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Budapest Golden Weekend for Irish Athletics

A truly magnificent weekend for Irish athletics at the European Cross Country Championships, Budapest 2012 as Fionnuala Britton (Kilcoole AC) became the first athlete to retain the senior women’s European Cross Country title with a simply superb performance and minutes later confirmation that the team gold was also delivered, Linda Byrne (DSD) 8th, Ava Hutchinson (DSD) 20th, Lizzie Lee (Leevale) 23rd, our own Sara McCormack 36th and Sarah Louise Treacy 42nd.

Little did we suspect the golden weekend that was in store as the weekend got off to a bad start at Dublin airport at lunchtime on Friday with the announcement that due to a technical fault (possibly a fire as the rumour mill suggested) at Budapest Airport that our flight would be diverted to Vienna. The good news was we were on our way and would get to Budapest, however, the bad news was that the team and the motley crew of supporters would then face a three hour bus journey from Vienna to Budapest.

It was late when all arrived in Budapest, depending on which coach one was in the arrival time in Budapest was between 11.30 p.m. and 1.30 a.m. It was freezing cold but Budapest itself seemed to be virtually snow free. The next morning being the true athletics people that we are a Clonliffe foursome of Joe Cooper, Gerry Carr, Johnny O’Leary and me decided that we would head out to inspect the course. The venue for the cross country was outside of Budapest in the town of Szentendre. This was easily reached by public transport! A suburban train, which was a throwback to the old Eastern Block days, and as the train left Budapest it became clear that there was snowy conditions ahead, this was then followed by a scenic (not quite) walk in sub zero temperatures from the train station into the town looking for directions – pretty difficult when one’s Hungarian consists of ‘goulash’ and the local’s English was almost as bad, matters were further complicated by reason of the fact that although we knew the race was taking place in a place called Skanzen at an agricultural museum park the locals who did speak English insisted that the agricultural park was closed for the winter and would not re-open until the Spring. Eventually a taxi brought us to the venue – it wasn’t closed until Spring!

The venue itself was somewhat surreal, the course being reminiscent of the course for the Cinque Mulini in Milan where Clonliffe visited for the European Club’s Cross Country a few years back, some half of the lap wound its way through farm buildings, out buildings, a pen of sheep and through a barn. There was a long testing drag, certainly it tested us as we walked! And on the outer side of the course the course careered down a fairly steep hill, did a short loop and then came back up the same sharp hill. A pretty tough course, and oh by the way the course was covered by compact snow. By the way did I also mention that the temperature at this stage was –5.

Sunday morning bright and early we headed to the venue. The crowd at these Championships was very small but fifty percent of the crowd was made up of supporters of Ireland and Great Britain/Northern Ireland including our old friends from East Kilbride AC sporting their kilts and despite the freezing temperatures confirmed the myth that the Scots do not wear anything under their kilts. Hardy men indeed.

The first race of the day was the junior women’s race where the top Irish finisher was Sarah Collins (Finn Valley) in 31st place with Siofra Cleirigh-Buttner (DSD) 36th, Mary Mulhare (Portlaoise) 41st, Claire McCarthy (DSD) 68th and Linda Conroy (Mullingar) 70th. A solid enough performance from the Irish girls resulting in them finishing in 8th place.

The junior men’s team featured the first Clonliffe interest of the day with Ian Guiden running on the Irish junior team which unfortunately was now reduced to four as on doctor’s orders Sean Tobin (Clonmel) was withdrawn from the race due to Illness. On the first of the short laps Stephen Kerr (Armagh AC) and Ian got fairly good starts and were in very good positions very well up, however, 400 metres later disaster struck the Clonliffe man as he hit the ground hard with three other runners, a fall from which he never recovered finding himself at the rear of the field and completely unable to make any impression eventually finishing a very disappointed young athlete in 107th place. Stephen Kerr had an excellent run finishing in 37th place, likewise Eoghan Totten (Newcastle AC) ran very well to be 61st and Killian Mooney (DSD) was 89th. The team due to bad luck finished way down and were 18th overall.

