Rhona Auckland came of age recently to win Euro Cross under-23 gold, writes Claire Thomas

After improving by six places in 12 months to win the European under-23 cross country title, Rhona Auckland produced the breakthrough performance of the winter so far.

The 21-year-old University of Edinburgh student finished seventh in Belgrade in December 2013 but last month graduated to the top of the podium with a commanding victory at the 2014 event in Bulgaria.

“It’s amazing, overwhelming and so exciting!” she says. “I’m still smiling!”

In typically modest fashion, she is keen to thank her coaches and family, emphasising the role they have played in her running, ever since her first race in Aberdeen as an under-17.

Brushing off the course’s challenges – which included an altitude of 1200m and icy, undulating terrain – Auckland felt very much at home, likening the conditions to running in her native Deeside. She adds she was not badly affected by the thinner air either.

Before earning such a major title, Auckland had been on the scene as a top junior athlete for some time, with BUCS, Scottish and Scottish schools titles under her belt. But when questioned on what has changed to allow her to take her running to loftier heights, she was able to pinpoint some crucial factors.

“Endurance running is definitely all about the journey,” she explains, “and so a natural development can be expected, especially when you have great coaches, a strong support team and a wee bit of hard work! It’s very much a team effort and a steep learning curve and the rewards are priceless.”

“Endurance running is definitely all about the journey”

As the level of competition increases, Auckland realises mastering pre-race jitters is vital. “I have worked on not getting so nervous and focusing more on the fact that I love to run and love to compete,” she says. “I’m a big believer that you can only do your best and as long as I know I’ve done that then I’m content!”

Not surprisingly Auckland had been selected to represent Great Britain at this weekend’s Great Edinburgh Cross Country International but unfortunately had to delay her comeback to action after suffering a slight Achilles injury following Bulgaria. She remains upbeat, though, tweeting: “Gutted to miss EdinXC; injury is part of the game, play along, come back stronger-good luck to all racing!”

The medical sciences undergraduate explains how she feels very well supported as a student athlete. She is on Edinburgh’s individual performance programme and receives gym access, physiotherapy and strength and conditioning. “All of which,” she says, “has been incremental in my development. Study-wise, I think many athletes would agree that university helps give your day a routine around which to structure your training.”

Following the Euro Cross, she is excited at the prospect of more international contests, not least of all the Olympics. “Rio is a dream, but having said that the Euro Cross title was a dream until recently so I’ll aim high and just keep enjoying doing what I love!”

Asking the Banchory Stonehaven athlete to name her greatest inspirations, she mentions Paula Radcliffe, naturally, plus Laura Muir and Kate Avery. But Auckland is fast becoming a role model herself and gives the following advice to any aspiring runners: “Focus on why you love this sport, enjoy your successes, work hard, listen to advice and then the rest takes care of itself!”

“Rio is a dream, but having said that the Euro Cross title was a dream until recently so I’ll aim high and just keep enjoying doing what I love!”

At the Euro Cross in Samokov, Auckland kept out of trouble early on before moving through the field, forging ahead and beating Militsa Mircheva of Bulgaria by two seconds. With such obvious stamina, her track PBs of 15:58.95 for 5000m and 33:09.58 for 10,000m look set to come down in 2015.

“Aside from cross country, my track focus will be in the 5000m and 10,000m,” she says. “I love both these events and look forward to some opportunities to run fast times. It’s such a buzz to be part of this endurance community.”

On the doping stories that partly overshadowed the Euro Cross successes in Samokov, Auckland says: “Unfortunately there is always a darker side of sport and in terms of cross country things are probably the same, but I prefer to focus on the real success stories and ignore the negative hype.”

On the sport as a whole, Auckland is confident that cross country is in ascendancy. “It seems to be regaining some of its much-deserved respect and this year up in Scotland we have been boasting some of the highest race entries seen in ages, which is such a boost!

“I’m all for getting cross country into the Winter Olympics – it deserves to be recognised!”

If that ever happens, it would be great to see the reigning European under-23 champion battling away near the head of the field.