ATHLETICS: Spirit of the Irish is justly rewarded

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Six brothers and sisters gathered at their parents' farmhouse in Cornafaen, County Cavan on Saturday night to celebrate the achievement of the absent baby of the family.

Catherina, the youngest of the McKiernan brood at 25, had given them huge cause to drink deep and make merry in winning her first major international cross-country championship after three consecutive years as world silver medallist.

Despite her characteristically downbeat utterances before the inaugural European Championships at Alnwick Castle, McKiernan was widely expected to do well, even though she had to re-adjust herself to the fact that it was to be shorter than the 6,000 metres the organisers had mistakenly announced.

But no one would have predicted that this strong, dogged runner would win with a sprint - a sprint, moreover, that lasted for the best part of 400 metres as she shook off her last challenger, Julia Vaquero of Spain, to finish clear by a second. Before the race, Catherina told her sister, Dympna, that she would rather come third than second again. She won because she wanted to come first even more badly; when Vaquero moved up and clashed arms with her in the final 50 metres, it was as if the Irish girl's will was creating a force-field beyond which she could not go.

McKiernan did get to run more than the race distance of 4,500 metres after all - and it might have cost her the title. Realising that her two companions at the head of the field had taken the wrong line during the opening lap, she ducked under a tape, hopped over a log obstacle and rejoined the field as the courses converged a few metres further on.

By that time, however, she had lost 20m on Portugal's Fernanda Ribeiro and Russia's Alla Zjilayeva, who had mistakenly followed the TV camera buggy as it circumnavigated the obstacle. However, McKiernan had enough strength in her legs to prevail, and sheheads towards the next World Championships - at Durham in March - with growing confidence.

The women's race, where the Romanians surprisingly took the team title, lost far less than the men's by the absence of African runners. Even so, Britain were able to do no better than ninth, with Andrea Wallace their leading finisher in 26th place.

The men also finished outside the medals, in fourth, with Andrew Pearson a commendable 11th and Richard Nerurkar, the World Cup marathon champion, a disappointing 25th behind the runaway winner, Paulo Guerra of Portugal.

"The effort was magnificent," Bud Baldaro, Britain's national cross-country coach, said, "but the achievement puts into perspective our standing in Europe. We are going to slip away in Europe and the world unless we can establish distance running squads with the help of the Government."

By that, Baldaro means a set-up such as already exists in Portugal, France and Spain, where top runners train together regularly at altitude supported by indirect Government funding. The £30,000 allocated recently to British cross-country by the British Federation will only take them a few steps along the way.

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