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Daunay embraces a "beautiful" marathon gold
A brutal course, a brilliant gold medallist. France's Christelle Daunay became the first French runner to win the marathon at the European Athletics Championships on Saturday morning in Zurich in a race that you could not take your eyes off.
And as Daunay celebrated individual glory, there was Marathon Cup team success for Italy, led by Valeria Straneo who had finished second.
Just a few months short from her 40th birthday, Daunay moved into the lead in the final few kilometres having run alongside Straneo as the pair broke clear in the second-half as the rain fell, and stopped, and then fell again.
But the key was the extraordinary ability to go down a final hill from the tough climb of the highest point of the course at the Polyterrasse which gave spectators a glorious view of the whole of the city.
The athletes had to deal with this part four times on a route that asked so many demanding questions throughout.
But it was not so much the climb on this last occasion that made the difference, but the fast drop with the pain of thigh muscles adjusting to the increase in speed.
Straneo, 38, the world silver medallist from last summer whose life as an athlete was transformed after she had her spleen removed in 2010, had a five metre lead as she they reached the top.
But down it, Daunay, the French record holder in her ninth marathon, took over as she found the extra formula needed to win her first title over this 42km distance.
She quickly built up a lead that was always going to be a winning one and after looking behind her in the final straight - with Straneo not in sight - Daunay grabbed a French flag with her left hand from the crowd and transferred to her right as she crossed the line to win in 2:25:14 and break the championships record by 51 seconds.
Straneo came through for a fine silver in 2:25:27 with Portugal's Jessica Augusto landing bronze in 2:25:41.
"I did it," said Daunay. "I highlighted a beautiful career with the most beautiful medal.
"I knew that I must rather attack when we were going down the hill and this is what I did on the last round.
"The race was perfect - tactically and time-wise and some weeks ago I would not have thought that such a thing was possible...'Oh, la, la!"
Daunay and Straneo were never out of the lead group of seven, with Croatia's Lisa Nemec, Swiss duo Nicola Spirig, the Olympic triathlon champion, and Maja Neuenschwander, Spain's Alessandra Aguilar and Elvan Abeylegesse, of Turkey.
There was nothing to chose between them as they went through 10km in 34:30, with Straneo, Daunay and Abeylegesse just having a small advantage by 15km in 51:42.
At this stage in the team event, Italy were in front from Switzerland and Portugal.
At halfway in 1:12:33, this lead trio in the individual race had a 10-second gap on Nemec and a 17-second lead over Augusto but the Portuguese runner, checking her watch regularly, was pacing herself well. Yet had she started with the lead group she might have made a bid for gold because, in the end, she could never catch them up.
After 25km, Straneo and Daunay broke away on their own as Augusto overtook Abeylegesse and it was a case of who would outwit the other.
Eventually Daunay took over to break the championships record time of 2:26:05 that Italy's Maria Guida had set in Munich in 2002.
Straneo said: "I am really happy with the silver but I am a little bit unhappy as the gold medal was near to me. Christelle was very good today."
And Augusto said: "I trained hard to win this medal. Seeing Daunay and Straneo all the time in front of me gave me extra motivation but I was too far away from them to try to catch them."
With each country's leading three athletes counting, Italy's women combined superbly for the team gold in 7:27:59 with Anna Incerti, who was the defending champion, sixth in 2:29:58 and Nadia Ejjafini in 12th in 2:32:34.
Portugal took silver in 7:33:06 through Augusto, Filomena Costa, 15th in 2:32:50, and Marisa Barros, 20th in 2:34:35, while Russia won bronze in 7:42:03, with Natalya Puchkova, 11th in 2:32:22, Albina Mayorova, 17th in 2:33:45, and Gulnara Vygovskaya, 23rd in 2:35:56.
And as for the 28-year-old Estonian triplets, Liina Luik was the first home in 29th in 2:41:48 from Leila, 43rd in 2:45:59, and Lily, 47th in 2:48:49.