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UK Athletics

Norwich Union GB Women’s proud Euro record

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Even without Paula Radcliffe and Mara Yamauchi, the Norwich Union Great Britain and Northern Ireland Senior Women’s Team will head for the SPAR European Cross Country Championships in San Giorgio su Legnano, Italy, on Sunday 10 December determined to extend a proud record.


They have finished on the podium at each of the last six Championships – and Natalie Harvey (South London Harriers), Felicity Milton (Durham University), Jo Pavey (Exeter Harriers), Kate Reed (Bristol and West), Hayley Yelling (Windsor, Slough, Eton and Hounslow), Liz Yelling (Bedford and County) will be in seventh heaven if they can maintain the momentum this time.


The Yelling sisters-in-law – who have 14 European Cross Country Championships medals between them – plus Reed and Harvey clinched the Team Silver medals in Tilburg last winter. Hayley and Liz also joined forces with Radcliffe and Hayley Tullett to win Team Gold at the 2003 Championships in Edinburgh.


In between Hayley Yelling succeeded Radcliffe to the individual title in 2004, when Pavey took the individual Bronze medal.


Which leaves only Felicity Milton of this year’s sextet empty-handed. And there’s a good reason for that. The 19-year-old from Rutland last ran a track race aged 14 and hadn’t even dreamt of taking up athletics until a few months ago. She merely ran to keep fit enough to hold her place in the university hockey team.


But members of the University Athletics Club recognised her talent as she pounded out the laps. Andy Lawrence, one of the Durham University cross country team, explained: “We did quite a lot of sessions outside on the track last year and saw her at the same time every week, knocking out the laps. She turned up to a session with the freshers this year, joined with the lads – and hasn’t looked back.”


Coached by Brian McKay and Pete Coates, the engineering student was soon pushing the Durham males along in their training runs and scoring impressive victories in students’ races.


Aged only 19 and an innocent at large among hardened endurance runners, she was second fastest to Hayley Yelling at the ECCA Relays to give the first real indication of her potential. And she finished second to the imperious Pavey in the trial race at the UK Cross Challenge at Liverpool on Saturday to earn automatic selection for her Norwich Union GB debut.


If she was 10 days younger, she would be lining up in the Junior Women’s Team. But she shrugs off the fact that her birthday – 22 December – means she is always the baby of the year. “It’s been the same throughout my life.”


And she is similarly dismissive of suggestions that she is an athletics natural: “I’m a Jack of all trades. I play college hockey. I ski. And I ride a horse at home in Rutland.”


She’s still finding her feet in cross country: “I was very nervous before the start of the trial. I didn’t know what to expect.”


After holding off Kate Reed, last winter’s World University Cross Country Championships Silver medallist, in a frantic battle for second place, Milton said: “I always try and run my best in every race. I just followed advice and ran the race as best I could, focussing on myself rather than any individual.”


How does she fancy repeating the tactic in Italy? “It’s quite exciting, really!”


It’s the same for her five team mates who have been there and done it before – eight times each and counting in the case of the Yellings.


Reed, for whom the trial was her first race since Crystal Palace in July, is looking forward to how she will run when she has tapered down for Italy: “I’ve been doing 90 miles a week and it takes a little bit of spring out of you. But if I didn’t do the groundwork, I wouldn’t do well at the Europeans. In two more weeks’ time, I’ll be all right!”


Liz Yelling – whose six European medals are the 2000 team silver, 2001 team silver, 2002 team bronze, 2003 team gold, 2004 team silver and 2005 team silver – has not lost all hope of improving on her individual best position, fourth in 1999.


But, honest as ever after clock 2:31:39 in the ING Amsterdam Marathon on Sunday 15 October, she says: “I’m not fit enough yet. I had two weeks off after my marathon, which I needed to restore my confidence after I was forced to drop out of the Berlin Marathon.


“So I’ve been back for four weeks and in full training for only three. It’s a bit of a battle against the clock but I always knew it was going to be. I’ve got two weeks to turn it around.


“And it’s good to see youngsters like Felicity coming through to take up the reins with the likes of Kate, who seems to have been around for ever!”


Harvey, over back problems that wrecked her summer plans, said: “I was desperate to make the team. I couldn’t have done any more than I did at the trial. I’ve not been able to run flat out for too long. So it’s nice to think I’m back!”


Pavey, instantly made one of the favourites for Europe after winning the trial by 100 metres, is quick to through a note of realism – not to say caution – into the predictions pot: “Let’s see what the course is like! I’m told it’s flat and fast. But two years ago, they sanded the finishing area and it sucked all the speed out of my legs. I want the sun to shine on San Giorgio and to see the course before I make my race plans.”


Hayley Yelling, who missed the trial after being pre-selected on the strength of her pedigree, endured a horror gale-blown flight and five-hour coach ride to northern Spain, where she finished seventh at the IAAF meeting at Llodio.


But the school teacher is nothing if not resilient. She is the only athlete to appear in every GB Senior Women’s medal winning team at European Cross Country Championships – stretching back to 1996 – and won the individual title in 2004 to succeed UK No.1 Paula Radcliffe.


Radcliffe expects her first baby in January. Her successor as the UK’s most successful endurance runner, Yamauchi, is recovering from her exertions over the past two years. Even so, GB expects its senior women to deliver – again – in Italy.


For the record, Norwich Union GB Senior Women’s Team positions in European Cross Country Championships: 1994 ninth, 1995 seventh, 1996 second, 1997 sixth, 1998 fifth, 1999 fourth, 2000 second, 2001 second, 2002 third, 2003 first, 2004 second, 2005 second.