WHENEVER Ireland’s great days at the Spar European Cross Country Championships are discussed two legendary athletes spring to mind.
‘Spring’ is an apposite word as both have the same graceful style that bounds effortlessly through all terrains and weathers.
Similar shy, modest personalities also shroud their inner steel and dedication but Catherina McKiernan and Fionnuala McCormack (nee Britton) acquired their European crowns very differently.
McKiernan did it with her first attempt, in the inaugural 1994 European Cross Country Championship in the English market town of Alnwick.
The great Cavan runner had already won two of her four consecutive World Cross Country silvers yet didn’t have it all her own way on that historic day.
It was so windy that she had to hold on to the sides of the chutes to stay standing afterwards and her battle to hold off Spain’s Julia Vaquero on the course’s testing hill in a dramatic finale still lives vividly in memory.
McKiernan went on to excel at marathons (her Irish record of 2:22.23 from 1998 still stands) and it took a whopping 17 years before McCormack became the only Irish athlete to match her achievement.
But her journey to the crown was a rollercoaster.
She was 74th in her first junior race in 2001 (Thun, Switzerland) and 39th on her senior debut in 2005 (Tilburg).
When European Athletics added a new Under-23 grade in 2006 she took silver behind Turkey’s Binnaz Uslu in Italy but there were a few more tough days, particularly Albufeira in 2010 where she was just pipped for senior bronze by Portugal’s Ana Dulce Felix.
A year later McCormack bounced back with a sensational front-running display in Velenje, Slovenia, winning gold by seven seconds to take what was only Ireland’s fourth individual medal, including Gareth Turnbull’s junior bronze in Italy in 1998.
In 2012 McCormack made history; the first woman to successfully defend a senior title.
That is always a barometer of greatness but the artic, sub-zero conditions in Szentendre, Hungary made her achievement even greater.
It was so cold that the ink froze in this writer’s pen but the tiny, teak-tough Wicklow star relentlessly drove the pace over the packed, snow-covered ground, coming home two seconds clear of Felix and Adrienne Herzog (Ned).
That Linda Byrne (8th), Ava Hutchinson (20th) and Lizzie Lee (36) also combined to seal a dramatic team gold (they finished level on points with France but won on count-back) only doubled Irish delight.
McCormack battled bravely for a historic three in-a-row in Belgrade in 2013 but came fourth behind Sophie Duarte (Fra), Gemma Steel (GB) and Felix again, four seconds off a medal.
It took another seven years before Ireland won their only other individual medals; two bronzes from Stephanie Cotter (U23) and Efrem Gidey (Junior) in Lisbon in 2019 when the junior men’s team were pipped for a bronze on count-back.
Irish track superstar Sonia O’Sullivan, in her only appearance at Euro Cross’, almost made the podium in Edinburgh’s Holyrood Park in 2003 but her fourth place still led Ireland to team silver. Rosemary Ryan was 13th, Anne Keenan-Buckley was 27th and Catherina McKiernan’s 34th fittingly sealed the deal.
What makes cross country so special is that it is not only about the superstars but the masses behind them, valiantly picking their way through pack and pushing themselves to their limits to score vital team points.
Since 2017 only the first three home count and, among Ireland’s tally of 17 medals to date, are many heroic and highly prized team performances.
David McCarthy (11th), Brendan O’Neill (13th), Michael Mulhare (16th) and David Rooney (20th) surprised even themselves by winning U23 gold in Albufeira in 2010.
Six years earlier Mark Christie (5th), Andrew Ledwith (7th), Danny Darcy (11th) and Jamie McCarthy (31st) won junior team silver in Heringsdorf in 2004.
Two more team silvers came in Ireland’s four-medal haul in Lisbon in 2019, which left them fourth of 21 nations on the medal table, the nation’s best collective achievement.
Her fourth individual ‘fourth’ that day may have frustrated McCormack but her demeanour quickly changed when she realised that herself, Aoibhe Richardson (17th) and Ciara Mageean (20th) had secured team silver.
Stephanie Cotter also bagged U23 team silver thanks to her Tyrone twin teammates Eilish (9th) and Roisin (17th) Flanagan.
Ireland has also won four team bronzes, starting back in Velenje in 1999 when junior men Gary Murray (8th), Mark Smith (20th), Brian Keane (15th) and Joe McAllister (75th) won the nation’s first ever collective medal.
A year later a vaunted senior men’s quartet won bronze in Malmo where Peter Matthews (10th), Seamus Power (14th), Gareth Turnbull (23rd) and Keith Kelly (25th) all finished in the top 25.
Individual glory may have narrowly escaped Fionnuala McCormack since 2012 yet she has continued to lead and inspire.
Her 6th in the Bulgarian ski resort of Borovets in 2014, along with Sarah Treacy’s heroic 12th, Michelle Finn’s 23rd and Ann Marie McGlynn’s 46th pipped France, by a single point, for team bronze.
That was equalled a year later when McCormack (fourth), Lizzie Lee (13th), Caroline Crowley (23rd) and Ciara Durkan (46th) again combined to make the podium..
She is not alone in mixing highs and heartbreaks over the years.
A fall in Brussels in 2008 undoubtedly cost Sligo’s well-placed Mary Cullen a medal.
Linda Byrne was also fourth in the 2005 junior race and Ryan Forsyth was pipped for U23 bronze in 2018 (Tilburg) where Sarah Healy looked set to medal at U20 only to lose crucial time to a tumble.
Honourable mention must also go to Joe Sweeney for his fifth place in 2011, an achievement that was overshadowed by McCormack’s gold but remains the best placing ever by an Irish senior man.
McCormack (37) is expected to extend her record appearances to 17 today, with two titles and seven medals won and four fourths, a fifth, sixth and a seventh also stored in her hurt locker.
That is remarkable considering Ireland has only ever won 17 medals in the previous 25 events – five gold (two team), five silver (four team) and seven bronze (four team) – but testament also to just how competitive this event has become since Catherina McKiernan’s captivating and historic victory 27 years ago.