In the first of four themed features ahead of this year’s SPAR European Cross Country Championships in Piemonte-La Mandria Park on 11 December, we look back at when Great Britain played host to the inaugural championships in Alnwick in 1994.
The next feature will focus on the 1998 European Cross Country Championships which took place in Ferrara, the first of three times the championships has been staged on Italian soil.
Magnificent McKiernan casts off her bridesmaid mantle
After finishing the runner-up for a third successive year at the World Cross Country Championships in Budapest in March 1994, Catherina McKiernan couldn’t help laughing when someone suggested she should swap the green vest of Ireland for a bridesmaid’s gown.
The advent of a European Cross Country Championships, held for the first time at Alnwick in the far north of England, afforded the self-effacing country girl from County Cavan with the opportunity to cast off the shackles and emerge as a champion on the international stage.
McKiernan, who learned to run as a child in the fields surrounding her parents’ dairy farm in Cornafean, and who trained on the local golf course in her lunch hour, duly took her chance on a challenging windswept course - but not without having to dig deep and show the kind of mettle that was to make her a global marathon star in years to come.
Frustratingly beaten to world cross country gold by Lynn Jennings of the US in 1992, by Portugal’s Albertina Dias in 1993 and by Kenyan Hellen Chepngeno in Budapest nine months earlier in 1994, McKiernan was not to be denied the lead role in the shadow of Alnwick Castle – where, three years previously, Kevin Costner had played the starring role in the filming of Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves, and where the first two Harry Potter films were to be shot in the early 2000s.
That was despite the 25-year-old taking a first look at the testing course, with its sharp 60 metre-long hill, its tricky, winding turns and sticky underfoot conditions, and remarking: "We have fields like that at home but I would never run on them."
And the pre-race favourite also lost some 30 metres on Portugal’s Fernanda Ribeiro and Alla Zhilyayeva of Russia when her fellow-leaders decided to follow the television buggy at the end of the opening one-kilometre section, while she veered under the tape to jump over a log, as should have been required.
McKiernan had already had to work hard to close down Ribeiro, the newly crowned European - and soon-to-be world and Olympic - 10,000m champion, who had set off at a fierce clip. She was to do so for a second time to make up lost ground.
As Ribeiro's challenge faded, the Irishwoman attacked Julia Vaquero at the bottom of the hill on the second and final main lap. She had to kick twice on the run-in but in a thrilling finish in near gale-force conditions, McKiernan found the strength to beat the Spaniard by a second in 14:29. "To win a European title is something to be proud of," said McKiernan, "especially with it being the first ever at cross country."
The race for the bronze medal also had a profound impact on the team standings. Elena Fidatov held off Zhilyayeva to lead Romania to the inaugural team title by just one point from France and three points from Portugal whose leading counter Ribeiro drifted out of medal contention and back to sixth in the latter stages.
But the first ever European cross country champion - the men’s race was held later in the day and there were no age-group events in 1994 - went on to finish runner-up for a fourth year at the 1995 World Cross Country Championships down the road from Alnwick in Durham three months later, caught and passed by Ethiopia’s Derartu Tulu on the final hill.
In 1997, however, McKiernan ran the fastest ever debut marathon by a woman, winning in Berlin in 2:23:44. The following year she won the London Marathon and also triumphed in Amsterdam in 2:22:23, which still ranks her tenth on the European all-time list almost one-quarter of a century later.
Portugal’s Guerra a class apart in men’s race
Nine years after Carlos Lopes completed his hat-trick of world cross country titles, the last success in the senior men’s long race by a European runner before the era of African domination - punctured since only by Belgian Mohammed Mourhit in 2000 and 2001 - it was a fellow Portuguese runner who claimed the inaugural European title.
Nine months after placing 13th at the 1994 World Cross Country Championships in Budapest, Paulo Guerra was a clear winner of the 9.5km men’s race in Alnwick in 27:43. He finished 16 seconds clear of his Portuguese teammate Domingos Castro, with Antonio Serrano of Spain in the bronze medal position.
An individual one-two ensured the inaugural team title would head in Portugal's direction with future European marathon record-holder Antonio Pinto and Alberto Maravilha their third and fourth scoring counters in eighth and ninth respectively.
Guerra proceeded to dominate the early years of the European Cross Country Championships, winning again in 1995, 1999 and 2000. He also collected a bronze medal in the long course race at the 1999 World Cross Country Championships also on British soil in Belfast.
There were some notable finishers behind him that first year in Alnwick. Germany’s 1992 Olympic 5000m champion Dieter Baumann was 12th. Ireland’s John Treacy, the world cross country champion back in 1978 and 1979, and bronze medallist in the 1984 Olympic marathon, finished 32nd at the age of 37.
At the other end of the age-spectrum, a certain Serhiy Lebid was to make his first of 19 appearances at the European Cross Country Championships. Only 19, the Ukrainian finished a lowly 79th out of 103 competitors, an unlikely start to his legendary European cross country career which yielded a record nine titles and 12 individual medals between 1997 and 2010.
Click here for full results from the 1994 edition of the European Cross Country Championships.
Simon Turnbull for European Athletics