European cross country champion heads GB team for this weekend’s World Cross Country Championships in China

Euro Cross champion Gemma Steel has set her sights on building on her performance at the previous edition of the IAAF World Cross Country Championships when she lines up in Guiyang, China, on Saturday, writes Alex Ferguson.

The Charnwood AC athlete finished 31st in Bydgoszcz in 2013 and will be buoyed by her European Cross Country Championships victory in Bulgaria in December, where she bravely fought off fellow teammate Kate Avery to claim the senior women’s title by the narrowest of margins.

“I like to be competitive and do the best I can do on the day against the best in the world, which is what most people aim to do,” explains Steel.

“I just want to run my best and give myself the best chance of doing as well as I can. I’m looking to build on my performance at the last World Cross and anything else from that is a bonus.

“The 10km on the road and cross country are very similar, which works for me, as it’s all about strength and stamina. I’m only just reaching what I’m capable of doing so there is plenty to come in the future.”

At 29, Steel is six years older than Dewi Griffiths – the next oldest member of the GB team travelling to the Far East – and despite the gap in age, she feels energised to be a part of a team with so much potential for the future.

“I love it. Because I’m with the juniors it’s more laid back,” she says. “I never ran as a junior so it’s nice to mix with them and feel that enthusiasm, which you get a real buzz from.

“I’m looking to build on my performance at the last World Cross and anything else from that is a bonus” – Gemma Steel

“For some of them it’s their first GB vest, like for Hannah (Nuttall) who is my coach’s daughter, and I’m there to support her if she needs me. It’s weird because I was never a junior, so I’m not that experienced even though I’m a European Champion but it’s nice to feed off that excitement of the younger members of the team.

“I think that having such a young team really bodes well for future championships and I’m sure this will be a great experience for all of the athletes here in China.”

Joining Steel in the senior women’s race is Rhona Auckland, who will return to action for the first time since her gold medal triumph in Samokov. The 21-year-old took a memorable victory in the European under-23 race in Bulgaria and despite a spell on the sidelines through injury the Scottish athlete is ready to give her all this weekend.

“I’m looking forward it – it’s a bit of an unknown quantity so it’s nice to go into it with no pressure. I’m looking to go out there and run fearless,” she says.

On whether she feels there will be attention on her as the European under-23 champion, she adds: “It’s probably pressure from myself rather than anyone else but it was under-23 at the Euros and now I’m stepping up to the seniors so I have to change perspective on that as well.

“Just not knowing how I’m racing takes the pressure off a little bit. I’m going in with the confidence from that – I know I can produce that performance and fitness wise I’m similar to where I was in Samokov so I’m trying to use it in a positive way.”

Auckland is also sharing a room with Steel in the build-up to the World Cross, something which she believes will be highly beneficial given her team-mate’s experience on the international stage.

“It’s great to have somebody else to learn and get new experiences from,” she says. “It’s a big learning curve, so I will be asking her a lot of questions over the next few days.”

» See the March 26 edition of Athletics Weekly magazine for a three-page World Cross preview