Rhona Aukland and her breakthrough at the European Cross Country Championships, by Alex Mills

2014 SPAR European Cross Country U23, photo by Harry Engels/Getty Images for European Athletics Association (Copyright retained by Getty Images)

This piece, by Alex Mills, captures the breakthrough race that Rhona Auckland had at the U 23 SPAR European Athletics Cross Country Championships last weekend. A wonderful race for the Scottish athlete, who placed seventh last year. 

As she strode into the final stretch of the churned-up, icy cross country course in the Bulgarian mountains this Sunday a huge smile could be seen etched across the face Rhona Aukland, as she revelled in the notion that she had made her breakthrough on the international running scene.  By crossing the line in first, the Scottish medical science student had just become European Under 23 champion. Not only had she beaten British rival Emelia Gorecka but also all of her other more fancied opponents from across the continent.

Judging her race to perfection, Aukland illustrated the value of staying patient as she bided her time while her opponents chose to take the race out electrically. Waiting for the right moment to make her move, the 21-year-old gradually progressed to the front by the last lap and never looked back.

Once away, she utilised her love for hills and her strong endurance base to stay strong and prevail: "I knew my strength was in the endurance side of things as I've not got the fast start. The course was challenging enough to be able to work my way through, so I'm glad I held back and managed to do that." she said

"I thought it was a great course; it was really nice for it not to be dead pan flat for a change, it was a really good course and it was nice that they'd got the sharp corners sanded, so you kind of felt like you could speed up without worrying about slipping." 

Having finished 3 seconds behind Gorecka at the British trials in Liverpool two weeks earlier, the Scot ensured that she would this time end the day as the top UK athlete by pushing on as her teammate started to fade  to eventually come home in 12th position, also behind Alice Wright in 8th. By finishing just behind her opponent the fortnight before, it could be speculated that Aukland was given the greater motivation of the two to succeed here, knowing she would have to improve to make an impact, and that is what she did to improve on her 7th year from the previous year.

Despite the strength that she displayed the Scot admitted she had never expected to win: "I wasn't aiming for the gold medal at all, I was hoping to better on last year when I was seventh and I knew that Emelia would be strong so I tried to stick with her and run a race like she does." 

Although Gorecka may have had an off-day here it's clear that the pair have plenty of exciting match-ups ahead of them, starting with the Edinburgh XC. Put them alongside Gemma Steel and Kate Avery, plus at least Steph Twell and the prospect of a huge battle for the rest of the season is mouth watering.

Yet while Aukland will face a reasonable level of expectation within the sporting career from now on, a seemingly greater pressure in the near future lies just a day away, when she takes on crucial exams for her degree at Edinburgh University. So important are they that she says she will put her celebrations from last weekend on hold: "I'll have a good time with my family over Christmas, but I'll have to postpone my celebration until after my exam on Wednesday as it's quite an important one but I'll definitely find some time for relaxation."

If her performance in the latest test of her character is anything to go by, then she will do just fine.

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