Fresh from her victory at the European Cross Country Championships in Bulgaria last month, Gemma Steel will be seeking to underline her burgeoning international reputation when she heads the list of British challengers in the Great Edinburgh XCountry at Holyrood Park on Saturday.
The 29-year-old Loughborough athlete broke through into world class territory in 2014 under the guidance of coach, John Nuttall, and advisor Liz McColgan-Nuttall, the Scot who won the World Championship 10,000m title in 1991.
Four weeks on from her triumph at the European Cross Country Championships in Samakov, Steel has chosen to start her 2015 racing schedule by defending her individual title in the senior women’s international 8km race at Holyrood.
Having missed out on the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow after a calf injury, the newly crowned continental champion will have the chance to show her pedigree in the home country of McColgan-Nuttall, the Scottish athletics icon who has inspired her meteoric rise up the global ranks.
“Liz has been a great help to me,” said Steel, whose race in the IAAF Cross Country Permit meeting will be screened live on BBC1. “She has always had a strong belief in my potential.”
Steel launched her 2014 season with a victory in the prestigious Edinburgh event and finished it with triumphs in the senior women’s race at the European Cross Country Championships and in the San Silvetsre Vallecana 10km in Madrid on New Year’s Eve.
In between, the pride of Charnwood Athletics Club, showed outstanding form on the roads, finishing runner-up in the Great Manchester, Great North and Great South Runs. In the Great North Run she clocked a stunning 68 minutes 13 seconds, the fastest half marathon time by a non-Kenyan runner in 2014.
Steel’s main targets in 2015 are a top ten finish at the IAAF World Cross Country Championships in Guiyang, China, on 28 March and a debut marathon in the autumn.
Her victory at Holyrood twelve months ago helped Great Britain to overall victory ahead of the USA and Europe in the International Team Challenge competition, which comprises the senior and junior men’s and women’s races.
Steel will be joined in the Great Britain team for the senior women’s race by Emilia Gorecka, the Aldershot athlete who finished third last year and who beat Jo Pavey in a thrilling battle for the British 5,000m track title in Birmingham last summer.
Team Europe includes Fionnuala Britton, the two-time European cross country champion from Ireland who finished runner-up last year, and Militsa Mercheva, the Bulgarian who took silver behind Auckland in the European under 23 race last month.
In the senior men’s 8km race, Chris Derrick of Team USA will also be going for back to back victories at Holyrood.
Twelve months ago the 24-year-old from Naperville, Illinois, was a convincing winner, having time to remove his woolly hat and rotate it around his head in celebration before crossing the line eleven seconds clear of the field.
Tenth in the 2013 World Cross Country Championships in Bydgoszcz, Poland, Derrick will face the gold and silver medal winners from both the senior and under 23 races at last month’s European Cross Country Championships.
The Team Europe line-up includes Polat Kemboi Arikan of Turkey and Alemayehu Bezabeh of Spain, who finished first and second in the senior race in Samakov, and also Ilgizar Safiulin and Igor Maksimov, the Russians who filled the first two places in the under 23 race.
The British team features Aldershot’s Jonny Hay and Scot Callum Hawkins, who finished fourth and fifth respectively in the under 23 race in Bulgaria in December.
The junior women’s 4km race includes Britain’s Lydia Turner, who took bronze in the under 20 race in Samakov. The junior men’s 6km event showcases the newly crowned European under 20 cross country champion Yemaneberhan Crippa of Italy.
The overall winning team is determined by the best aggregate finishing positions of the six best placed athletes in the senior category, as well as the four best placed athletes in the junior races.
The day also includes a competitive, international invitational, Men’s 4K and a popular mass participation 5K with a sold out field of 3,000 runners taking on their first event of the year, the Great Winter Run, in the picturesque surroundings of Holyrood Park.