoin Everard, who scored third for the team today, took the time to praise Athletics Ireland for sending full teams in all events, “I must say the AAI deserve a lot of kudos for bringing six. Performance wise I know 61st people are probably going like “ah well people have won medals this weekend”, but Kilkenny City Harriers are putting on an award ceremony for us [also Aoibhe Richardson] on Tuesday and that is going to have more than 100 juveniles there getting medals off us.”

“I am 33 and I am coming to the end and some people say why don’t they only bring four but you don’t know who is in that room on Tuesday who is thinking about Kilkenny camogie or hurling that might go, feck, I want that Irish gear, I want to go there and they could be a medallist at this.”

“We are going back to local clubs and you don’t know who this keeps in a club, seeing Irish gear and seeing that as a route. You don’t know the long term benefits of that.”

You know for sure there are members of the team today that have been inspired by the medal performances of Fionnuala McCormack over the years and i’s great to know the impact this can have on young club athletes when we compete with so many sports for their dedication.

Hard and fast start for Brady

Liam Brady described his race as having “blazed into the race and then blazed out of it again just as quick. Sean and I were probably a bit too hyped up and we said we were going for a bald head the two of us, we decided we were gonna be where we wanted to finish soon after 2k had passed.”

“It worked for Tobin, fair play to him, but the harder I tried the slower I felt I was going. But I just kept going.”

Other athletes described the toughest battle as having the mental will to carry on, but for Liam the battle was physical, “ I felt like I was at my limit straight away for some reason. I think I was a bit rigid going down the hill. I was beating lads up the hill but as soon as I went to run down the hill they were gone past me again.

“I wasn’t loose enough flowing down and was just working all the time. I am disappointed yeah. I was going for top 30, to really take it on and I didn’t do that so I can’t come away and say I am happy with 63rd. But I am proud I didn’t give up, I never felt like pulling out it was never an option, it never even crossed my mind. But the sooner the finish line came the better.”

Photo: Michael Hynes of Raheny Shamrock

Finishing on a phenomenal team effort

Fionnuala McCormack led the senior women to a team silver, having been sat on for much of the race by the eventual bronze medallist from Sweden.

Second home, and bypassing Olympian Ciara Mageean in the ultimate lap, was Aoibhe Richardson, “the last lap was a bit of a blur but I just had my eyes on her and I was trying to chase her down and it really helped to have a team out there to work with.”

Like many athletes coming off the NCAA cross country season, we asked was it a stretch to hang in for another race, “I actually finished the season feeling really good and really excited about doing the race. Last year I was a bit burnt out but this year I felt ready for another race and really excited.”

Richardson attributes this to a longer and slower build up, “I changed colleges this year and I was a bit slower with my build up, less mileage, less intensity to make sure that I felt really fresh and good going into every race and that helped the longevity of my season.”

Ciara Mageean, clearly ecstatic about the Irish success noted that this is “probably the most positive euro cross that Irish athletics has ever had. And it’s a testament to our governing body and a testament to the coaches in Ireland  because they don’t get paid for it and they do it out of the love of their own heart, and most of these athletes aren’t making a hell of a lot of money out of this sport and some of them are making none.”

“They go out and put their bodies on the line, because, if anybody wants to see how tough athletics is they just have to watch euro cross. I thought I could have died… I was starting to see stars.”

Mageean once again answered Ireland’s call and it was clear to all watching that the track athlete suffered for her teammates and her country. Collapsed on the ground at the finish, a fresh looking McCormack was on hand to check on her teammate. It was great to see the team rewarded with the much deserved silver medal.

Anger where there should be hope

One downside to a wonderful day was criticism and anger sent towards young Efrem Gidey after his excellent bronze medal. Keyboard warriors were quick to criticise the young Eritrean refugee, even the commentator saying over the megaphone as he crossed the line “this black man but he runs for Ireland.” Such commentators should do well to remember that sport is a great equaliser and way of bringing people together.

As an island with the largest diaspora in the world, we are privileged to live in a peaceful and wealthy country and to be in a position to offer protection to refugees. This will no doubt change the face of Irish teams in the future, as people from all over the world bring their talent, skills and humanity to us.

Bláithín is a middle distance and cross country athlete who has been known to accidentally run into trees. She is in total denial about having to work for a living – you can follow her attempts at run-commuting to work on Strava.

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