Ireland's Fionnuala McCormack stands out at Cross Country international
East African athletes lifted the top prizes at the IAAF Northern Ireland Cross Country International in Belfast but it was Ireland's two-time European champion Fionnuala McCormack who drew most attention from the sizeable attendance, writes Malcolm McCausland.
The meeting incorporated the Home Countries and Celtic Internationals as well as including the British Athletics Cross Country Challenge. There was a change of venue too with the meeting held on a hilly course in the Billy Neill Centre, Dundonald for the first time.
Three women broke away early in the women's 8K race and it all came down to the final sprint as Ethiopia's Meskerem Mamo edged out compatriot Hawi Feysa with both sharing the same 26:10 timing. Kenya's Pauline Kamulu claimed the final podium place another three seconds back.
The trio had run in a train for practically all the race with Kamulu doing all the work in front followed by Feysa and Mamo in the caboose. But it was the African 5000m bronze medallist who showed the greatest strength on the way home to eke out a crucial few centimetres advantage at the finish line.
Fionnuala McCormack who was making her first competitive appearance since the arrival of daughter Isla at the beginning of October 2018 was a credible sixth.
She had followed the Africans early on but slipped back to the chasing group around halfway.
“This is my first race in a year, since this meeting at Antrim last January,” said McCormack. “I always love running in Belfast so I thought “what better place to start back?” I have no plans at the minute other than to get back to full fitness.”
First NI/Ulster woman to cross the line was Rio Olympian Breege Connolly in 20th and closely followed by Nakita Burke (24th) and Jessica Craig (28th). That gave the Red Hand ladies third place behind England and the Republic in the Home Countries match.
Burundi's Birhanu Balew caused an upset in the men's race taking a four second victory over Kenyan Richard Yator in 29:42 with Ethiopia's Chala Beyo a close up third another two seconds back.
Pre-race favourite Kenya's Paul Tanui was in contention for most of the race but the Olympic 10,000m silver medallist faded to fourth as Balew produced a storming final last 200m.
British & Irish International Masters' winner 35-year-old Mark McKinstry had an exceptional run to lead home the NI/Ulster squad in 13th spot despite a fall at the end of the first lap when contesting the lead with the Africans.
“I knew I was in good shape and I just wanted to see what it was like to run with them (the Africans),” said the North Belfast Harrier. “Maybe I went out too fast but at this level I think you have to do that. I was unlucky to fall and I never really got back after that.”
Ireland's Cormac Dalton just got the better of fellow country man Sean O'Leary to claim the Celtic U23 gold medal. Scotland's Freddie Carcas took third.
England's Zak Mahamed followed up his victory in Spain the previous Sunday by running away with the U20 race and was not flattered in the least by his winning margin of at least 100 metres. Grace Brock made it an English double in the age group with a smooth win in the corresponding women's race.
Ireland's Scott Fagan lifted the boys' Celtic U17 title while Scotland's Cera Gemmell was the top Celtic U17 girl after finishing an excellent fourth overall behind Brock.