The Greatest Cracker of Them All?


Photo courtesy of Mal McCann

Oh yes it was, oh no it wasn’t – pantomime season it is and after the heavy indulgences of Christmas and Boxing Days, the throngs descended on Castlewellan to run off some of the Christmas excess. The venue as ever was Castlewellan GAC – warm hospitality extended in all corners of the club, including music and imbibing promised to the wee small hours. To cater for the extra participants, temporary portable toiles were trucked in and money was put in the meter to ensure that there was warm water in the showers to clean off the caked mud – was it just mud?

After last year’s record 425 teams (850 participants) the organisers increased the entry limit to 600 teams and that limit was reached in the week leading up to Christmas. A big thank you to Darragh McCrickard who looked after the whole entry process and as illness struck time and time again throughout the lead up to Christmas, Darragh beavered away to amend the composition of the pairs (counting 30 changes on Christmas Day alone – way above and beyond the call of duty). So 600 teams registered and paid to take part and duly 554 made it to the finish line – the first team was home in just under 50 minutes and the final team in just under 2 hours and 25 minutes for the 8.6 miles route with 1,000 feet of climbing – equally challenging to all those who took part.

The race started on the Main Street close to the mini-roundabout, up past the Market House and a right turn past the GAC and straight on to the brow of the hill before plunging through a field onto the Newcastle Road and back into town at the mini-roundabout. It was an impressive sight as spectators lined the street to cheer on the 1,100+ runners – the sky was clear – it was a crisp winter’s day, 6C and hardly a breath – well hardly any wind but plenty of hard breathing souls already toiling and just over a mile done.

There was calamity down the field – oh no there wasn’t, oh yes there was…a friendship broken apart? The difficulty with more than a thousand runners plus spectators milling around at the start is that it can be hard to find your partner before the races starts. Anne Sandford (Lagan Valley) and Paulette Thompson (Newcastle AC) are partners on many a sortie into the mountains and had agreed to give the Cracker a go together. This scribe had seen each of them warming up but crucially not together – they both looked ‘ready to rumble’ but as everyone knows it’s two runners or no cigar in the Cracker. As the masses accelerated off up the town, Sandford hesitated, ‘where was Paulette? She must have gone? I’ll chase her then’ and off she went. Meanwhile, a little further down the field Thompson waited and waited, ‘where has Anne got to? I’ll give her another minute – oh heck, I’m off’. Up ahead the ever resourceful Sandford asked the first course marshal she saw, ‘is Paulette by yet?’ She might as well have asked if Pinky & Perky had gone by, for the first marshal said ‘she’s just up ahead’ and second marshal said ‘she’s not been through yet’, and so it continued….’look out she’s behind you…oh no she’s not, oh yes she is….’ So what was planned to be a ‘frolic in the park’ for the two mountain ladies was rapidly turning into a pantomime nightmare…fast forward… just over one hour and 17 minutes after the stuttering start they finally joined forces in the finishing funnel to cross the line in 198th place. Still friends? Oh no they’re not, oh yes they are…

So after a mile and a half done and back to the starting point, the field turned left for Rathfriland (or Kilcoo, whichever way you want it) and Seamy Lynch took it as a sign to start to turn the screw. As they turned into the Park (up the exit road) Lynch and his partner McKinstry were being chased by North Belfast Harriers’ pair Andrew Annett (out of the Mournes) and Lindsay Gordon (out of Edinburgh) and young whippersnappers Dromore AC’s Russell White (an up and coming Irish Triathlete) and Slieve Croob’s best Zak (‘why do I have a picture of me as an 11-year-old on my driving licence’) Hanna. Another North Belfast pair John Black and Conal McCambridge were also in close attention alongside Newry pair Don Travers and Joe McKevitt and the first ‘older boys team’ of David McNeilly and Neil Carty (Men O80).

