A seventh appearance at the European Cross Country Championships didn’t disappoint and proved another memorable race day experience.

Making the trip to Samorin, Slovakia, there was an optimism in the British team camp as myself and 39 other athletes boarded the plane to Vienna before a short bus trip to our final destination – nothing can compare to this when spirits are already high before you leave.

The senior women’s team included myself, Emelia Gorecka, Lily Partridge, Steph Twell, Charlotte Taylor and Elle Vernon and I could sense that we were in for a real treat when we arrived at the hotel – an Olympic training centre – called the Bionic X sphere. Hopefully one day cross country will become an Olympic sport – and fingers crossed in my lifetime!

Walking around the Bionic X sphere it had everything an athlete could want. Weather wise, it was quite cold and the temperature and chill factor would have to be taken into consideration come race morning, but it wouldn’t phase us, since Brits practically invented bad weather.

A choice would have to be made on whether a crop top was appropriate, but I was willing to compromise and go for the soft option if conditions required it.

In the end I decided it was warm enough and the majority of our team braved it. Our GB kit was very efficient and the arm warmers were a nice touch. I opted not to wear mine due to not trying anything that I hadn’t practiced before, but our team captain Emelia Gorecka said that she felt like a super hero in them and a lot of the team followed her lead.

I had my special aloe vera heat lotion to rub on and this actually helped and it was a good compromise and ace up my sleeve (pardon the irony).

We arrived at the course inspection on the Saturday which was actually a horse racing course and only a stones throw from the hotel so very accessible. A mixture of sand, grass, ramps and even a gravelled section with logs to negotiate made it an interesting debate as to which spikes to wear.

In the end it was decided on 9mms and 12s in the back. It also had a series of very tight turns so would be tricky to negotiate but might play to my strengths a bit I thought. At the team talk later on, our team manager Helen Clitheroe suggested we should get out fast and go in order of our position’s at the trials in Liverpool. This was a good shout and a fair decision to give the team the best start possible.

Race day arrived

Race day arrived and we had the luxury of warming up in a stable which was much welcomed due to the cold air outside. The physio beds were assembled and last minute preparations were put into place.

In my case having my hair put into French plaits always helps me to feel like I am ready to race (getting my priorities in order as usual). My trusted team members Lily and Steph both went above and beyond the call of duty to take on one each – this was team work at its finest. The girls always help one another out, including pinning on numbers, and all of this adds to the team bonding experience.

We always have each others back to check hair is in place, socks are on point, numbers are straight etc. This is another reason why as a team we get on so well and understand each others needs. We all have a different role to play.

Some members are more sensible than others (and others not so – mentioning no names) and we all have our quirks, but we gel so well as a team and I wouldn’t have it any other way!

On the start line

After shedding our layers there was a high 5 with the team and the race was off – not it was every woman for themselves.

I followed captain marvel Emelia’s lead of getting my elbows out. She is the master of this tactic and with arm warmers on I think she really exaggerated this point well, proving to be the best way to not get bumped and barged during the fast start.

Staying on my feet was tricky as we hit a fast 90 degree left hand turn and then a sand pit which felt more like quick sand especially at top speed. At least it slowed the race down a bit albeit not by much. It was full steam ahead for the first small lap and myself and Emelia were in a great position with Lily not far behind.

I can’t emphasise enough how important it is to fight for a good position. There’s always a lot of jostling and less experienced Brits can get caught out as it’s a complete different situation to the trials at Liverpool. Manners have to go out the window and caution thrown to the wind, but if you keep your whits until you are out of trouble, the race usually settles down.

Just as we were getting into our stride on the first of the 4 large laps we hit two man made ramps that put the brakes on a bit. These were essentially carpeted blocks of wood which designed to chop our stride. Following these was a large log – I always hurdle these because I fear that my spike will get stuck on them. I was now in 12th position and going strong, however I was unable to keep touch with the lead group (maybe a cold in my system waiting to brake out later that evening contributed to this).

The was doing my best hoped to work my way through the field and come through strongly in the closing stages. I could see my team mate Lily Partridge flying ahead until to my surprise she pulled up. Later I learned that her shoe had come off. I knew that feeling well having lost my shoes twice before. With a woman down I was now in a scoring position for the team which made me dig deep and I soon found myself catching former champion Fionnuala McCormack – the Irish athlete is an icon of this event and this gave me an extra incentive.

The bell sounded for the final lap as we ran onto a 150m gravelled section for the final time. The road runner in me relished this part and I found myself closing on Steph Twell – always a strong member of the GB team. I made one more push for home with a top ten place within my sights. Working well together we cemented our places in ninth and 10th, with captain Emelia eight seconds ahead in eighth place. The big surprise of the day was our new team member Charlotte Taylor having the race of her life to finish two places ahead in sixth. This was totally unexpected, but gave the group a great boost to grab the team gold medal!

Taylor was obviously underestimated, but coming from America where all the majority of cross country courses are fast and flat she felt right at home in Samorin.

Elation followed after the race and it was a magical moment sharing it with your teammates – there is nothing quite like it. There are few chances to embrace the team element of our sport, and this makes it extra special. Hugs were freely given as we posed for photographs and post race interviews. We were on a natural high and I was in seventh heaven. Cloud nine in fact! No drugs tests to dampen our spirits and spoil the moment either.

Top of the podium

Medals were presented soon after the race and emotions were still running high. The podium is always the best place to be and on that top step with five of the best team mates a girl could ask for and I always feel on top of the world ( well Europe at least).

Ever the professionals and keen to see our job done right through to the end, we discussed and planned our podium routine. All on cue we stepped up in sync and I thankfully in the middle I avoided any technical issues.

The next thing was that we all agreed to sing the national anthem. Something that we hadn’t practiced but it just felt right in the moment! I was happy to oblige, but maybe took it too far and got a bit carried away. Looking back at the photos I don’t think there was any disguising my delight on my face.

Joy radiated from everyone as the medals were presented and what beautiful ones they were and unlike the traditional European cross country ones I have won in the past. Medal in hand, I was already planning it’s place at home on top of the Christmas tree! It was such an honour to be part of this team and the experience and memories I will treasure forever.

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