Rhona Auckland, Scotland's newly-crowned European cross-country champion, is ready to follow a well-tried elite route as she pursues further success.

The Aberdeenshire woman has accepted a scholarship at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, among several US colleges who made overtures to sign her. Mo Farah prepared for his Olympic and World successes under Alberto Salazar in Albuquerque and Paula Radcliffe has had a base there in recent years, notably before her world marathon best in 2003. And Scotland's Commonwealth Games metric miler, David Bishop, is a graduate.

Surrounded by desert against a spaghetti western backdrop, it is a Mecca for endurance athletes because of the 6700-feet altitude and dry weather. A frosting of snow - usually a couple of inches - falls six months of the year, but back home near Banchory it's often as deep. "It won't be enough to disrupt training," says Auckland.

The 21-year-old from Torphins was due to race in the BUPA Great Edinburgh cross-country at Holyrood on Saturday, but has had to withdraw. "I have a bit of a virus and an Achilles niggle," she said. UK Athletics will announce a replacement this morning.

"The two combined is not ideal," she said yesterday. "It is massively disappointing, really. It was a hard decision. I was looking forward to getting back into cross-country, being part of such a strong team, and racing on home turf."

A fourth-year medical science student at Edinburgh University, her next academic step is mapped out. "I have a full athletics scholarship on a masters programme starting in August. I was contacted by several colleges, but didn't keep count.

"I spoke to the coach at Albuquerque, and was sold: the altitude, the training principles of the coach, and the Masters that I wanted to do - so I could combine the academic side as well."

Her European under-23 victory in Bulgaria last month surprised her as much as anyone, despite seventh the previous year. Emelia Gorecka (two titles and four podium placings in four years) was the overall favourite and the Brit to beat. "I'd never beaten Emelia before," says Auckland. "It was a huge surprise."

Under-foot snow was no problem. "I'm used to training in snow, and it's the same for everybody. You just have to race in what the conditions give you. Cross-country is a winter sport, not a fair-weather girls' sport. You expect it to be challenging. When I was younger, my mum insisted I could not run in snow like that. The compromise was that I trained in walking boots."

Success has not massaged her ego. She talks of the first race she can recall: "I'd be eight or nine, at Crathes Castle, in snow and sleet. My dad told me beforehand that I must never look back. So I didn't, but I fell with 100 metres to go, and I remember thinking, 'dad will be so proud of me if I get up and keep running'. So I did. I didn't finish anywhere spectacular - just one of these get-out-and-do-it things. I enjoyed it."

So when did she realise she was an endurance runner out of the ordinary? "I still never think of myself as that. I think of myself as a Banchory Stonehaven club runner. I surprise myself when I do well, and can't put my finger on when I first thought I'd actually run well."

Last year at Holyrood, she was 21st and 10th Scot - nothing to hint at European glory. But she won the national cross-country title just weeks later and the 4k title in November. Falling short of Commonwealth selection at 10k "was bitterly disappointing and quite hard to get myself back up again after that", she admits. "This time last year we sat down and thought the Games was not completely impossible - give it a go.

"I was disappointed, but satisfied I had given it my all. But it was hard to accept I wasn't quite ready for it - hard to accept that when you are going for it. But it has made me stronger and has highlighted how much I do want this.

Before I was unsure whether I would continue taking athletics seriously, post university. Now I am very much certain that's what I want to do. It's crystallised my ambitions."

Her target this year is the European under-23 championships "at either 5k or 10k". Her European cross title holds no promise of world cross selection. UK Athletics is looking for a top-30 world ranking before they consider sending.

It's sobering to reflect that Liz McColgan was world 10k champion before Auckland was born, and that Yvonne Murray had completed Scotland's hat-trick of Commonwealth wins at 10k before she was 16 months old.

"I have been inspired seeing their races, and it is exciting to be hoping to follow in their footsteps, but I have never met them," she says. "Paula Radcliffe was my main idol when I was younger; still is. I remember watching her break the world marathon record in London, on TV. My uncle got her autograph on a postcard photo of her - he was at the event. Now it is pinned on my bedroom wall."

The 2018 Commonwealths are "on the dream list". Rio de Janeiro? "I am ambitious and would love to be doing an Olympics, but at the moment, it's one step at a time."