Hill and Dale Series 2011 Preview

Can the Chasers Catch Cunningham?
Preview by Bogusboy

Thursday 14th April sees the return of the increasingly popular Hill and Dale series, sponsored by Up and Running. Last year the series broke all records in terms of the number of competitors, the numbers completing the series (192) and the amount of verbals issued at the start of the races by the organisers (too many to quantify!). The eleven race series, stretching until 23rd June returns with the traditional opener, the ‘McVeigh Classic’ in Castlewellan. This 5.5 mile race takes in 1080 feet of climbing before finishing by the wall of Castlewellan Castle. Picking a winner in this race is always difficult and in recent years there have been a few surprises, most notably when Noel Collins, a talented junior from Omagh, notched up an impressive victory. Traditionally the series winner does not emerge too early and this race is an ideal opportunity for an athlete to claim a moment of glory. My tip for this year is Jonny ‘the Steede’ Steede from Ballymena AC who has improved dramatically in the last 12 months and may just have the leg speed and endurance to see off the challengers: there is nothing like the commentators endorsement to spur an athlete on!!! Recent performances would suggest that he could be the man to beat, notwithstanding the fact that he ran the Mourne Peaks leg of the British Championship and may sit this one out!!! Woods will certainly be in the mix again as could last year’s second and third placed athletes Carty from North Belfast and Speight from Omagh. A lot may depend on who feels freshest and who recovers quickest from the exertions of the weekend.

The Mighty men of Mourne
The 2010 Hill and Dale series was dominated by the men from Mourne, who won each of the 11 races in the series, a notable achievement in itself. Des Woods got of to the prefect start recording successive victories in Castlewellan, Tollymore and Rostrevor. His efforts were then eclipsed by his clubmate Stephen Cunningham who amazingly won six of the seven races that followed in the mountains; his sequence was only temporarily interrupted when Eddie Hanna, the deserving champion of 2009 captured his sole victory of the series at Rocky in Race 6. Cunningham won every race he entered and it would seem selected his races carefully to ensure that he got the best out of himself. Woods scored a last night victory at the Monument to secure a clean sweep for Mourne Runners and take second place overall with Hanna taking third. One suspects that they have the determination, ambition and talent to potentially repeat this outstanding feat in 2011. Indeed there is strength in depth with the likes of Gary Bailey, on his day as good on descents as anyone, Andy Niblock, Sam Herron who has been running very well in recent weeks and William Marks who loves the open mountains. Mourne’s mighty men, who it would seem have torsos chiselled from granite will be furthered strengthened by the up and coming posse of talented and teak-tough juniors that have already flexed their muscles in 2010: Andrew Annett and Jonathan Graham being the most prominent of these.

Is the outcome decided?
While 2010 was far more predictable than 2009 there could be a few more twists and turns this year. Will Hill & Dale be Cunningham’s top priority? Having firmly established himself as Northern Ireland’s premier fell runner in 2010 by adding a Slieve Donard record to his already impressive CV, it could be that he will be more interested in enhancing his reputation on the national stage by committing his energy to the British Championship event, where he will undoubtedly face a much stiffer level of competition. This could leave the door ajar for his competitors. However I feel that he is strong enough and canny enough to pick his races carefully enough to enable his to excel in both competitions – only time will tell.

Little to separate the ladies
The ladies series was the closest in many a year and Karen Alexander and Alwynne Shannon took the line on the last night with 5 wins apiece in a winner takes all race. Alexander got off to a great start and wrapped up the series with two minutes to spare over Shannon, who, with five wins, would probably have been champion on any other year. It will be interesting to see if these ladies will be as close this year. Could it be that the 2009 champion Charlene Haugh will return to competitive racing and potentially spoilt the party for the others? It would also be wrong to rule out Shileen O’Kane, Angela Speight or Ciara Largey as all have demonstrated their talents in the past by winning races.

