Sophie Duarte, perhaps best renowned as a 3000m steeplechaser, found no barriers in her way as she landed the biggest title of her career on Sunday by winning the women’s senior race at the 20th SPAR European Cross Country Championships in Belgrade.
Having now transferred to the 5000m at the age of 32, this next step up in distance was proof of what a talented athlete Duarte is as she defeated a strong, experienced cross-country field to take gold.
Her run also led the French to silver in the team event, gold went to Great Britain whose Gemma Steel had fended off the challenge of Portugal’s Ana Dulce Felix for second place in the individual race. Spain took team bronze.
But just out of the medals this time was the defending champion, Ireland’s Fionnuala Britton, as she attempted to make it a hat-trick of titles.
After a summer where she had been hit by illness, Britton was always in the pack of seven which had broken away from the rest of the field over this 8km course and she finished fourth in 26:45.
Duarte took gold in 26:34 from Steel in 26:39 with Felix third in 26:41.
As she crossed the line, Duarte gave herself a little clap. It was the least she could do after finally taking a major gold medal.
She said: “I have rarely been so happy and this is a big win for France!”
I had planned with my coach to attack with one lap to go, but I saw an opportunity to break away a little bit sooner so I went for it,” she continued.¨
That happened as the runners reached the final 1500m, but Duarte had constantly looked a threat.
Her win is proof that no matter how long you are in the sport, a major honour is always there for the taking.
Back in 2007 she was fifth in the 3000m steeplechase at the IAAF World Championships in Osaka and her move to the 5000m saw her end this summer third on the European Athletics rankings with a time of 15:14.57.
Duarte hopes her success can inspire others and she said: "I want to push younger athletes to pursue cross country running because it is the base of athletics."
Norway’s Karoline Bjerkeli Grovdal had given the race a fast start and remained in front among those seven where Steel and Felix kept a close eye on Duarte. Britton, Belete and Britain’s Julia Bleasdale were all in with a shout but once the Frenchwoman suddenly injected some extra pace at the front, it proved decisive.
Gold became hers a long way into the final kilometre but the silver medal was not so clear cut as Felix closed in on Steel, but the Briton held on well, eventually storming clear to add to the senior individual bronze she won in Velenje in 2011.
She triumphed with Great Britain this time from a squad where along with Steel and Bleasdale, Lauren Howarth was 11th in 27:18 and Steph Twell was 15th in 27:27.