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UK dominates at Cross Country

Emelia Gorecka

Emelia Gorecka

In yet another outstanding series of performances – including brilliant individual gold medals from Emelia Gorecka (coach: Mick Woods) and Emma Pallant (Mick Woods) – the Aviva Great Britain and Northern Ireland team topped the medal table for the fourth successive year at the SPAR European Cross Country Championships in Velenje, Slovenia today (Sunday 11 December).

Capping a superb 2011 for athletics in the UK, and in particular endurance, the Aviva GB & NI team won six gold (two individual and four team), five silver (three individual and two team) and one bronze (individual) for its third clean sweep in four years, to take the overall medal total for the year across all event groups to over 140.

Full event reports, in the order they happened, below.

Junior Women

2010 bronze medallist Emelia Gorecka (Mick Woods) ran a mature and confident race to secure her first ever SPAR European Cross Country Championships title.

In an explosive opening, Romania’s Ioana Doaga and Serbia’s Amela Terzic – last year’s silver medallist – raced into a significant early lead with Gorecka back in seventh, but she maintained her composure and stuck to her race plan.

“I thought it was going to be quick but they (the leaders) didn’t come back to me as quickly as I thought they would,” said the European Junior 5000m silver medallist. “I was saying to myself “stay calm, stay cool” but they just kept going.”

Gorecka had moved up to fifth at the close of the opening loop of the 3.970m course and was soon seven seconds clear in third, with Annabel Gummow (Chris Wooldridge), Katie Holt (Alan Morris) and Gemma Kersey (Eamonn Martin) packing well in the early 20s and moving steadily through the field.

As they hit the bell, Gorecka was only four seconds down on the leading duo but in an important progression down the field, Gummow had moved up to eighth with Kersey and Holt in 19th and 20th respectively and the Aviva GB & NI team in contention for gold in a close fought battle with Russia.

Gorecka eventually caught Doaga on the last downhill section of the final lap and the pair were now working together to catch Terzic, which they did as the moved into the home stretch and the Serbian dropped back quickly; it was an exciting race within a race, but Gorecka’s victory was never in doubt as she sprinted clear to take the win ahead in 13:13, with Doaga second (13:14).

“Mick was pushing me on but I couldn’t quite believe it, even when we were into the second half I didn’t feel like I was getting any closer (to the breakaway leaders),” said Gorecka. “When I went passed the Serbian I thought “don’t hesitate just go” and I knew I had to leg it and I did. I had to stay strong and concentrate. If I’ve ever had to concentrate in my life I knew it had to be those last few minutes.

“I know I kept looking behind me but I’ve been working on my sprint finish and I was really confident. Mick said I could win it and I had faith in his training because it has been going so well.”

Ensuring they retained their team title, Gummow – who was disappointed to finish outside the medals but had a very credible run – moved up to finish sixth (13:34), while Kersey and Holt made up the scoring quartet in 16th (13:53) and 17th (13:56) respectively. Laura Muir (Alan Mackintosh) finished 31st on her international debut in 14:06 with Beth Carter (Mick Woods) in 33rd (14:07).

Junior Men

The British medal rush continued in the junior men’s 6.070m race in a similar vein to their women counterparts. Richard Goodman (Geoff Williams) scooped a silver medal in the largest field of the day with 114 runners from 26 countries on the start line.

The cold Slovenian weather was a far cry from Goodman’s recent UKA/London Marathon altitude training exertions in the warmer climes of Kenya, but the Shaftesbury Barnet athlete produced an excellent display of cross country running to claim second place behind Russian Ilgizar Safiulin.

It was a good start from the British team with Goodman, Jonny Hay (Mick Woods), Niall Fleming (Mick Woods), Mark Shaw (Steve Shaw) and Kieran Clements (Steve Benson) all amongst the front runners in the leading pack.

During the second lap, Goodman and Russian duo Safiulin and Vladimir Nikitin made the break from their peers. This ensured a dramatic final lap with the lead trio neck and neck in the final straight but it was Safiulin who powered home with a late burst in a time of 17:49 with Goodman only two seconds behind (17:51).

Speaking after the race, the 18-year-old could not hide his delight: “I can’t believe it,” he said.

“I’ve worked so hard – I’m so happy. I was cruising through the first two laps and I thought “oh my gosh I could win this.” I’ve never had that extra bit in my legs before and I had it today.

“I was just thinking about my family, my coach and I didn’t want to go back home without an individual medal. I saw people catching me on the home straight but it all came together with all the hard work I’ve put in. I’m so happy, all I want to do in life is impress people and make people happy especially my parents as they have supported me so much.”

