Stun the legs and play with the head

A Review of the Castlewellan Christmas Cracker by Bogusboy

There was much anticipation in the build-up to race day. Uncertainty in the midst of a new variant of the Covid-19 virus had everyone on edge. Thankfully, the race was allowed to proceed as planned and what a spectacle it turned out to be. Registration had opened months in advance and entries sold out in record time, a clear indication that this race has become a firm favourite for the elite and the not so elite runner. For most, it is the sense of turning up on the day not knowing what to expect. The race has two unique selling points. Firstly, you have to run with a partner and you are only ever as good as your other half. Many alliances come unstuck on the hills and in the mud and friendships are often lost, regained and lost again as the race unfolds. Secondly, and perhaps more uniquely only a select few know the course in advance and they are sworn to secrecy. This is unusual in that most of us go to a race knowing what to expect in terms of distance, terrain and elevation: not so with this one! The only information is that it begins and ends in Castlewellan and it is between 8.5 and 9 miles (8.78 miles this year if my Garmin is to be trusted!

The course this year was a very tightly guarded secret with only those entrusted to assist with the marking on the eve of the race getting any real insight. When asked to describe the course, the Prophet simply stated, ‘it will stun the legs and play with the head’. These words rang in my head as I ran around fields that I never expected to, climbed hills that I never climbed before and at one point, if my eyesight is not failing saw Sherpa Tenzing throwing down ropes and herding a cabinet of Yaks (I chose the more flowery collective noun!)!

At the business end of proceeding, there was some real class on parade with Irish Mountain Running sensation Zak Hanna (Newcastle AC) paired with Andrew Annett (North Belfast Harriers), a man in great form as evidenced by his superb win in the Armagh 10! This international pairing with real climbing pedigree firmly lived up to their billing as odds-on favourites and were almost 3 minutes ahead of their nearest challengers, the youthful pairing of Jared Martin (Ballydrain) and Tom Crudgington (Newcastle AC). With many years of running ahead both these young men are capable of winning the race in the not-too-distant future. The podium was completed by the pairing of Jonny Scott (Mourne Runners) and Aaron McGrady (East Down AC) who hooked up on the morning of the event due to last minute withdrawals. The chemistry was clearly good and the partnership worked as they came home in just over 57 minutes, 76 seconds adrift of Martin and Crudgington.

The ladies’ race was a tighter affair with Amanda Perry and Denise Logue from Ballydrain winning by 25 seconds from Dearbhla Cox (Annadale Striders) and Niamh Donnelly (Armagh AC). The podium was completed by Clair Quigley and Fiona McQuillan (both North Down AC).

The mixed team event is always closely fought and this year was no different. With a mile to go to the finish eventual winners Aidan Brown (Newcastle AC) and Nakita Burke (Letterkenny AC) were still under pressure from Stephen Connolly and Caitlyn Harvey from North Down AC. However, in the final twists and turns the former prevailed and ran out winners by around a minute, finishing 8th and 10th overall respectively. The podium was completed by Neil McGeough, Newcastle’s rising star and his partner, Irish Olympian Kerry O’Flaherty, an athlete more at home on the track and over barriers than climbing ditches.

Throughout the field there was great camaraderie and the craic was mighty. Social media was buzzing after the race with participants commenting that this was the best course they had ever ran over, despite the numerous challenges that it presented.

The race organisers are indebted to everyone, too many to mention individually, who contributed in any way to the success of the event and the great joy it brought to those taking part and spectating at a time when anything that improves our well-being is something to celebrate.

Late news update – the Prophet was spotted on New Year’s Day in several fields with a chainsaw and a bill hook!!

Link to Photos and Results