Emelia Gorecka emerged from the mud and hailstones of Holyrood Park with a stunning individual victory for the shivering home crown to cheer on an afternoon when the team honours in the Morrisons Great Edinburgh Country were claimed by the runners in the stars and stripes of the USA.
Inspired by Chris Derrick’s repeat win in the senior men’s long course race and Makena Morley’s success in the junior women’s 4km event, Team USA finished convincing winners of the International Team Challenge, ahead of Europe and Great Britain, in the annual IAAF Cross Country Permit meeting. Garrett Heath also beat a stellar field to retain his crown in the separate men’s 4km short course race but Gorecka provided a glorious finish to the meeting for Britain in the senior women’s 6km.
The Aldershot athlete made her senior international debut in the Edinburgh meeting twelve months ago, finishing third behind British team mate Gemma Steel and Ireland’s two-time European cross country champion Fionnuala Britton. She proceeded to get the better of Jo Pavey in a titanic 5,000m duel at the British Championships last summer but could only finish eighth in the Commonwealth Games final in Glasgow as Pavey took a brilliant bronze at the age of 40.
The disappointment continued for Gorecka when she faded to eleventh in the Under 23 race at the European Cross Country Championships in Samakov, Bulgaria, last month, but in Edinburgh the 20-year-old returned to form with a vengeance.
Steel lined up as the strong favourite, four weeks on from her European senior victory in Bulgaria, and was installed in the lead group at the end of the opening 2km circuit. As Gorecka and Britton started to pull ahead on the second lap, though, the newly crowned continental champion started to fade, dropping ten seconds behind in seventh place by the bell.
Gorecka got a 5m gap on a short uphill climb and then put her foot on the gas with 1km to go, making light of the cloying mud and a hail storm as she forged relentlessly clear. She finished seven seconds ahead of Britton in 21 min 26sec, with Spain’s Trihas Gebre third for Team Europe and Brianne Nelson of the USA - looking not so much cool as ice-chilled, wearing shades – in fourth place. Britton led Europe to victory in the team section (with 44 points), ahead of the USA (61) and Britain (81).
“It was one of the best performances of my career, particularly coming after what happened in Bulgaria,” said Gorecka. “There was no better way to come back from that. I was in very good shape for Bulgaria; on the day things just weren’t quite right for me.
“The best way to put things right is to come back and run one of the best races of your life.
“I was reluctant to get to the front early on because of the way the course was but with the lap to go I found myself at the front without trying to go. With about 1km to go, my coach [Mick Woods] said, ‘Right, go now.’
“That’s when I started pushing the pace. I was waiting and waiting. Then, when I got the call, I just tried to leg it as fast as I could.”
Steel finished a drained eleventh in 22:25, 59 seconds down on Gorecka. “I just felt awful, really sluggish,” she said. “It was a bad day at the office. You can’t do anything about it when you feel like that - just carry on for the team.”
Bizarrely, Derrick confessed to not having felt at his best during the course of the senior men’s 8km race. “I wasn’t feeling too good, so I decided to push on to get through it,” said the man from Naperville, Illinois, a convincing winner of the race twelve months ago.
The American was at the front for most of the opening lap, together with Alemayehu Bezabeh of Spain, but dropped back a little as team-mate Andrew Colley and Britain’s Charlie Hulson took up the running on lap two. At the start of the final circuit, though, Derrick made his move.
He opened up a ten metre lead and managed to stay clear, though his fast-finishing US team-mate Jacob Riley closed the gap to two seconds, Derrick prevailing in 26 min 31sec. Gorecka’s Aldershot club mate Jonny Hay finished a fine third in 25:36 but the US were convincing winners of the team section, with 30 points, with GB second (66) and Europe third (81).
“Jacob’s one of my college mates at Stanford and I’ve never lost to him, so I’m glad I was able to hold him off,” said Derrick. “The strength in the US is really deep right now. We’re putting some star teams out there.”
They are indeed. They even took the honours in the prestige non-team event, Heath showing that his victory in the senior men’s 4km short course race was anything but a fluke.
Asbel Kiprop led the way in the early stages of the opening lap but at the bell the world 1500m champion had three rivals alongside him: fellow Kenyan and reigning world cross country champion Japheth Korir plus Heath and Dathan Ritzenhein, both of the USA.
Korir tried to match Heath on the second lap but halfway around the circuit the American started to forge what proved to be a winning advantage, crossing the line eight seconds ahead of the Kenyan in 12min 11sec. Kiprop finished third in 12:29, with Britain’s Tom Lancashire an impressive fifth in 12:35.
“I guess it’s the cold and mud,” said Heath, when asked what it was about Edinburgh that brought the best out of him. “I’m from Minnestona and I’m used to cross country skiing. My fingers and toes haven’t been as frozen as this since I used to compete in that.”
Heath, a two-time state Nordic skiing champion of Minnesota in his youth, was happy to have taken so many high profile distance running scalps. Every time you get a chance to run against guys like that you’ve got to take down as many as you can,” he said.
The runners in the innovative 2 x 1km mixed international relay had to battle against biting winds at the start of the meeting. Laura Muir led from the gun to the changeover on the opening leg, raising cheers from the home crowd.
The Scot, who opened her year with a quick indoor 3,000m clocking in the British Milers’ Club meeting at the Emirates Arena in Glasgow the previous Sunday, handed over a stride ahead of US indoor 12500m bronze medallist Heather Kampf.
Ross Matheson held on to the lead until the final 300m, when James Bowness shot past to claim victory in 6min 43sec for England B, who were led off by Gemma Kersey. The England A team of Jemma Simpson and Ross Murray took second place in 6:46, with Muir and Matheson third for Scotland in 6:47.
“I didn’t know quite what to expect, but it was fun,” said Muir, the eighth fastest 1500m runner in the world last year. “I’m glad I managed to hand over to Ross in front. That wind was very strong but I’m used to training in it.”
Like the men’s short course race, the mixed relay did not count towards the overall International Team Challenge, which finished with a resounding victory for the USA (121 Points), ahead of Team Europe (189) and Great Britain (223).
Cerake Geberkidane of the US went haring off in the junior men’s 6km race. The Oklahoma State University student had a lead of three seconds at the end of the first circuit but pre-race favourite Yemaneberhan Crippa, running for Team Europe, was already closing on the young American.
On the climb up Haggis Knowe on lap two the Ethiopian orphan, who was adopted by an Italian couple, was on the heels of Geberkidane. They entered the final lap side by side but Crippa then showed the pedigree that won him the European junior cross country title last month, pulling clear to win by ten seconds from Geberkidane in 19min 57sec. The USA fairly blitzed the team race, with Olin Hacker third, Caleb Webb fourth, Andrew Rafla fifth and Elijah Armstrong sixth.
American Makena Morley dominated the junior women’s 4km race from start to finish. The 18-year-old opened a big lead on the first lap. Her closest pursuer was team mate Anna Rohrer and at the half way point there was a US 1-2-3, with Ryen Frazier occupying third position.
Rohrer, an award winning flute and piccolo player, tried to close the gap on the final lap but had to play second fiddle as Morley romped home a clear winner. Frazier was unable to hang on to third place, Dane Anna-Emilie Moller of Team Europe coming through to make the podium ahead of Brit Phoebe Law. The US took the team prize, with GB second and Europe third.