The long road to Tramore racecourse, Co. Waterford beckoned at 7am last Sunday morning as a small crew from Craughwell AC hit the road for the first day of the National Cross Country Championships. Some folks had travelled the day before to the popular holiday venue, enjoying the sunny south-east no doubt. The trip down was remarkably quick – about 3 hours if you take out a ‘sick-stop’ and a 20 minute break.
Craughwell had 3 juvenile teams in action in the U12 girls, U14 girls and U14 boys, together with 2 individuals – Linda Porter in the U16 girls 2000m and Johnny Lane in the Senior Men’s 10k.
The course was bone dry which was fantastic at this time of year, particularly after the soaking we got at some of the Galway and Connacht championships earlier this season. From a spectator point of view, it was a great course – it looped and turned this way and that way, such that you could jog to at least 6 different points on the 2k lap to watch the athletes run by. From a competitor’s point of view, it was much tougher as the twists and turns went up one hill, down the same hill, along the bottom of the hill, up the hill again, etc.
Our U12 girls were out first in their 1000m race. We knew going into the race that we’d be well down the leader-board, but it was a big honour for the team to compete in the National Championships. All of the team ran strongly but the distance and course layout for the 1000m suited sprinters more so than distance runners. Leading Craughwell athlete home was Sinead Treacy in 61st place, followed by Ellen Treacy 83rd, Grainne McDaid 93rd, Katie Donohue 128th, Andrea Tobin 141st and Ellen Fitzpatrick 143rd. The experience got from the race will be a big help to the girls as they move up in distance as they get older. The team finished 15th with 365 points. Sinead and Ellen were scorers on the Galway team which finished in 5th place.
The U14 girls were next in their 1200m race. Again the course layout suited sprinters as the first sharp bend was less than 100m into the race and the course narrowed to a 3m path from that point onwards – making any progress after 100m very difficult if you were not in the leading bunch. Muireann Maloney who is improving in leaps and bounds, had her best performance to date in National competition when finishing 59th, followed by a great run from Laura Porter in 79th, Orla McDaid in 83rd (despite been ill) and Caoimhe Quill 143rd. The team finished 13th with 365 points (same score as the u12 team!), with the county team in 10th place. Muireann, Laura and Orla were 3rd, 4th and 5th scorer on the county team – a massive jump in performance from the county championships earlier in the season.
The U14 boys 1500m were next, where we had our strongest team competing despite 3 of the team stepping up an age from U13. Missing from the team due to a heel injury was Paul Joyce, a former 4th place finisher in the National B Cross Country Championships. The race went off at a savage speed, something which maybe caught our team by surprise – with Finn Stoneman the only one to get a strong start. But the rest of the guys tucked in well to the pack of runners and slowly made progress up through the field. Paul Fitzpatrick and Keelan Ryan were placed towards the end of the field after 60m but made remarkable progress through the field to overtake over 30 athletes and eventually place 82nd and 84th in the race.
Conor Gillen and Nicholas Sheehan worked their way up even further through the field with Conor finishing in a fantastic 23rd place and Nicholas not far behind in 42nd. The team were led home by Finn in 20th place – a huge achievement for Finn considering that he hadn’t trained much recently due to a lingering chest infection and also considering that his highest placed finish in a previous National cross-country finals was 2 years ago when he finished 120th or so in the U12 cross country. Both Finn and Conor scored for the Connacht team which finished in 2nd place overall. Galway didn’t have a county team in action as Craughwell were the county’s only participants, which was disappointing.
Next into the fray, Linda Porter was stepping up an age in the U16 girls 2000. This was one full lap of the gruelling course but Linda was well up to the challenge. A good start saw her move away in the leading group of 15 or so athletes. As the group wound their way around the course, Linda moved to the front for a brief period in the middle of the race, shoulder to shoulder with regular rival Amy O’Donoghue from Clare. The pace was red-hot and as the older girls pushed to the front, a group of 4 broke away from Linda and she dropped back a little in the main group – but held on for a fantastic 13th place overall, her best ever performance when stepping up an age. It was unlucky 13 though for Linda as she just missed an individual medal (the top 12 get individual medals) and was 1st scorer on the Connacht team which finished 4th and on the Galway team which finished 5th.
Last runner in action for the club was Johnny Lane in the Senior Men’s 10k. This was a real baptism of fire for Johnny at National cross-country level as this event is the inter-county finals and a qualifier for the Irish team at the forthcoming European cross-country championships. You are up against the 10 best runners from each county. Johnny had a super race to finish in 63rd place in such elite company. The race itself was a fantastic spectacle with so many strong runners in the field. Even the guys at the back of the race would put most people to shame over any distance from 100m to 10000m.
The battle at the front was captivating – with an early group of 15 or 20 moving away from the rest of the field, then a strong surge thrown in here and there saw the group dwindle to 10, then a few more tactical surges and it dwindles to 5, then another surge and its down to 1 with Alan McCormack from DSD establishing a clear lead on the 3rd lap and holding it to the line. He was perhaps helped by a nasty fall earlier in the 3rd lap to Gary Murray from Donegal (a former National Champion), who tripped and fell head first flat onto the ground, with another athlete landing on top of him and rolling off. Murray lost 20 or 30m as a result but got up straightaway and battled back into the leading group but could not stick the pace of the surges and had to settle for 3rd place overall.
I’ve read before that Murray spends more time on the physio table for a back injury than he spends on the race track – so to get up after a fall like that and finish 3rd was remarkable and a true definition of strength, endurance and commitment! My pre-race favourite was Brian Farrell from Wicklow who decimated an elite field in the Loughrea 5-miler a few weeks ago but only managed to finish 7th on this occasion.
I’d highly recommend to parents and juvenile athletes that they stick around sometime at a National finals to watch the senior races because they were very enjoyable. It was incredible to see the strength and determination of the entire field of runners and is a great example to young people of what adults should be doing when they still have the power to do so.