It’s just worth mentioning again that the Christmas Cracker with it’s much loved ‘pairs format’ was the brainchild of McNeilly’s uncle, Jim Hayes, a stalwart of Ballydrain Harriers. Hayes organised the first Cracker back in 1985 that started and finished in Comber and took in the foreshore of Strangford Lough and Scrabo Country Park. I’m sure he couldn’t have believed that from the humble beginnings (albeit always with a quality field) the race has now grown in popularity to where it is today. It is testament to Hayes’ foresight that he approached Newcastle AC around the turn of the century for the club to ‘pick up the mantle’. It was great to see Jim and his wife Eithne supporting the runners around the course and in the Club afterwards for the presentation.

Fittingly for the watching Hayes, the first all female team home were from his home club in guise of Amanda Perry and Denise Logue in 60th place overall in 65 minutes and 32 seconds. The fastest woman of the day, Irish Women’s Marathon and Half-Marathon 2016 Champion Laura Graham teamed up with club mate William McKee to come home in 14th place overall, well inside the hour. Asked afterwards how she had found it, she described the course as ‘her idea of hell’ – she might live in the mountains but it’s definitely the ‘black top’ rather than the ‘soggy bottom’ for Laura every time. McKee and Graham took the Mixed Team title easily.

Meanwhile McKinstry and Lynch were powering ahead, climbing up to the front of the Castle and then heading almost due north in the direction of Leitrim. Full credit goes to course designers Audey McVeigh, Jerome McCrickard and Dominic McGreevey. These things don’t just happen overnight and the work put in by the team over the past two months was a superb effort by all involved. A massive thank you to the landowners who gave their permission for the race to cross their land. The drop from the back of the park was fantastic, complete with plastic cow (like something out of Jurassic Park) surprising the runners just around a tight corner and the dilapidated toilet complete with bog roll at the top of the muddiest lane in the parish awash with water and other stuff that greeted the runners close to half way. The Bannonstown and the Ballymaginaghy Roads were negotiated and all along the way there were families out supporting the throngs as they toiled away through lesser know highways and byways.

Weeks of hard graft by McCrickard had seen the route of the GNR (Great Northern Railway) being cleared of brambles (mainly) to make it passable to the runners. So it was a historic journey as the 1,000 plus runners made their way along the 0.7 miles of flat but muddy ground – an absolute delight and what the Cracker is really all about – exploring new ground – the runners emerged into Clarkhill Wood and eventually out onto Oldbridge Road and returning to the Forest Park via the Drumbuck Road and the ‘first sting in the tail’ climbing through another field to Mitchell’s Lake. A quick finish ensued – or so the runners thought as they plunged through the forest to the finish area and the runners reached the gathered large crowd only to be directed left to a lap of the ‘big field’ and the ‘second sting in the tail’. A brilliant setting for the finish to a brilliant race and it was all glory for Lynch and McKinstry and they came home in under 50 minutes – not hanging around given the climbing and the tough terrain. It was Lynch’s and McKinstry’s first pairing and win in the Cracker – congratulations to them both. They were a minute ahead of Annett and Gordon who stayed clear of fast finishing White & Hanna.

In keeping with the pantomime theme the Cracker traditionally attracts all sort of attire, from the sober ‘club vests’ to the outrageous. Back in the Club afterwards, spot prizes of fine Chilean Wine were handed out to many beautiful princesses and other similar themes with the star prize went to ‘Donald Trump and the 3 Mexicans (trowel in hand)’ who stole the show – much love between them and let’s hope this extends into 2017.

As well as the course designers, markers and landowners, there is thanks also due to the Forestry Service and Newry, Mourne & Down Council for access to the Forest Park. The marshals are also heroes too, dotted all around the course including some Mountain Rescue personnel, Shimna Wheelers and the Vintage Motor Bike Fanatics. Also thanks to the police for closing the roads in Castlewellan for the early part of the race. Once again a superb job by Frank and Mary at the well-oiled finish, plus scanner Gwenda McNeilly. Queues were managed well at registration and thanks everyone for their understanding and to the 12 volunteers who staffed the desks for an hour and a half before the race. There should also be plenty of photos on the NAC website and maybe even a drone video or two from Graham McCauley. Thanks to everyone who made this year’s event a success, especially the runners and sorry to anyone not mentioned by name.

As is traditional with the Cracker in previous years or so a charity donation has been made to the Neo-Natal Unit of the RVH Belfast, the years donation is £1095.


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