Great Britain and Northern Ireland topped the medal table and equalled last year’s haul with nine medals at the European Cross Country Championships in Samokov, Bulgaria on Sunday 14 December).
It included individual gold medals for Gemma Steel and Rhona Auckland in the senior women’s and U23 women’s races respectively on a great day of cross country for the British team. Steel won the elusive European Cross gold medal which had been missing from her collection after a close tussle with teammate Kate Avery, who claimed a silver medal in her first senior European Cross Country Championships. The two Britons took the lead at the half way point and exchanged positions on numerous occasions before Steel claimed the victory by a margin of just two-hundredths of a second.
After her gold medal triumph, Steel said: “I can’t believe it. I didn’t expect it to be a domestic battle in the end, but I think we helped each other along. My legs felt weak at the end and I thought the altitude was kicking in, so I just needed to find that extra strength somewhere. I thought ‘is she going to give in’ but she was really strong and I was feeling a bit weak to be honest. She had really good posture and I knew she wasn’t going to give it up without a fight, so I was thinking not silver again. Gold was the one I wanted and it’s great to have won it.”
The senior women took a commanding victory in the team event with Steel and Avery followed by team captain Steph Twell, who produced a strong performance to finish in seventh; Lily Partridge in 11th, Sonia Samuels 15th and Elle Vernon in 20th to win the team gold.
Auckland earned the victory of her career with a gutsy performance to take the gold medal in the women’s U23 race. The 21-year-old took the lead with one lap to go and extended the lead even further by the time she came into the finishing straight. The Scot was all smiles at the end as she guided her team to the silver medal as well. The Banchory Stonehaven athlete said, “I’m absolutely delighted – I knew my strength was in the endurance side of things as I haven’t got the fastest start. I think the course was challenging enough to hold back and work my way through and I’m glad I did that. I didn’t think I'd come here and challenge for the gold. I was hoping to better on last year, which was seventh and I knew Emelia (Gorecka) would be strong. I just tried to stick with her and run a race like she does – I was pleased to be able to do that today.”
Alice Wright on her debut for the GB & NI team finished in ninth ahead of Emelia Gorecka in 12th, Maryse Haynes in 15th, Katie Holt 20th and Rebecca Murray (Alex Stanton) in 29th, which was enough to win silver for the team.
The junior women got the team underway in Samokov and despite conditions being hard underfoot, Jessica Judd and Lydia Turner won silver and bronze respectively in an impressive start to the day. Judd finished five seconds behind Turkey’s Emine Hatun Tuna with Birtley’s Turner moving from fourth into a medal position on the finishing straight. The junior women also won the team gold overall after a commanding all round display with five athletes making up the top 15. Amy Griffiths came through in fifth with Becky Straw also in the top ten with an eighth place finish, while Phoebe Law and Georgina Outten were 14th and 26th respectively.
Ross Millington produced a solid display on his European Cross Country senior debut with a composed fifth place finish. Despite the course cutting up towards the end of the day, a young senior men’s team coped well with the conditions. Adam Hickey negotiated his way through the field to finish inside the top ten in ninth with Bolton’s Tom Lancashire 27th. Scottish duo Andrew Butchart and Luke Caldwell came through in 35th and 40th with Tom Wade a place behind in 41st.
Jonny Hay was fourth behind a Russian 1-2-3 to lead the team to the silver medal in the U23 men’s race. Callum Hawkins, the winner at the British Athletics Liverpool Cross Challenge last month was fifth. The junior men’s team were full of debutants in a GB & NI vest in the second race of the day. Michael Vennard in his last year in the age category pressed throughout and moved through the field over the first few short laps and eventually finished in 17th position. Welsh athlete, Jac Hopkins finished two places back in 19th, with Kieran Wood 23rd, Peter Chambers 26th and Jonathan Glen in 46th.