Britain top medal table with nine medals in Bulgaria, led by Gemma Steel’s thrilling senior win over Kate Avery

Gemma Steel pipped Kate Avery to the senior women’s title, while Rhona Auckland took Britain’s other senior individual gold as the nation topped the medal table for the seventh consecutive year at the European Cross Country Championships in Samokov, Bulgaria.

The senior men’s race was another national battle and just as close as Turkey’s Polat Kemboi Arikan beat team-mate Ali Kaya.

The British team took nine medals altogether, including senior and under-20 women’s team gold, while Jessica Judd claimed silver in the junior women’s race.

A combination of the course and the altitude of 1400m made for tough conditions. When the day began, the junior runners encountered a rock solid course, including ice and muddy ruts, but as the course thawed out over the day it was partly converted to a mudbath. Concern over possibly dangerous conditions had been expressed during the course inspection the day before, but sand was put down in places to remedy this to an extent.

Steel had started arguably as favourite for the senior women’s race, having won the British trial and finished third and then second on her last two appearances at the European Cross Country Championships. However, Avery was more of an unknown quantity despite having last month won the high-quality NCAA Championships in the United States.

The two Brits were neck and neck out on their own in front for the last two and a half laps (3km) and it came down to a sprint finish at the end of a thrilling duel with Steel just having enough time to raise her arms in celebration. Both were officially given the same time, but the actual margin was two tenths of a second. The duo were 25 seconds in front of the bronze medallist, Sweden’s Meraf Bahta.

With Steph Twell seventh and Lily Partridge 11th, Britain took team gold with just 21 points over Spain’s 70.

Steel said: “I didn’t expect it to be a domestic battle in the end, but I think we helped each other along. My legs felt weak at the end and thought the altitude was kicking in, so I just needed to find that extra strength somewhere at the end.

“I thought ‘is she going to give in?’ but she (Kate Avery) was really strong and I was feeling a bit weak to be honest. She had really good posture and I knew she wasn’t going to give it up without a fight, so I was thinking ‘not silver again’.”

Avery ran much of the race in some pain having felt she had twisted her ankle and sought medical attention straight afterwards.

She said: “Coming into the race I didn’t know what to expect but didn’t think I’d come away with a medal. However, being so close I’m so disappointed because I had it, but Gemma (Steel) managed to kick past me in the last few metres.”

The senior men’s race, meanwhile, produced an “African” 1-2-3 as Spain’s Ethiopian-born Alemayehu Bezabeh followed the two Kenyan-born athletes for bronze. These three were already 31 seconds clear by 4.4km of the 10km and they extended that, the Turks going away with just less than a kilometre to go and battling it out down the home straight.

Ross Millington was the first Brit in fifth and Adam Hickey was ninth. With Tom Lancashire 27th and Andrew Butchart 35th, Britain were fifth in the team standings behind winners Turkey.

Rhona Auckland took a surprise individual under-23 title, pulling clear on the final lap to win by two seconds from Bulgaria’s Militsa Mircheva.

Serbia’s Amela Terzic and Britain’s Emelia Gorecka, two of the pre-race favourites, finished 10th and 12th respectively.

With two 1.1km laps to go, Auckland and Gorecka were still in a large group but at this time Auckland moved to the front and Gorecka went backwards through the field.

Auckland fought off a strong finish from the local favourite to improve on her seventh from last year.

The winner said: “I’m absolutely delighted – I knew my strength was in the endurance side of things as I haven’t got the fastest start. I think the course was challenging enough to hold back and work my way through and I’m glad I did that.

“I didn’t think I’d come here and challenge for the gold. I was hoping to do better than last year, which was seventh and I knew Emelia (Gorecka) would be strong.”

Gorecka, a twice winner of the junior race and in her first as under-23, said: “I’m knackered – I don’t know why, I just felt really tired from the gun. I tried to start steady and build to the front but I didn’t feel strong, which is annoying because I thought the course suited me. I ended up going backwards, which is really frustrating.

“I felt amazing three weeks ago, so it’s back to the drawing board for me. It’s a learning curve and first time in the age group. I just didn’t feel myself out there.” With Alice Wright next Brit in ninth, the team placed second, five points behind Russia.

In the junior women’s race, Emine Hatun Tuna, who won silver in the 3000m at the European Junior Championships in 2013, pulled away from Judd on the last lap to win by five seconds.

The Turk was together with Germany’s Alinah Reh after the three short laps. Judd then cut the lead by three seconds to one second on the penultimate lap and then briefly led before Tuna reacted.

With Lydia Turner finishing strongly for bronze and Amy Griffiths in fifth, Great Britain took the team gold for the fifth consecutive year.

Judd, who admitted she wasn’t even sure she would qualify from the trial race, which she won, said: “I am (delighted) – I’m always disappointed when it’s not first, but I think in a couple of hours, I’ll be over the moon.

