Rhona Auckland became the first Scottish athlete to win an individual gold at the European Cross Country Championships in Bulgaria yesterday.
The Aberdeenshire runner found the mountainous course near Samokov very much to her liking as she defeated a quality field to win the under-23 women’s race. There were also solid runs from Stephanie Twell and Callum Hawkins as Scottish athletes enjoyed a fine championship for Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
“I am absolutely delighted,” said 21-year-old Auckland, who had set herself the target of improving on last year’s seventh-place finish. “I knew my strength was in the endurance side of things. I’ve not got a fast start and I thought the course was challenging enough to work my way through and I am pleased I managed to do that.”
After sitting just off the lead pack for much of the race, she moved through to the front for the final lap and maintained a high tempo right through to the finish to take an unexpected, but deserved gold.
It ends the season on a high for the Torphins-raised runner, coached by Ken and Joyce Hogg, after she narrowly missed out on a place at Glasgow 2014 in the 10,000m.
“I am really surprised,” said Auckland. “I’ve had a good solid season, no injuries. It’s good to know that pays off. Tactically, I thought 6k would be very fast, but, with the course being quite challenging, people were dropping off. It was great for it to be not deadpan-flat for a change. It was a really a good cross country course.”
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She also revealed she had been lifted before the races as the national anthem played out across the course to mark the women’s under-20 team winning gold.
“It was really inspiring on the start line. We heard the national anthem for the junior girls and we were saying ‘yes, let’s keep that going all day’.” she said.
Host nation favourite Militsa Mircheva took silver behind Auckland, with Gulshat Fazlitdinova, of Russia, taking bronze. Beforehand, many had seen Auckland’s GB team-mate and trials winner Emelia Gorecka as a more likely winner but although she started well, she eventually faded to 12th.
It became double gold for Auckland as the women’s under-23s won the team title too. There was further British success in the senior women’s race as last year’s silver medallist Gemma Steel won gold after a shoulder-to-shoulder duel with team-mate Kate Avery. Steel just edged it on the final run-in by 0.01 second.
Just behind, there was also a heartening seventh place finish for former Commonwealth 1500m bronze medallist Steph Twell, showing a welcome return to form after several injury-hit seasons.
“That was the race I wanted, to empty the tank. It’s my highest place at the Europeans. I was on the cusp of seeing that medal quite close and, for me, that is getting back to the old Steph. I’m super happy. It reminded me of my junior days. This is where I began and it is a fresh start for me again,” she said, as the GB team claimed another gold.
Callum Hawkins ran bravely in the men’s under-23 race. Suffering with a hamstring problem in the build-up, he led for much of the race in an attempt to draw the sting from the opposition. But he was outsprinted in the last lap as Russia claimed a 1-2-3 and team-mate Jonathan Hay pipped him to fourth. He at least had the consolation of a team silver.
“I tried to make it as hard as possible. I tried to take the kick out of people. Unfortunately, that’s all I could do. No-one was taking it on, so I thought I would make it hard and take some of the track boys out of it,” said Hawkins.
England’s Commonwealth Games 800m finalist Jessica Judd re-affirmed her potential as she won silver in the women’s under-20 race, with team-mate Lydia Turner taking bronze, to lead the team victory as GB & NI swept the female team titles.
Of the other Scots, Andrew Butchart and Luke Caldwell were 35th and 40th respectively in the senior men’s race and Jonathan Glen was 46th in the men’s under-20 race.
Butchart said: “It was a tough run. It got the better of me. It was really fast at the start and you hit so many hills. You have to be really strong. I think I was just a bit out of my depth. It’s my first senior, so I’ll try and come back next year and give it another go.”
The senior men’s race was dominated by African-born runners. Former Kenyan duo Polat Kemboi Arikan and Ali Kaya led a Turkey one-two from Ethiopian-born Alemayehu Bezabeh, running for Spain.
But, for Auckland, another test awaits. She travelled to Bulgaria packed with books for revision ahead of an exam this Wednesday. A medical student at the University of Edinburgh, she is looking towards a possible future role advising the Scottish Government on health policies and how to tackle obesity. That’s for the future, but for now, she is setting a fine example.
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