ATHLETICS : McKiernan at peace in cruel world

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The Independent Online
The course commentator's comments at the finish of Saturday's women's World Cross-Country Championships were simply a matter of fact - "and Catherina McKiernan is going to be in second place for the fourth successive time''. But as the flush-faced Irish runner made her way towards the line the fact seemed almost too cruel to bear.

Four times a silver medallist behind four different winners - this time behind Ethiopia's Olympic 10,000 metres champion, Derartu Tulu. And yet, as she greeted and shook hands with those who had travelled to Durham from her home town of Cornafaen in County Cavan to support her, McKiernan displayed the grace of a champion.

A middle-aged lady brandishing an Irish tricolour held on to her hand. "You. Were. Great." she said. "Thank you," McKiernan said with a twinkling smile. Once McKiernan and Tulu had broken clear of the rest of the field on the final lap of the 6,470 metres course, the result, from an Irish point of view, seemed horribly inevitable.

McKiernan, pale and determined, was clearly digging into her reserves; Tulu, at her shoulder, seemed serene in the knowledge that she had something in reserve - and so it proved as she made the decisive break with 1,000m to go.

Tulu's performance was all the more glorious in the circumstances. The Ethiopian team had arrived in Durham at midnight on Friday after a horrendous three-day journey from Addis Ababa complicated by visa problems, a night stranded at Athens airport and a seven-hour coach journey up from Heathrow featuring the obligatory M25 traffic jam. "Because the travel was really terrible, I did this thing for me," she said with a radiant smile.

Although McKiernan won a gold medal last year, at the newly instituted European Cross-Country Championships in Alnwick, she regarded that event as being simply a step on her way to Saturday's race. "I didn't peak for the Europeans," she said. "I trained towards these championships. I can't put them behind me now until I win. I have to keep trying. God has to be good and he has to help me win one year.''

Kenya, who won all but the women's team title at last year's championships, had a relatively modest day. Although they took all four team titles, they had only one individual winner - Paul Tergat in the men's senior race. Britain's impact on the championship as host country was predictably slight, although Andrew Pearson excelled his own expectations to finish 20th in the men's race.

Ironically Britain's highest finisher, Paula Radcliffe - who had to watch the last World Championships on crutches because of a foot injury - was reduced to tears after her performance. She took 18th place in the women's senior race, where she gambled courageously on keeping in the leading group for two-thirds of the race before succumbing to exhaustion.

After a finish that was a desperate demonstration of will-power she slumped down beside her mother in the frenetic contestants' marquee and cried on the shoulder of Britain's national cross-country coach for women, Bud Baldaro.

What told in the end was the relative lack of training the 21-year-old had been able to put in since recovering from her long-term foot injury in October.

Still deathly pale, but cheered a little by a warm-down jog with her Loughborough University colleague Tanya Blake, Radcliffe put a brave face on things. "I wanted to cover any breaks and give myself a chance," she said. "But I just went. It was so sudden. I have never felt so exhausted at the end of a race."

n Three Ethiopian athletes and their coach went missing from their world cross-country team yesterday, leaving notes saying they did not want to return home. The four women left the college where the 28-strong team were staying and, according to police, caught a London-bound train.