Rhona Auckland with coach Joyce Hogg – photo by Bobby Gavin at National Cross 2014
There’s little dispute that Rhona Auckland’s superb gold medal at the European Cross Country Championship carried a fair degree of shock value for the athletics community across the United Kingdom and the wider continent.
It was a first individual gold for a Scot at this event, after all, and a first medal in the U23 category which has been in place at the Euro Cross since 2006.
And Emelia Gorecka’s personal record of two successive titles in the Junior races prior to stepping up this year marked her down as likely favourite to be first Brit home, never mind Euro champion.
But what was not any great surprise to followers of athletics in Scotland was Auckland’s fine race plan execution amid the snow and mud of Samokov.
The 21-year-old has been displaying smart tactics for a number of years and her development as an athlete, and particularly in cross country, has been patently obvious for the past 18-12 months.
So, in truth, her victory was a triumph for development as well as an ability to perform when it counted on December 14.
Coaches Joyce and Ken Hogg – they have won the scottishathletics Development Coach of the Year title for the past two years – recognise that the talent under their tutelage combines a great ‘racing brain’ and a deeply competitive streak with natural endurance ability.
Ken recalls Auckland winning a Celtic Games race in Dublin almost four years ago as a 17-year-old when her course management proved flawless and so it was in Samokov.
‘Years ago in a Celtic Games race in Ireland, running for Scotland, the course really was an awful mess and we wondered how she might fare,’ recalled the Aberdeen-based coach.
‘But, somehow, Rhona just found the right lines through it all as other struggled and won the race emphatically.
‘She did something very similar throughout the race in Bulgaria and, added to the fact that I believe she is much stronger this year than last, that was enough for gold. We’ve steadily increased the training over the past year or two years and she has been able to handle those changes.
‘When I saw the conditions on the Sunday morning in Bulgaria, I was actually quite pleased with the snow, mud and ice. I mentioned right away to Rhona’s mum (Pam) that it might work out quite well.
So it wasn’t a huge surprise to see her right there in contention because after finishing seventh last year I think it was realistic to look for better than that. In truth, we thought better than seventh would be good and a medal would be fantastic. To get gold was even better!
Auckland, now selected for the GB Senior Women’s team for the Great Edinburgh XC at Holyrood Park on January 10, didn’t make a fast start in Samokov but soon joined a leading pack of eight or nine athletes.
Around the 4k mark, she began to apply pressure after sitting third and, after Gorecka tailed off, Rhona opened up a small gap on home favourite Militsa Mircheva and Russian Gulshat Fazlitidnova.
Tactically, she proved flawless and there’s little doubt that good coaching is paying off for the Edinburgh University Medical Science student.
Photo courtesy of European Athletics
Ken added: ‘We were quite close to the course and able to see her and, at one stage, I was just about to shout to her that the time was right to try and force it on and break up the pack.
‘But, as I went to give her that advice, she broke away a bit anyway. She judged it all so well and I think she ran a very good race tactically – she was completely exhausted at the finish.
‘What I can say about Rhona is: she has a very good racing brain. And she has course management. She just to have a great knack in cross country for picking the right line, knowing where to be, when to break a bit to drop a couple of people.
‘The other thing that is coming together for her now is she has put together a fair bit of experience in a short period.
‘She was at the Euro Cross last year of course and then ran as a GB Senior at the Great Edinburgh Cross. Then she won the Scottish title against a strong field.
‘She ran a very good 10,000m time at Highgate and then performed well for GB at the Euro 10,000m champs in Skopje. And of course she’s had a great season so far in cross country with Bellahouston and Liverpool and now this.
‘It was a bit of a disappointment to her to miss out on the Commonwealth Games. But I don’t think it made her any more determined because she is a very competitive athlete anyway.
‘She was close to the qualifying time but not close enough as it happened. Who knows how she would fared but it is immaterial now.’
Following Auckland’s career now should be interesting for all with Scottish athletes at heart. After a peak performance in snow-capped Bulgaria, few who know her expect her to accept the Euro Cross U23 title as the pinnacle.