Little Acorns, Grow Mighty Oaks

On Saturday, it was the sowing of many of the little Newcastle AC acorn seeds that took place in Comber.

The Junior squad were out in force at the Ulster and NI Even Age Group Cross Country Championships at Billy Neill Country Park, Comber. This year’s squad had pledged that they were going to put Newcastle AC firmly back on the XC map after a quiet few years off the racing circuit. With many of our Juniors getting a taste of XC at the Flahavans Primary School League earlier this month, the race buzz has been infectious and 25 of the Junior Squad, ranging from 8 to 18 toed the line beside the best young athletes in NI.

With hope that it was impossible for any more rain to actually fall from the sky after a total soaking since mid week, the dull clouds gathered over Comber and just as the first race was about to kick off, the rain didn’t take time to come down, ensuring it didn’t miss any of the 56 runners in the U10 girls race.

Yet many wet and questionable mornings at Castlewellan Parkrun played to the advantage of young Emily Kerr as she powered around the course to take a fantastic 14th place. With experience, there is no doubt that this young lady will grow in confidence and excel on the muck, the road and on track.

Up next, as the rain clearly had a vendetta against the Under 10s, was the boys. From the off Harry McVeigh led the race much to the disgust of Dad Connaire who could be heard across the course shouting, ‘sit in behind.’ Harry now knows only too well his abilities and how to read the race throughout and adjust his tactics. Pulling the lead group with him and tiring them early on, he turned off the final hill with 15m to spare and cruised to the finish to secure a well deserved first place. Seemingly he has embodied the race tactics of those before him of “Go hard or Go Home.” He was soon followed by best friend Rossa McAleenan in 23rd who along with Harry Flynn and Luke McDonald were experiencing their first event of this size and calibre. Together they held their own and put in amazingly strong finishes, proving that even in the rain this young team is unstoppable.

The U12 Girls squad was the largest represented squad of the day with 7 girls representing the club.

Maisie McVeigh, now under pressure as brother Harry literally took to the top of the podium, used her experience to navigate a busy start line and attach herself to the lead group for the duration of the 1500m. Finishing 9th place and maintaining 5 minute/mile pace. Her race wisdom and pre race chat race plan served to inspire the girls on the line.

Saorlaith McAleenan, fresh from an amazing run at Flahavans, held her own amongst an older field of runners to take 30th place. Like the U10 boys the main body of the field saw solid running from our young ladies who stuck together and pushed each other on through what was now a very mucky and slippy underfoot course. The muck tracks and splashes that spanned from their feet to their shoulders means there is now a lot of washing on the cards. Well done to Mary Huston, Parisa Susay Quinn, Alana Flynn, Eilis Donnelly and Aoife Grant who all ran a steady race and good luck whoever is in charge of washing!

Next up the U12 boys saw Connaire Og McVeigh accompany first timer Turlough O’Hanlon over the 1500m. Connaire Og pushed himself over the first 300m to find himself comfortably up the pack by the end of the first hill. He held onto this pace to finish in 69th place. Turlough had a baptism of fire but dealt with it confidently and was well supported by plenty of yellow and red tops around the course, right to the finish line. A stellar performance from the U12 boys.

Our U14 girls consisted of Erin Easton, Anna Rooney, Niamh Watson and Clara Flynn.

With the distance jumping a whole kilometre to 2500m it was only natural to explain to the girls that realistically it’s “only just” half of Parkrun, only it’s solely on grass which is saturated, dangerous in places and you might get down the hill quicker on your backside if you’re willing to risk it. But in the same fashion that they approach speed work on a Monday evening, it was no bother to them and as they set off they managed a few smiles around the 2 lap course of a different lake than they’re used to and crossed the line debating whether one coach was a sadistic liar or actually was that coach right that running is actually fun! I think the girls are taking a bit more time to debate that.

A young bunch of lads, new to the U14 age category stepped up next. This was a huge task ahead for them as they battled loosening ground and some young men nearly 2 years older than them. Yet it was clear this bunch had each other’s back from the warm up right to the last step of the race. Sticking together, working as a team and even including local lad Paddy Sherrard in their pre race craic and banter.

