Britton’s great feat stands her in good stead for Edinburgh

Jetting into Dublin Airport, just as she had done so many times before after racing abroad, Fionnuala Britton was ill-prepared for the sight that greeted her in the arrivals hall. “There were people there to congratulate me,” recalls the Irishwoman.

No less than Britton deserved, you feel, after taking the European cross country title last month in Slovenia, cementing her place in the storied lineage of Irish distance runners. It was enough to merit a hastily-arranged civic reception in her home county of Wicklow and no doubt a few toasts with the Black Stuff. “I had to stand up in front of everyone which is a bit nerve-wracking,” she grins. “But it’s nice that it means something for other people. You don’t always feel that when you’re running on your own, how it affects everyone else.”

Having been on the fringes for several years, the 27-year-old can no longer run in obscurity. On Saturday, she will lead the European team at the Bupa Great Edinburgh International in Holyrood Park against rival squads from Great Britain and the USA.

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For many of the elite, it will be the start of seven months of graft towards the Olympics in London. A new year with new targets, says Britton. “I’m taking confidence from winning the Euros but I know that it won’t have much bearing on 2012.”

In Beijing four years ago, she failed to reach the steeplechase final after battling through to the climax of the world championships the previous summer. Not fully fit, Olympic disappointment had seemed inevitable then. This time round, she is determined it will be much different. On the advice of her coach Chris Jones, Britton will trade hurdles and water jumps for the relative safety of the flat in an attempt to qualify for both the 5000 and 10,000 metres in London. Lacking true speed but with endurance to spare, it seems an obvious move. Yet she confesses that it is a reluctant one.

“The problem is I’ve always enjoyed the steeple so much. But I can see a lot of sense in changing. Most steeplechasers are just taller than me and they have the speed of a 1500m runner. So it almost feels like I’m moving down from my natural distance, especially coming off cross country where it’s mainly five kilometres and upwards.”

There would be a rather larger reception in Ireland if her gamble pays off. Sport, and the funding of athletes, has enjoyed relative protection from the Irish government’s fiscal problems. “There’d have been uproar if they’d cut back with the Olympics just across the water,” Britton says. Deirdre Ryan will be a contender in the high jump, while Ciaran O’Lionaird reached the world 1500m final in Daegu. “Then we have some up and coming athletes,” Britton adds. “There’s a positive mood going into Olympic year.”

Britain, in opposition, will field Scotland’s Freya Murray and Steph Twell, while the men’s squad includes Kilbarchan’s Derek Hawkins and the junior women promising Dundonian Laura Morrow.

The team contest adds an extra competitive twist, Britton underlines. “When you go to European races, you’re up against all those girls so it’s great to run with them.

“The British team will be pretty strong between the girls from the under 23s and then Gemma Steel in such good form. They’ll be tough to beat.”