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Mixed fortunes as Scots enjoy rubbing shoulders with the best

A chance to rub shoulders with sporting greats, to make reputations, to demonstrate the potential to compete at elite level or the capacity to fulfil potential .

Chris Derrick of the USA on his way to winning to the 8k men's race, followed by Andy Vernon and Bashir Abdi, at the BUPA Great Edinburgh Cross Country event at Holyrood Park. Picture: Steve Cox
Chris Derrick of the USA on his way to winning to the 8k men's race, followed by Andy Vernon and Bashir Abdi, at the BUPA Great Edinburgh Cross Country event at Holyrood Park. Picture: Steve Cox

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All of that is what the coming year means for Scottish athletes and the nature of the opportunity was encapsulated in microcosm at Saturday's year opener.

Four events which contributed to an international team competition, a high class invitational race, inter-district matches and a mass-participation fun run meant anyone and everyone could test themselves as they wished on a near perfect day for the staging of the Great Edinburgh Cross Country around Arthur's Seat.

The glory of cross country is in its unpredictability, offering true thrills and spills for participants and spectators - albeit few will ever experience the extremes of emotion undergone by Jake Wightman in the course of four kilometres.

Admitting to falling apart during the second of the testing circuits and describing his run as "pretty demotivating" he was in good company in having an unhappy time in the course of that race as Asbel Kiprop was beaten into third while Kenenisa Bekele finished fifth as the unheralded American Garrett Heath claimed a memorable win.

However, for the 19-year-old Scot the consolation was huge in getting to compete with the great Kenyan, who has won both Olympic and world titles and, even moreso, with Bekele, considered by some to be the best distance runner of them all.

"That was part of the attraction today, racing against Bekele, who has been my hero since I was about ten," said Wightman, whose big target for the year is to get into the Scotland team in Glasgow for the 1500m. "I was running next to him and it was a bit surreal, to be honest. I didn't realise he was so diddy. It was unbelievable, just to be able to say you've raced against him."

For others among the Scottish contingent there was rather more to be gleaned from the experience in competitive terms, however.

Fresh from helping Great Britain & Northern Ireland to victory in the European Championships Callum Hawkins made a telling contribution as GB & NI again triumphed through a four-race international contest with Europe and the US.

The 21-year-old, whose older brother Derek has already been selected for the Commonwealth Games team in the marathon, finished seventh in the under-23s at the European Championships but came sixth and second among the home team, as he stepped up into the senior men's team for Saturday's 8k.

"I wasn't quite sure how I'd do because I don't normally race against these guys," Hawkins admitted. "It was really good to come out and beat the European under-23 champion [Belgium's Pieter-Jan Hannes]. I ran a lot better than I was expecting,"

His resolve has been tested during close to two years out because of serious knee problems, but Saturday's showing boosted the Kilbarchan runner's confidence in his ability to join his elder brother in the Scotland team in July.

"I'm trying to build a base this winter and go for a Commonwealth 10k time at the end of April," he explained. "This sets up a base. I t shows how fit I'm getting. At the moment, I'm doing big sessions, I've not quite sharpened up everything and I've still got a couple of months to go, but it's looking good so far."

Compatriot Andrew Butchart made his senior debut in a GB & NI vest in that race, finishing 24th, while in the senior women's 6k, Rhona Auckland came 22nd and Rosie Smith claimed a highly commendable 13th-placed finish.

With six athletes per team counting, it left her just outside the points, which in turn reflected the home women's dominance which saw them take the team from last place to first overall in the final event.

The only Scot to contribute to the points haul in that decisive race was the best known of those participating, Commonwealth Games bronze medallist Steph Twell achieving the target she had set for herself in finishing ninth.

Like Hawkins she has had a miserable time with injuries, in Twell's case costing her the chance to compete at the Olympics in London but, after an encouraging 2013, she now feels well set for the big year ahead.

"These are stepping stone goals," she said. "I know how good the girls are because I train with them. I was just a stone's throw from the front group so I'm happy with that.

"I'm getting stronger and stronger all the time. I'm still here for the long run but I still have to pace myself in life and that's what we're learning now. I know what's right for me and what's wrong for me and I can peak for the summer."

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