“I think I tactically misjudged it a little and went probably a bit too hard on the long lap. I doubted myself for the first time this year – I think if it was just the British girls, I would have had the confidence to sit back and let in unfold, but I didn’t even know half the people in that race.”

In the under-23 men’s race, Ilgizar Safiulin led a Russian 1-2-3 as Brits Jonathan Hay and Callum Hawkins just missed out on medals.

With two 1.1km laps to go, the Brits, Russians and and Belgium’s Isaac Kimeli formed the six-man lead group.

With 1500m left, Hay dropped off the group and then Hawkins lost ground quickly on the last lap.

Safiulin, who won the European junior title in 2011, came home two seconds in front of Igor Maksimov. Vladmir Nikitin, who returned from a two-year drugs ban in July, was third as Hay came past Liverpool trials winner Hawkins for fifth.

Without Nikitin, Russia would not have closed a team and Britain would have won the team gold. As it was, Russia won by 15 places with 16 points.

Britain’s Will Gray dropped out with a twisted ankle.

A dramatic junior men’s race saw Russia’s Aleksandr Novikov sharply pull clear midway through the last lap with 1800m to go. However, coming into the finish area he headed down the finish straight rather than on for another lap and then had to double-back. He eventually finished 55th and it was Italy’s Yemaneberhan Crippa who went away for a 15-second win over Spain’s Carlos Mayo.

Lead Brit was Michael Vennard in 17th as Britain placed fifth. Elliot Bowker pulled out during the race, having injuring his shin running around the rutted course the day before.

Leading and GB results

Senior men

1 Polat Kemboi Arikan (TUR) 32:19; 2 Ali Kaya (TUR) 32:19; 3 Alemayehu Bezabeh (ESP) 32:30; 5 Ross Millington (GBR) 33:00; 9 Adam Hickey (GBR) 33:19; 27 Tom Lancashire (GBR) 34:02; 35 Andrew Butchart (GBR) 34:12; 40 Luke Caldwell (GBR) 34:23; 41 Tom Wade (GBR) 34:30. TEAM: 1 Turkey 33; 2 Spain 36; 3 Italy 59; 5 Great Britain 76

Senior women

1 Gemma Steel (GBR) 28:27; 2 Kate Avery (GBR) 28:27; 3 Meraf Bahta (SWE) 28:52; 7 Steph Twell (GBR) 29:07; 11 Lily Partridge (GBR) 29:22; 15 Sonia Samuels (GBR) 29:32; 20 Elle Vernon (GBR) 29:54. TEAM: 1 Great Britain 21; 2 Spain 70; 3 Ireland 87

Under-23 men

1 Ilgizar Safiulin (RUS) 25:31; 2 Igor Maksimov (RUS) 25:33; 3 Vladimir Nikitin (RUS) 25:37; 4 Jonathan Hay (GBR) 25:46; 5 Callum Hawkins (GBR) 25:49; 7 Marc Scott (GBR) 25:54; 15 Charlie Hulson (GBR) 26:11; 30 Jonathan Davies (GBR) 26:31; Will Gray DNF

Under-23 women

1 Rhona Auckland (GBR) 22:23; 2 Militsa Mircheva (BUL) 22:25; 3 Gulshat Fazlitdinova (RUS) 22:28; 9 Alice Wright (GBR) 22:59; 12 Emelia Gorecka (GBR) 23:10; 15 Maryse Haines (GBR) 23:29; 20 Katie Holt (GBR) 23:45; 29 Rebecca Murray (GBR) 24:06. TEAM: 1 Russia 32; 2 Great Britain 37; 3 Turkey 95

Junior men

1 Yemaneberhan Crippa (ITA) 20:07; 2 Carlos Mayo 20:22; 3 Said Ettaqy (ITA) 20:28; 17 Michael Vennard (GBR) 20:48; 19 Jac Hopkins (GBR) 20:53; 23 Kieran Wood (GBR) 21:04; 26 Peter Chambers 21:07; 46 Jonathan Glen 21:25; Elliot Bowker (GBR) dnf. TEAM: 1 Italy 18: 2 Spain 41;  3 Turkey 70; 5 Great Britain 85

Junior women

1 Emine Tuna (TUR) 14:13; 2 Jessica Judd (GBR) 14:18; 3 Lydia Turner (GBR) 14:35; 5 Amy Griffiths (GBR) 14:38; 8 Rebecca Straw 14:48;  14 Phoebe Law (GBR) 15:03; 26 Georgina Outten (GBR) 15:18. TEAM: 1 Great Britain 18; 2 France 64; 3 Germany 74

>> See the December 18 issue of Athletics Weekly for in-depth coverage from the 2014 Euro Cross