There was no Irish team in the women’s U/23 race but the two athletes running in that race ran well. Laura Behan (KCH) 54th with Una Britton (Kilcoole) 58th.

In the men’s U/23 race the Clonliffe supporters looked forward to seeking Dave Fitzmaurice as Fitzie was running in his second U/23 Europeans. A pretty solid run from Fitzie as he was the third Irish scorer in 76th place. A very good run from John Travers (Donore) in this race as he moved himself steadily through the field after holding back at the start to finish in 44th place. Other Irish: Patrick Hogan (Ferrybank) 52nd, Sam Mealy (Crusaders) 80th, Chris Johnston (Letterkenny) 86th.

Next up was the eagerly anticipated senior women’s race. The smart money was on Fionnuala medaling but what colour? It was clear, however, that once proceedings got underway that Fionnuala was in control always running at the front of the field and looking relaxed over the earlier short laps through the farm buildings. As the field spread out Fionnuala was at the front of proceedings but never opening a gap and always with an athlete or two on her tail. The fancied Portuguese Felix who had been tracking Fionnuala in the early stages then fell off the pack back to maybe 5th, surely she was now spent and was no longer a feature? With one to go Fionnuala was in control as she opened a small gap, however, out of nowhere the Portuguese athlete was back and was hunting down her diminutive Irish prey. Fionnuala roared on by the Irish who were all over the course continued to open a small gap, the field disappeared into the farm buildings and out of view, we watched the big screen and kept an eye on the finish straight. After what seemed like an age eventually the athletes appeared in view heading towards the finishing straight. The gap was coming down as Felix got closer and closer, however, the Wicklow girl held her nerve to retain her European crown by a margin of two points. Immediately we were jumping up and down in a tight knit circle chanting ‘championies championies ole ole ole’.

Linda Byrne was having the race of her life as she was in a top ten position, over the last lap she had turned at from 10th to 8th setting the foundations for an Irish medal winning performance, the commentator had on the last lap suggested that we were in 3rd place, at the finish he was suggesting we were 1st, however, with France’s final runner still to finish, could we be pipped or could the impossible happen. The final French runner crossed the line, the result flashed up – Ireland a win by one point. Cheers and tears!

In fact the result flashed on screen was slightly wrong as Ireland tied with France but won on count back. Next rush over to the presentation area, ignore European Athletics ‘clean area’ for presentation as the Irish support gate-crashed the presentation, needless to say one Harry Gorman got himself into the correct position for the TV cameras!

Amhrán na bhFiann played at an international athletics event not once but twice in five minutes. On the winners podium not only an Irish team but, and on the first time ever in which a Clonliffe athlete ran in the senior women’s race, she, Sara McCormack had a gold medal around her neck. More cheers and tears.

The men’s championship was won by Italian Andrea Lalli as he took a very comfortable win to complete a unique European hat trick – individual winner of the junior men, U/23 men and now senior men’s championship. From the Irish athletes Brendan O’Neill (DSD) had an excellent race finishing 22nd, at one stage O’Neill was as high as 11th place and his brave run was rewarded with a superb senior debut. Joe Sweeney (DSD) was 27th, Dave Rooney (Raheny) 38th, Michael Mulhare (Portloaise) 44th, Sean Hehir (Rathfarnham) 52nd and Brian Maher (KCH) 73rd. The Irish team finished 7th overall, team winners were Spain from Great Britain and Northern Ireland and Italy.

By the end of championships the temperatures had risen from –5 to a balmy –2. Some hot food and maybe a warming beverage were the order of the day, the happy band of Irish troops retired to Beckett’s in Central Budapest where the gathering Irish support including fellow Clonliffe Harriers Padraig Keane and Noreen Keane analysed and celebrated the achievements, watched football on television, had some drink until long into the night and then witnessed Padraig Keane’s audition for the part of a Budapest sports quiz master.

In all a superb golden weekend that will live long in the memory.

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