Not evidently fazed by the task ahead, they set off down the first 200m at speed. Darragh Kerr, who has made massive improvements this year, matched club mate Fiachna McAleenan stride for stride around the course against a very fast and strong field. Only separated by their new found friend Paddy at the finish line. Maybe Paddy might find his way to this end of Newcastle and join these two to help keep the peace!

Rowan Bailey and Rónán Grant, a bit further back, proved that it’s not about running anyone else’s race, it’s about running your own to the best of your ability. Don’t get me wrong everyone loves to win, however these two boys won the award for resilience, self belief and determination. So much so that Dad and winner of many races, Ian Bailey, can be quoted as saying ‘That’s definitely the most I’ve ever enjoyed a race.’ As Rónán brought this race to a close, supported by fellow team mates Darragh and Fiachna, he tackled the final hill like his life depended on it and crossed the finish line as much of a winner as first place.

A small break in the line up allowed for the clouds to clear and the seniors to enter the racing line up. Our senior ladies were represented by Donna Daly and Joanne Mills and alongside them they were joined by recently Selected NI Masters runner Ernie Hall over the 6000m 3 lap course.

There was no doubt that this route had its challenges, however the new route was tipped to be faster and kinder than previous years even though there was an exceptionally steep section half way through each lap. Yet what goes up, must come down and this opened up the latter section of each lap to be quite fast albeit a bit mucky. One pair of spikes, named “White Lightening” may have a different story to tell as they crossed the line literally a shadow of their former selves.

Joanne dug deep around the course to find her stride early on and put in a strong race to finish 12th in the Open Womens category in 24.21. Maybe if she had braved the other club top instead of the vest it might have given her better aerodynamics but we’ll never know, it was still a phenomenal run.  She was soon followed by Donna who afterwards discussed the intricacies of the value of design of her White Spikes to younger club members. She took 14th place in the Womens V40 completing the route in 28.59.

Ernie Hall showed his class and experience as he claimed 14th place overall in the Mens V60 category in 29.03. He was hot on the tail of Donna towards the end, crossing the line seconds behind her. Ernie not only demonstrated his running expertise on the day, his ability to collapse the club gazebo with ease and flare that made other clubs jealous. He navigated the structure from end to end and tackled all the problems of getting it into the bag like a pro. With help from his glamorous assistants Joanne and Donna, this made life a lot easier for the trip back to the Mournes.

Sophie Neill, who was up next for the U16 race, watched on from the sidelines as our senior ladies took to the line and was inspired by their performance. A young lady who seems to be finding her running legs this year, was apprehensive to be running on such a large scale. She ran a sensible race and in hindsight has learned a lot from this experience which she will remember at future events. She secured 76th place within a strong field of 91 young ladies.

Club mate Euan McIntosh was the next to take on the 3500m route. He powered around the course to take 67th place in 13.17. His strength could be seen as he approached the finish, making up several places in the final 100m, never slowing up until he crossed the line.

A short interval allowed for the Senior race prep to be completed and also for one coach to accidentally take home the race number of Tom Crudgington to which she will never be allowed to forget. Yet even with this small setback and thanks to the ability to reissue numbers, Tom took to the startline to compete within a huge field of 220 runners for the Senior Males race and U20 Males over 8000m.

After a strong start, Tom sat amongst the chasing group and made space for himself as he approached the 1000m metre mark. By now the course had fallen victim to the day’s vigorous programme and the abuse by over 1500 pairs of feet. Though the many trips up Slievenaslat, around the boundary wall and training for the upcoming undisclosed Christmas Cracker Route, being chased by the young at heart Coach McVeigh, allowed Tom to demonstrate his class and streamlined ability to navigate such a course. He crossed the line as 6th U20 Male and 16th overall.

This trip out to Comber has become one of many lessons, opportunities and most importantly memories. Covered in dried mud cakes from our smallest juniors to our Seniors and all the spectators in between. A day to be noted as the foundations have been laid, inspired by the journey through athletics of those club members older than them. Maybe these little Newcastle acorns will, with time, grow and surpass the heights of the mighty Oak Trees before them in the club, only time will tell.