THERE was something for everyone at the Bupa Great International yesterday in the mud and chill of Holyrood Park.
Thrills, spills, tales of the unexpected but, ultimately, an overall win for Great Britain & Northern Ireland that will surely please the manufacturers of their shiny new kit.
However, the drama was prolonged to the very last with Gemma Steel, silver medallist at last month’s European cross-country championships, securing a victory in the women’s 6-kilometre race that steered the hosts away from disappointment and towards triumph.
“They always leave it to the women to take care of business in the end,” she smiled. “And they proved me right. I just knew the pressure was probably going to be on us but I didn’t think about that. Being team captain, it was just great to lead the team home.”
In the end, it matters little that GB&NI ended on 159 points, 13 clear of 2013 champions Europe with the USA back in third. With 2014 just 11 days old, there are matters of greater import on the horizon. For most here, trekking through the mud is a masochistic means to build up strength for the tracks and roads ahead.
For those opting out of the indoor campaign, thoughts will swiftly turn to Commonwealth Games or European Championships. For Steph Twell, even a creditable ninth place here will soon be forgotten amid the real business at hand. “These are stepping stone goals,” the Scot, a bronze medallist over 1,500m in Delhi four years ago, confessed.
Yet she was barely 22 seconds adrift of Steel, who consigned two-times winner Fionnuala Britton of Ireland to second, with training partner Emelia Gorecka an impressive third on her debut as a senior. Twell’s priority is Glasgow and getting a full winter’s training, following two years of injuries, will aid her cause.
“I’m slightly further on from last year because the mileage behind me and I’ve accumulated it now,” she confirmed. “I’m getting stronger and stronger all the time. Now I’m starting to turn up the heat in my training. Having back-to-back championships, even though I’ve been around for a very long time, it’s going to be incredibly tough to keep at that level, plus the injuries I’ve had.”
There are still promising signs. As there were for Callum Hawkins, who was sixth in the men’s 8k. His own rehabilitation from injury was confirmed when he shared in European gold but, at 21, he finally has a body which can support his ambitions.
Chris Derrick of the USA surged clear with Britain’s Andy Vernon holding off Bashir Abdi for second. However, Hawkins was relentless in the chasing group, surprising even himself with his pursuit.
“I just wanted to see how it went but I felt I could do pretty well,” the Kilbarchan athlete confirmed. “I don’t know many of the Americans so I just pushed myself up against the British guys, there’s a good rivalry there. But it got to the point where I thought: ‘it’s time to push through’.”
With the 10,000m qualifying time for Glasgow heading his short-term goals, Hawkins plans to fly to the USA in April in search of competitive action. There is no longer any need to tread warily. “All I needed was the miles because I missed so much with having a long time out,” he said.
In the separate invitational 4K, there was a surprise victory for Garrett Heath of the USA who derailed the hopes of Africa’s past masters with an ambitious front run. A lead group of three at the mid-point soon became two with the prodigious Ethiopian Meresa Kahsay, just 17, hovering behind. In a straight dash for the line, Heath prevailed by no more than a stride.
“I never expected to win,” he confessed. He wasn’t alone. The great Kenesisa Bekele was reduced to also-ran in fifth as he prepares for his marathon debut in Paris in April, while world 1,500m champion Asbel Kiprop, victor 12 months ago, was relegated to third. He will hope for better if he returns in August to chase Commonwealth gold, when it really counts.