Yelling & Kipsiro take titles (AAI website) After 31 years one would have thought that there were few fresh reporting angles on the annual Belfast international cross country extravaganza. How wrong can one be! NI Athletics has not experienced such a nightmare organisational scenario since the days of the late 1970s when a certain Steve Cram made a vain attempt to compete at a snowbound Mallusk venue. Thirty years later it was almost a case of déja vu when an unanticipated snowstorm produced chaos in the Province. Certainly if this had occurred 24 hours later, travel logistics and safety considerations would have ensured the cancellation of this annual sporting showpiece. Luckily conditions improved sufficiently on the day to ensure a classic slush and mud combination at the picturesque Stormont venue – ideal for cross country purists.
On the day prior to the event the cream of international athletics had endured a marathon 8 hour journey from Gatwick. This included an appalling 2 hour delay between landing at and exiting Belfast City Airport. However, the stars of the show remained unfazed by such inconvenience.
This included the always affable Hayley Yelling – the most consistent class performer in British cross country over the past 10 years. The evergreen 34 year old showed from the gun that she was determined to make amends for her Stormont runner-up spot 5 years ago. The diminutive athlete pressurised a quality field to such an extent that from an early stage there was little doubt as to the eventual winner. At the tape Hayley had a comfortable 30 yards victory over a resurgent Cathy Butler and a somewhat surprised Deirdre Byrne from Ireland, whose 3rd place proved that her excellent 18th spot in last month’s European Championship was no fluke.
Afterwards Yelling’s only complaint related to her freezing feet. She said, “Training is going well for my race in Edinburgh next Saturday which should be a real test of how I might perform at the same venue in the World Cross Country at the end of March.”
A somewhat less satisfied Stephanie Twell struggled in the testing conditions to finish sixth. She commented that she had found the race a lot harder than her runaway victory in the European Junior Championships in Spain. However, the promising 18 year old put the weekend down to much needed experience – the real test will come in Edinburgh in March, as well as on the track over 1500 metres next summer.
In the Men’s race Belfast was once again privileged to see a true world-class middle distance star in action. Ugandan World 5000 Metres bronze medallist, Moses Kipsiro, who won at Stormont a year ago, appeared to toy with his classy opponents for much of the race before unleashing a devastating burst on the last lap to overpower the 2006 winner Barnabas Kosgei of Kenya. Afterwards Kipsiro commented that he had hardly ever seen snow before never mind competed in such conditions. He remains undecided regarding competing in the World Cross Country. He made no bones about the fact that his eyes remain on the main prize, namely the gold medal in Beijing next summer. With his credentials no-one can say that such an ambition is unrealistic.
Top Irish finisher was St Malachy’s Gary Murray who was pleased with a best ever 7th position which followed an excellent 26th place in the European Championships. He said that his training was going well and Stormont gave him a good idea of how he will perform in Edinburgh this weekend.
While these international athletes claimed most of the media attention, one should not overlook the hundreds of age group competitors in the other 9 races, many of whom had travelled from Britain to race as part of the 4-venue UK Cross Country Challenge which appears to go from strength to strength. One of the most impressive up-and-coming stars is City of Lisburn’s Ciara Mageean, who not only defeated the equally classy Eimear Black of Ballymena, but also took the scalps of a number of girls up to 4 years her senior. A delighted Ciara said she was still trying to combine running with camogie – her other sporting passion. There is little doubt that the talented 3000 metres UK Schools and AAAs Under-17 Champion will continue to enjoy considerable success regardless of which sporting route she eventually pursues.
All in all another highly successful athletics promotion for the organisers who will now have only a short breathing space before the Irish Indoor Championships at the Odyssey at the end of this month.
Full results available on www.niathletics.org