The medals did not stop there for the junior men and team gold, defending the title they won in 2010, was earned following the results of Hay in eighth (18:09), Clements in ninth (18:10), Fleming in 11th (18:18), Shaw in 17th (18:27) and Jack Goodwin (Simon Goodwin) in 25th (18:33).

Under 23 Women

Continuing the Aviva GB & NI domination in this event and underlining the talent in the UK at this level, Emma Pallant (Mick Woods) evidenced her Championship pedigree with a gold medal performance leading the team to overall gold and maintaining their 100% record since the inauguration of the age group event in 2006.

The Aldershot athlete swapped her bronze medal from the 2010 European Country Championships in Portugal for a place on the top of the podium in 19:57 (over 6.070m), with team-mates Naomi Taschimowitz (Charlotte Fisher) finishing in second (20:02) and Stephanie Twell (Mick Woods) in fourth (20:03).

From the off, Pallant and Twell stamped their authority on the race and took it by the scruff of the neck with Taschimowitz and Hannah Walker (Bud Baldaro) in close proximity. Entering the final lap, the Aviva GB & NI team held first, second and third places with Pallant, Twell and Taschimowitz, but Pallant showed her class to pull away into a five second lead, leaving Twell to be over taken by German Corinna Harrer and having to settle for fourth on her international comeback following a lengthy absence through injury.

“It’s amazing, it feels really good,” admitted Pallant. “I always wanted to do better this year. It was a tough ask but it felt great. I felt really strong throughout the race and at the end I felt the strongest I did in the whole race. It was so good to be back running with Steph (Twell) after the year she has been through, that topped it off me.”

Silver medallist Naomi Taschimowitz added: “I’m really happy and really surprised. I was concentrating on keeping the German girl off me at the end and I came through. I was worried that I had gone off too hard because Emma (Pallant) and Steph (Twell) were running really strongly together and I decided to sit in with them. I was a bit worried on the third lap but I knew I felt quite good. I’m really happy with the team performance, we have worked so hard.”

Following her international comeback Twell was thrilled with her performance: “I’m really happy with this race because I really gave it a go. I finished off my 2011 year in a GB vest so I’m happy considering where I was at the beginning of the year. At one point in the race I was contending for gold and silver and I’d done quite a lot of the work, but I didn’t have the legs in me towards the end.

“I’m getting back into international competition so I’m really happy. My ankle didn’t hurt during the race. I’ve got some more training to do over Christmas and this will stand me in good stead for next year.”

Elsewhere, Hannah Walker (Bud Buldaro) made up the scoring quartet in seventh (20:12), with Lauren Howarth in 13th (20:34) and Lily Partridge (self) in 20th in 20.58.

Under-23 Men

2009 European Junior bronze medallist James Wilkinson (Phil Townsend) bounced back from a disappointing Trial race in November to take a well deserved silver medal – and lead the Aviva GB & NI men to team silver – in the Under-23 event.

In a stacked field, the Russian duo of Roman Pozdyaykin and Vyacheslav Shalamov were initially to the fore with Wilkinson and Mitch Goose (Tim/Pauline Ash) the leading Brits in 12th and 16th respectively after lap one.

In fact, there was very little to split the pack in the early stages with only two seconds between the top 20 after the opening ten minutes of running.

By the half way point Wilkinson and Goose looked comfortable and were moving well in third and fourth respectively, giving the Aviva GB & NI team a realistic chance of a team medal after missing out 12 months ago.

There was still nothing between the leaders on the penultimate lap but the British pair were now both in podium positions in a breakaway group. The decisive break was made on the final uphill section of the course, however, as Florian Carvalho of France – a former European Junior cross country winner and 2011 European Under-23 1500m champion – moved into top gear and raced clear, building a six second lead ahead of Wilkinson within a minute.

“When he (Carvalho) broke I thought there were still a few of us in it and I really dug in,” said Wilkinson, who disappointingly had to drop out of this event in 2010 and was delighted to finish second (23:47) over the 8.170m course. “I don’t think I’ve run so well since the Trials in Liverpool in 2010, and it was in a quality race, too.”

“I knew I was fit going into it, but Liverpool knocked my confidence a bit (where he fell in the Trial). To win an individual medal is brilliant, it was what I wanted, but I wasn’t going to shout about it.”

Goose, who returned from a lengthy NCAA season to run the UK Trial, finished eighth in 23:57 and admitted that in spite of missing out on an individual medal, he’d enjoyed it: “The race suited me, the course, the way we started…I thought I could medal and I really wanted too, but if I take everything into consideration after a long season, it was a good performance. This is what I run for; this is why we keep coming back. It was great running with Wilko (James Wilkinson); we’ve been running together since we were pretty young, so I enjoyed it.”

