Three in a row for Hanna – Mill Hill Mile 2018

A one-off special report by Bogusboy

It may be one of the shortest races in the NI Athletics fixture list, but the Mill Hill Mile packs an almighty punch. The annual Mill Hill uphill mile race took place on Tuesday 4 September at 7:00pm. The race, which has been ran every year since 1987, with the exception of 2001, begins in Annsborough and challenges the athletes to negotiate the steep climb to just past the library in Castlewellan.  By the time the runners completed the one mile climb, they ascended a total of 90 metres at an average gradient of 6%.  At the steepest point around the halfway mark the gradient is 10%. The format of the race is simple.  Get from the big tree in Annsborough to just past the market house before anyone else; something that Deon McNeilly has managed on six different occasions, Alan McKibbin six times in a row, Robbie Bryson four times and East Down’s Liam Venney and Brendan Teer between them for six years leading up to 2015.  There was a changing of the guard in 2016 with Newcastle’s rising star, Zak Hanna winning for the first time; a title he retained in 2017. He was odds-on favourite for a hat-trick. In all there have been 11 different winners of the race to date.

A moment of reflection
As the athletes gathered on the start line, there was a poignant moment of reflection followed by respectful applause to remember Darren Hogg, a member of Murlough AC who tragically lost his life days earlier. The thoughts and prayers of the wider community are with his family at this difficult time.

The race is on
As the whistle blew, Hanna, as predicted, was first to show and quickly separated himself from the chasing masses. From our vantage point in the car at the head of the race, the young Dromara starlet looked in imperious form as he made light work of the steeper parts of the hill. As the race unfolded, he became stronger and continually extended his advantage. He reached the Market House to tumultuous applause from a large crowd. As Morgan noted the time from his dependable Casio, he reported that Hanna had set the seventh fastest time ever in the race, an impressive 5 minutes and 25 seconds and the quickest in quite a while. Such was his domination that he was the only athlete under 6 minutes on a balmy evening and had 38 seconds to spare over Jared Martin of Scrabo Striders (6:03). The podium was completed by international athlete Kerry O’Flaherty (6:04); less than 10 seconds outside her female course record.

A steady stream
In the next few minutes they came to the finish in a very steady stream with some great battles and sprint finishes. Most impressive was the number of children who, often accompanied by parents were keen to embrace the challenge. The determination and resilience was plain for all to see. Gary Cairns, a regular winner of the ‘first Annsborian’ category was forced to relinquish his coveted crown to Sean Russell, but has vowed to come back stronger, fitter and faster next year to reclaim his rightful title! Billy Rowan is tangible proof of the benefits that accrue from commitment to training. The ‘Lisbane Lion’ roared up the hill despite being the wrong side of 70 and is an inspiration to all who watch him compete with joy and enthusiasm. The award for the most members of a family taking part unsurprisingly goes to the Fosters, with mum Joanne, dad Davy and all 6 children completing the course – who says it is difficult to get children out to exercise?

What’s next?
The next major Newcastle AC event is the Annual Christmas Cracker in late December. Castlewellan will be awash with colour as around 1400 runners, competing in pairs, will take on the post-Christmas challenge set by the traditionally unbenevolent course directors who, given the severity of the course, appear to lack seasonal goodwill towards fellow runners! Perhaps this year it will be a gentle lap of the lake, but who am I trying to fool!!! Watch the website for the race entry opening as places are snapped up very quickly – book early to avoid disappointment!