Romania’s Marianna Chirila produced a thrilling final charge down the finishing straight to win the Coca Cola International Cross-Country race in Belfast, the fifth event in the IAAF Cross Challenge Series.
The 33 year-old, who was fifth in the European Championship race in December, was destined for third place behind Britain’s Paula Radcliffe and Kenya’s Susan Chepkemei until the final 30 metres. Seemingly outpaced by the pair ahead and having difficulties with the muddy conditions, Chirila was never in contention until she saw her chance with the finish line in sight.
She surged past Chepkemei and then eased around Radcliffe to snatch victory in 17 minutes, 59 seconds. Inspired by the Romanian, Chepkemei found enough speed in her tired legs to beat Radcliffe on the line.
The Briton could hardly believe what had happened. Throughout the 4.8km race on a testing course, Radcliffe had looked in control, finding a rhythm through the clinging mud that neither Chirila nor Chepkemei could match. But, once again, she was outsprinted in the closing stages though she was happy to have reasserted her cross-country credentials after dropping out of her last race in Durham at the start of the year.
"I thought I had the race won until I heard the commentator describing Chirila’s surge. I tried to stretch out but there was nothing I could do. I was very tired," said Radcliffe.
The Romanian was equally surprised. "I didn’t think I could win until the last 30 metres," she said. "But I liked the course and when I saw how close I was to the other two, I gave it one last effort."
The trio had the race to themselves. Lucia Subano of Kenya was 22 seconds adrift in fourth, while Joyce Chepchumba - who defends her London Marathon title in April - was a distant 12th.
The men’s race was won by Laban Chege, who, while chased all the way round the 8kms by Frenchman Yann Millon, was rarely troubled.
The 27 year-old German-based Kenyan arrived in Belfast only after being helped to acquire a British visa by Dutch officials at Amsterdam Airport just 48 hours before. While Chege became the seventh successive African to win a race celebrating its 21st anniversary, the traditional British course was tailor made for the Europeans.
Slovakia’s Robert Stefko was third, while Peter Matthews was the highest placed Irishman in fourth.
Yann Millon's second place took him to the head of the IAAF Cross Challenge rankings, while Hendrick Ramaala, now in 2nd place with 59 points to Millon's 65 had to settle for 8th place after complaining of minor back problems before the race.
Tom Knight for the IAAF