Behind them, the scoring quartet was made up of Derek Hawkins (Lawrie Spence) in 26th (24:18) and Phillip Berntsen in 40th (24:32), while Matthew Gillespie (Amanda Gillespie) was credited with the same time in 41st and Matthew Graham (Andrew Craycraft) finished 45th in 24:35.

Senior Women

With arguably one of the most unexpected medal doubles of the day, the senior women packed brilliantly to take team gold led by the superb Gemma Steel (John Nuttall) in third.

The pack had split early on but the leading British contenders in the early stages were Steel alongside Scotland’s Freya Murray (Steve Jones) as the remaining girls packed well behind, although the positions were constantly changing.

Emily Wicks (Keith Donkin) unfortunately stepped off the course with four full laps still to run. The senior debutant had been suffering from slight chest pains in the week leading up to the race and took the wise decision to stop when the chest pains came on during the race. She was taken to the hospital as a precautionary measure.

Meanwhile, a lead trio has broken clear led by Ireland’s Fionnuala Britton with Ana Dulce Felix (Portugal) and Nadia Ejjafini (Italy) for company and Steel five seconds behind in fourth.

With just over two laps to go Steel had moved into third and appeared to be closing down on Britton as she worked her way through into second with a lap and a half to go; behind her, the remaining Brits were all well inside the top 20.

While Britton picked up, Steel was caught by a rejuvenated Dulce Felix but finished well above her own expectations in the bronze medal position in 26:04 (over 8.170m), while the exceptional team packing further down the field saw Murray finish just outside the top ten in 12th (26:51), Julia Bleasdale (self) in 13th (26:58), Elle Baker (Dave Turnbull) – on her Birthday – in 14th (26:59) and Hatti Dean (Bud Baldaro) in 18th (27:07).

“I didn’t expect that at all,” said a shocked but delighted Steel. “I think I’d have been happy with top ten but you just don’t know in races like this. I was working as hard as I could but I didn’t want to blow up.

“John (her coach John Nuttall) had told me that if I was still in contention after 5km then to push on so I did that. I think overall I ran a more sensible race than I usually do, I definitely went off slower.

“I was 27th last year so who would have thought it! I was in such a daze even when I was running; I thought I was dreaming it!”

Senior Men

The 2011 European Cross Country Championships concluded with team silver for the Aviva GB & NI senior men, led home by Andy Vernon (Nic Bideau) in ninth (29:39), a brilliant performance after finishing outside the team medals 12 months ago.

A stellar finish by Andy Vernon, backed up by Ryan McLeod (John Nuttall) in 13th (29:45), James Walsh (Mike Baxter) in 15th (29:46) and Mark Draper (Andy Hobdell) in 22nd (29:51) ensured a podium finish, while Andy Baddeley in 25th (29:57) and Frank Tickner in 37th (30:24) made up the squad.

The performances of McLeod and Walsh were the major plus points for the senior men and will leave plenty of food for thought for the future, while Vernon’s top ten finish is a clear indicator that the Aldershot athlete has got what it takes to win medals in the future on the international stage.

The race began at a fast pace with Atelaw Bekele taking an early lead and this was to remain intact for the duration of the race, with the Belgian athlete winning at a canter.

Reflecting on the race, Vernon admitted he had mixed emotions: “I did want to finish top five but I was ninth. The race started a bit differently than I thought it would, and I stayed back a little bit and then on the second big lap I tried to get back and I got back to them (leading pack). 400 metres later they started to go and I was in a bit of no man’s land. I picked off the dribs and drabs but the rest were too far ahead to do anything. Had I been a bit closer I could have maybe been in the mix with the sprint finish at the end.

“I’m happy with the top ten finish; it’s the best I have done so far in the senior men’s race. It still gives me something to work for and gets me back here hungrier next year to do better.”

An ecstatic McLeod said: “I was really happy with my race. I was moving forward throughout the whole race and I don’t think anyone really passed me. I set off comfortably and worked my way through and made the top 15 in the end. I am very, very happy with that.

“It was a strong finish. I think I got six places in the last 400 metres so I’m very happy with the way I came home. The conditions were great they were just like Liverpool, nice underfoot – a track runner’s course definitely. I am just so happy with the team and how we performed on the day because the senior men’s is a strong race. It’s great that we can bring a medal home.”

Ian Stewart, Aviva GB & NI Team Leader and UKA’s Head of Endurance was delighted; he said: “Everyone’s won a medal and it’s the best result we’ve ever had, the senior men were just fantastic fighting for that silver in the last race. I’m so proud of everyone; we’ve come such a long way in such a short time and I’m absolutely over the moon – it’s just brilliant for British endurance running.”