Fionnuala Britton was the clear winner of the women’s 8k race By John Haughey (BBC.co.uk website)
Cork’s Cathal Lombard caused a huge surprise by winning the men’s title at Saturday’s Woodie’s DIY Irish Cross Country Championships in Belfast. Lombard, who was handed a two-year ban in 2004 after using the banned drug EPO, finished eight seconds ahead of favourite Alistair Cragg over 12K.
Fionnuala Britton was in a class of her own in the 8K women’s event with Maria McCambridge over 200m back in second.
The junior titles went to Charlotte fFrench O’Carroll and Michael Mulhare.
Portaferry girl Ciara Mageean finished fourth in the girls event.
Suzanne McCormick’s fifth place in women’s race was the best Northern Ireland placing in the senior races while Finn Valley’s Ian Ward was third in the junior men’s event.
However, all the headlines from Saturday’s event will be generated by Lombard’s win – which is unfair on Britton, who produced a magnificent solo run.
Lombard’s victory would have earned him an automatic place in the World Cross Country Championships in Edinburgh but the Cork man has declined the place, as he is preparing for a marathon outing this Spring.
After failing the drugs test in 2004, Lombard acknowledged that he had taken the banned blood-boosting drug EPO and declared his desire to return to the sport after his ban and “join the fight against doping”.
His ban elapsed in the summer of the 2006 and since then his most noteworthy competitive outing was a second place in the Cork Cross Country Championship before Christmas.
Fionnuala Britton was the clear winner of the women’s 8k race
Lombard’s entry was noted prior to Saturday’s race but none of the pundits were expecting him to make an impact.
How wrong we all were.
The 31-year-old was in the leading bunch right from the start and by lap four he had forged a 20-metre lead over Cragg.
By that stage, twice winner Gary Murray had already dropped out while the likes of Vinny Mulvey and Gary Thornton were having to focus on the battle for third place.
By the penultimate (fifth) lap, Lombard was an astonishing 50 yards clear of the 2005 European Indoor 3000m champion and that became closer to 100 yards by the start of the final circuit.
Cragg did reduce Lombard’s lead significantly on the last lap but the Cork man had enough in hand to claim his first senior national cross country title with Mulvey a distant third.
Lombard’s victory was greeted by scarcely any applause which was in marked contrast to the enthusiastic reception Cragg got on the podium.
“I wouldn’t have anything to say about it,” said Lombard, responding to the observation that many would judge his victory as a bad day for Irish athletics.
Lombard refused to answer any furthers questions on his drugs issue although he did acknowledge that he was shocked to win.
“I knew the course wouldn’t suit him (Cragg) all that much but I thought he would run better than that. I didn’t think I ran that great.”
Alistair Cragg could not catch Cathal Lombard at Queen’s
Cragg admitted that he had been surprised by Lombard’s strength.
“I never counted Lombard in as being as strong as he was. When he went, I was asking myself:’Should I go’. I had my eyes on Murray and Mulvey,” added Cragg.
Asked about his reaction to being beaten by Lombard, Cragg replied: “I don’t condone what he did. It was probably pretty disgusting on his part.
“I don’t think he’ll make the mistake again. (But) I’m surprised people took him in as well as they have.
“Whatever he did, he still has the same body that took him there. He’s obviously known that he’s taken his body to another level and he wants to get back there.”
Cragg added that he had no idea whether Lombard was now a clean athlete.
“I am not sitting in his bedroom every day. I have got no harsh feelings for him. He beat me fair and square today. If he tests positive again, then I’ll have something to say about it.”
However, Olympic Games hopeful Cragg acknowledged that he believed drugs cheats such as Lombard should be handed life bans.
“To me a guy who decides to take that route in life should never be allowed to get back.
“But what he did today, helped me. He took me to a level than I haven’t been in training and that’s why I came here.
Despite his defeat, Cragg will compete in the World Cross Country.
Probably to Athletics Ireland’s relief, Lombard has opted out of the Edinburgh event but he is planning to have a crack at the Rotterdam Marathon on 13 April.
Lombard missed out on the 2004 Athens Games because of his ban but if he betters two hours and 15 minutes in Rotterdam, he will present the Olympic Council of Ireland with a selection poser ahead of Beijing.