Can Newcastle mount a serious challenge?
Last year McNeilly was the best placed runner for the host club in a very credible fourth place. In 2011, at the tender age of 48, he looks as likely as ever to be the most dangerous threat to Mourne domination. He has been performing very well this season to date and has already notched up victories over Woods. Though recovering from surgery at present, he tells me that he is hopeful about taking the line on the first night. A man of this calibre can never be ruled out in any race and McNeilly still has the veracious appetite that is needed to compete at this level as clearly evidenced by his series victory in the ‘Extreme 26’ Winter Series. This desire will surely be fuelled further by the fact that he did not win a race in the 2010 series and he will be determined to lay that ghost to rest.

McCrickard and O’Flaherty were also well placed in the overall standings last year and while the latter should perform better on the forest trails the former is a great man on the rough conditions that characterise the races in the second half of the series. The McKibbin’s have been spotted out and about and perhaps they are getting ready to spring a few surprises. With a staggering 8 series’ titles between them, the twins can never be ruled out. Fresh from dipping his toe in the world of race organising at Leitrim, Brendan Quail is another Newcastle athlete who has the potential to do very well.

The best of the rest
While it would hard to bet against a Mourne Runners champion in 2011, there are some seasoned campaigners who have the potential to cause an upset. Stephen Duncan did not race last year, but has the potential to take the title, should he commit to the series. Neil Carty can never be written off, though like many of us age is no longer his friend. There will also be fierce rivalries renewed in the veteran categories: most notable of these will be the V45 category where Dale Mathers, Audie McVeigh and Gerry Kenny will be battling to challenge McNeilly. Eugene McCann has joined the V50 age group(Eugene’s birth certificate has been checked as he had been 49 since 2006!) and will offer a strong challenge to Jim Brown and Dominic McGreevy. There should also be a royal battle in the V35 between Alex Brennan and Willie Marks.

A new race
In our continued attempts to make the series interesting and different each year, we are delighted to introduce a new race, the Millstone Horseshoe. This race starts and finishes in Donard Park, Newcastle and follows an interesting climb up towards the quarry before veering left to take in the steep climb to Millstone. A sharp, but clean descent follows back to the Quarry before dropping down on trails to the finish in the park. Seasoned Hill and dale competitors will find this a more than interesting addition to the series.

Something for everyone
The Hill and Dale offers something for everyone and while the focus thus far has been on the elite athletes; each and every category is hotly contested. Participation in the series in 2010 broke all previous records and it is fantastic to see such huge numbers travelling from the length and breadth of the province to take in the spectacular scenery, insofar as that is possible while traversing a rocky precipice, and test themselves in these wonderful races. Most hardened Hill and Dalers will tell you that it is not the winning, but the taking part that counts; knowing that you have gone where few boldly go is sufficient satisfaction for many. There is also a great camaraderie among the increasing numbers of loyal supporters who turn up each week to watch their favourites and avail of the many excellent vantage points to watch the action unfold.

See you on April 14th
The series begins on 14th April and runs for eleven consecutive Thursdays, culminating in the now traditional last night celebration in the O’Hare’s Newcastle on June 23rd. Further details are available at the Newcastle AC club website (www.newcastleac.org), where an entry form can be downloaded. Competitors are advised to complete this form prior to registering for their first race as this will speed up the entry process. Athletes are also reminded that entries will close at 7.15pm sharp and that the regulations regarding health and safety are non-negotiable.

Entries Close at 7.15pm
Registered athletes: £7
Non-registered/Unattached/ non affiliated clubs: £8.00
Juniors: £3
Best 6 results from 11 to count towards the overall series
Safety Regulations
• All competitors must carry a whistle.
• If the weather is poor, all competitors must carry a waterproof coat.
• All runners must report to the finish.
• Reasonable fitness levels needed – cut off times will apply at the discretion of the organisers.
• Safety equipment required for races: compass, whistle, full body cover which should be brought to ALL races
• Every effort should be made by runners to car share, and park safely at all races.