REIGNING champion Fionnuala Britton heads to the European Cross-Country in Budapest this weekend well aware that defending a title is always a tough proposition.
Britton has prepared well, finishing fourth in an international cross-country in Burgos, Spain, last month, where Britain's Jessica Coulson was just ahead of her. She then finished third at the Cross de l'Acier in France, over half a minute ahead of Laurane Picoche of France who was fifth and second European.
Her most dangerous rival on Sunday is likely to be Portugal's Ana Dulce Felix, runner-up last year in Slovenia and third a year earlier in Portugal, when Britton was fourth.
Felix has had a good year, winning the 10,000m at the European Athletics Championships in Helsinki, where Britton was a fighting fourth. Most recently, Felix won the women's 8km at the International Warandecross Tilburg, on the same day that Britton was running in France.
In yet another race that day Ethiopian-born Almensch Belete, who now competes for Belgium, cruised to victory in the 6.5km women's race beating Kenya's Cynthia Kosgei. She will be another to watch on Sunday.
When it comes to the team competition, Ireland has the strongest line-up since the days of Catherina McKiernan and Sonia O'Sullivan. Apart from Britton, the team includes current interclub cross-country champion Linda Byrne, who first made her mark as an athlete with a fourth in the junior race at the 2005 Europeans, and has targeted these championships since competing in the marathon at London 2012.
Ava Hutchinson, winner of the intercounty title a few weeks ago, is another London marathon veteran with a strong cross-country pedigree. She ran in the junior race at the World Cross-Country Championships in 2001 and 2002 and also competed in the senior race in 2011. With strong back-up from Lizzie Lee, Sarah McCormack and Sarah Treacy the team looks certain to improve on its eighth position of last year.
Leading a strong men's team is Joe Sweeney, who finished fifth last year - just eight seconds behind the winner Atelaw Yeshe Bekele, the Ethiopian who runs for Belgium. Also selected are David Rooney, seventh at the NCAA Cross-Country, and Breandan O'Neill, 28th in the same race.