Running across the Irish Sea

Rathfarnham-clubhouse

Peter Clarke takes a look at the health of the running scene in his home country of Ireland.

Competitors are born in the cool light of competition. We may not have many record breakers but what we do have is an active and inclusive club scene with an abundance of low-cost competition, that sits happily alongside big city races like the London Marathon or Great North Run, or community driven and (proudly free) events like parkrun. It’s this broad spectrum of competition that makes me hopeful for the future of British running.” Andy Waterman, Tracksmith magazine

Our clubmate Andy Waterman recently offered a great insight into the UK and US amateur running scenes, having experienced both at first hand. The UK, as we will all testify, caters really well for the club athlete and Andy argues that the sheer depth and frequency of competition at all levels augurs well for the future production of elite talent.

If Andy’s premise holds true, as an Irishman should I be similarly optimistic that Ireland might see a return to our glory years? How healthy is our sport and how well does it cater for the keen amateur?

Whatever happened to the heroes?

Ireland has had a long history of producing world class runners. Ron Delany’s Olympic gold in 1956 in Melbourne was followed by the golden age of Eamonn Coughlan, John Treacy, Ray Flynn, Frank O’Meara, Marcus O’Sullivan, Paul Donovan and Jerry Kiernan, and later Sonia O’Sullivan and Catherina McKiernan, who all excelled at world level, or at least could hold their own. Hurdler Derval O’Rourke impressed on the European stage in the 2000s, as did David Gillick, and we are still producing high quality athletes such as our Rio hero Tom Barr, Fionnuala Britton (now McCormack), Rob Heffernan and Mark English, but it’s clear that Irish success now is far more sporadic than in the past.

John Treacy winning one of his two World Cross Country Championships

Grass roots running in Ireland

Grass roots athletics in Ireland was something I was only barely aware of growing up in the 1970s and ‘80s. My school and family pulled me towards other sports. The newspapers and broadcast media would frequently associate our star athletes with their club names in their race reports, but I couldn’t have professed to have had anything more than anecdotal knowledge of the club scene.

Fellow Serpie and Dubliner of my vintage, Harry McDermott, was closer to the scene. Harry mixed school rugby with Sunday morning athletics during the winters and focused solely on track during the summers. He represented Ireland at Junior and Schools level.

The club circuit was very strong back then – no surprise given the quality of elite runners we were producing – and Harry’s junior scene was highly competitive and well structured. Regional championships in May served as qualifiers for the nationals in July. “These were real races”, says Harry, “but maybe the field sizes were just too small and performance benchmarks too local. We were happy to be running 400m in 50 seconds against each other, but maybe we should have been looking to the UK where we had heard stories of a teenager called Roger Black running 45. The club scene helped a lot of talent to emerge, but the culture wasn’t performance oriented. Cigarettes and booze were normal.”

Ireland was a poor country and athletics offered talented kids a route to the USA via athletics scholarships. Many of our star runners excelled in the States, but the roads weren’t always paved with gold. Burnout, homesickness and disillusionment were commonplace, but many ultimately carved out good livings on the back of their academic qualifications. The local club scene was an integral part of this journey.

Facilities were poor, that much I did know. Even a runner of Harry’s calibre ran around grass playing fields most of the time. In today’s London I know of a dozen or more running tracks; there seems to be at least one in every borough and there are four within three miles of where I live. In 1980s Dublin I knew only of two, and one of these, my university track at Belfield, is now gone.

Amateur running today

I grew up just outside Rathfarnham village, the quaint hub of a sprawling suburb that stretches from the city fringes to the Dublin mountains. In the 1980s the landmark Victorian courthouse was disused and boarded up but it is now the home of Rathfarnham Athletics Club. Its external facade is proudly adorned by a large picture of one of its successful teams and is virtually the first thing you’ll see if you enter the village from the southern end. As a teenager, I wouldn’t have known where to join a club even if I’d wanted to; today’s kids can’t not know.

Zoe Melling, Rathfarnham’s PR Manager, explains this relatively new club’s success, placing it in the context of a thriving national club scene, with three hundred clubs now registered with Athletics Ireland (the National Governing Body). “Our club is friendly and inclusive with a strong emphasis on team competition” she says. “We have 180 active members and we cater for all ages and levels across all disciplines with something for everyone. Our membership fees are modest and include entry to championship races and the provision of club kit. There are events at novice, intermediate, senior and masters’ level, and all at county, provincial and national level. The club’s members all participate”.

One of these members, Sean O’Hehir was disappointed to “blow up over the last 7k” and to “only” do 2:17 in April’s London Marathon. The club must be doing something right if this is the expectation of its better athletes. I was kindly invited to train with them when I’m next back, and it’s something I’m already looking forward to.

Just like in the UK, flagship events like the Dublin City Marathon and the Women’s Mini Marathon (billed as “the biggest all women’s event of its kind in the world”, with 41,006 women participating in 2014) sit comfortably alongside a tapestry of smaller events. New races close to where I lived attract large numbers. The Terenure 5 Mile is now a big event supported by many strong club runners, and I myself ran in the weekly Marlay parkrun earlier this year, with a mere 602 others! There are now 54 parkruns in Ireland, quite something for a country of fewer than 5 million people, not much more than half the population of London.

Will elite success now follow?

With such a healthy club and grass roots scene, not least large numbers of juniors, should we be looking forward to the emergence of a new group of world class athletes?  Feidhlim Kelly of Athletics Ireland is far from convinced. He feels that the thriving club scene might even be part of the problem. The prevailing culture is now one of participation, not of excellence. Whilst there is no shortage of races, our very best runners don’t race each other often enough so the competition may lack the intensity required to push on to the next level.

Kelly also feels we lack an iconic figure to inspire, in a way that Coughlan or O’Sullivan did in their heyday. We have good coaches, he says, but not the great coaches that might make the difference.

Despite the recent economic crisis Kelly says the funding is there, at grass roots and also to develop elite athletes. Facilities have improved since Harry’s and my day. Despite the loss of my university track, there are now five tracks in Dublin (population 1.3 million) and many more around the country. However, Belfield may have been replaced by others, but it was located in a large catchment area well connected by public transport. The new tracks on the outskirts of Dublin, a city notorious for its traffic chaos, are less accessible.

That said, the impressive national indoor arena in Athlone is very busy during the winter and a second indoor arena is close to completion. And anyway, there is an abundance of safe parks to run in.

The national indoor athletics arena in Athlone

In 2009 an initiative was launched by several of the Dublin Marathon organisers. The goal of the Marathon Mission was to raise national standards, which it has done, but not yet in huge increments. The 1980s is still the high water mark for Irish marathon running. Three-time Dublin Marathon winner Dick Hooper argues that the key is depth. The more runners you have running 2:15, the standard of our male marathoners in Rio, the more likely one or more will be pushed to 2:12. If a few are pushed to 2:12, one will be pushed to Treacy’s time of 2:09.

More broadly the economics of being a small country does matter. Corporate sponsorship is low and other sports compete for funding, facilities and the country’s best young talents.

There’s nothing we can do about being small.

It is a complicated puzzle and I often feel that luck might just be what is needed for a new world star to emerge (ruling out my future career as a visionary sports administrator). A solid core of the national pyramid could be argued to be a necessary condition for elite success, but it seems it’s not sufficient.

Peter Clarke has been a Serpie since 2011. He runs to feed the delusion that he is still young and to allow more wine and curry than doctors recommend.