McKiernan is equal to her toughest test

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A CYNIC would say that the only way that a European was ever going to win a major cross country event in these days of African domination had to be by inventing a Europeans only championship, which is exactly what happened. Yesterday's inaugural E uropean Championship at Alnwick brought an overwhelming win for Portugal's Paulo Guerra in the men's race and a battling victory for Ireland's Catherina McKiernan in the thrilling women's event.

In the championship's favour, here was a real, tough, winding sticky course; cross country as it was intended, not some sprint across a flat racecourse with a few hurdles to interrupt progress. Beneath the brooding walls and aptly named Hotspur Tower of Alnwick Castle, Northumberland provided an impressive backdrop for an event that deserved a bigger crowd on this windswept afternoon.

The engrossing women's race was the highlight, fought out down to the final stride between McKiernan and Spain's Julia Vaquero. The three-times World Championship silver medallist, McKiernan had taken one look at the course with its short sharp hill and tricky turns and said: "we have fields like that at home but I would never run on them." No matter that, nor the fact that at the crucial stage in the 4.5km race the two leaders ahead of her, Portugal's Ferananda Ribeiro and Alla Zjiliayesa, of Russia, followed the television buggy instead of jumping over a log.

McKiernan lost time doing the right thing and going over the obstacle, but said afterwards that she was not troubled by the incident, not that the direct route greatly helped Portugal, the favourites,who packed solidly in the race. Ribeiro led on the first ascent of the hill, but on the second visit to the climb, Mc Kiernan looked strong, and pulled away a little. Vaquero was determined not to be left behind and fought back, and in a magnificent, painful finish in worsening, almost gale conditions, McKiernan held off the Spaniard.

Portugal faded, leaving Romania to win the team event with Britain ninth, Andrea Wallace being the highest-placed individual at only 26.

Britain promised much in the men's event but finally succumbed to a fierce mid-race burst by Guerra. For the first two laps of the 9km race Richard Nerurkar, three times the British national cross country champion, appeared to have every chance of countering the Portuguese challenge.

Although Andrew Pearson, the Longwood Harrier who has had a troubled year through injuries, joined Nerurkar in their early thrust to lead the field, the Portuguese attacked in a pack. Guerra, Antonio Pinto and Domingos Castro quickly ate into a 10-metre lead that Pearson gained after 10 minutes and from then on they were never going to release their hold.

Not even the German, European and Olympic 5,000 metres champion Dieter Baumann could respond when Guerra extended his lead of over 100 metres. Perhaps it was fitting that Guerra was one of the few men in the field who had beaten several Kenyan runners this season.

Britain's early attempt to keep in a tight group amongst the leaders had been gradually eroded as the Portuguese, Spaniards and French strengthened their positions. Even Baumann found himself drifting deep into the field. Nerurkar drifted back to 25th position but Pearson sustained a brave attempt to stay with the Portuguese until they took the race by the scruff. His 11th position was the best by a British runner but was nevertheless disappointing on this course that was almost purpose built for the British.

At least the setting helped make up for some organisational flaws, not least the fact that the British women's team management convinced themselves that they should be entering six runners instead of five. A cheerful Tanya Blake had to come to terms withbeing told that she was to be the victim.