Britton heads field of familiar faces

Final rehearsal before Belgrade
European Athletics

Ireland's Fionnuala Britton is among the well-known faces getting ready for the SPAR European Cross Country Championships women's race.

Twelve months ago in Szentendre, a riverside town in Hungary's capital of Budapest, seven women were separated by 14 seconds in a thrilling race at the SPAR European Cross Country Championships.

At the finish, they embraced, waved to the crowd and may have said to each other 'Same time next year?'

And that is just about what will happen on the start line in Belgrade on Sunday as 8km awaits them once again.

Six of the top seven from the snow of Szentendre return and at the head of the field is an athlete chasing her own piece of history in the event.

No woman has won this title three times in a row but Ireland's Fionnuala Britton to ready to break the mould.

In Hungary, she defended the crown she had won in Velenje the year before with a powerful performance that needed so much strength at the finish as she stayed in front to win in 27:45.

It was just 0.02 ahead of Portugal's Ana Dulce Felix who had made a brilliant bid for gold.

A second behind Felix was Adrienne Herzog, of the Netherlands, with the rest of the top seven being: Belgium's Almensh Belete, in 27:54, French pair Laurance Picoche and Sophie Duarte, both in 27:55, and Italy's Nadia Ejjafini, in 27:59.

Barring Herzog, the same women will be there in Serbia to challenge for gold at the last major athletics event of 2013.

It should be a fabulous race, with so many elements possible.

The top seven were all under 28 minutes in Hungary and when the gap between them is so narrow, any variants are possible.

Britton provides the most intriguing sub-plot.

She has had a roller-coaster of a year, and now it is time to hold on for the ride again.

When she arrived in Göteborg in March for the European Athletics Indoor Championships, she had much to prove to herself.

Her reputation on the terrain of the cross country was assured, but could she deliver on the track too?

Indeed she could as she finished third in the 3000m final and said, "For the last 400m, it was like 'I am not coming fourth again'. Then at the finish I didn't even know. I was thinking 'Am I second, am I fourth?' I really enjoyed it."

But whatever hopes she had for the summer, to build on that success at the IAAF World Championships in Moscow, came to an end when she pulled out of the event with illness.

Her season was over, but with winter, a fresh ambition.

She arrives in Belgrade ready to deliver again.

An athlete who likes to dominate from the front in races, such is the strength of the field behind her that she may not be allowed to.

Felix's stamina is immense.

She won the 10,000m gold at the European Athletics Championships in Helinski in 2012 and was part of the winning Portuguese team at the SPAR European Cross Country Championships in Dublin in 2009.

And now she is ready for much smoother morning this time than in Hungary, where she came charging through the field after a difficult first half of the race.

As she said, "It was the first time I have competed in the snow. I almost could not see a thing."

As Ireland's women won the overall prize in Szentendre, France were second and Christine Bardelle rejoins Picoche and Duarte as part of that squad again.