McGrady and Lennon lead a high-class field home in a cracking cracker

Castlewellan Christmas Cracker 2023 by Bogusboy

The annual Castlewellan Christmas Cracker has become part of the lexicon of athletes and occasional runners across Northern Ireland and is now as much a part of the festive season as turkey, mince pies and the visit of the big fella with the red suit and the white beard. The enthusiasm generated by the event is evident in the quick sale of the 750 places available for teams of two soon after they were released in October. Invariably, situations change and teams are changed as illness, injury or other commitments take priority. Notwithstanding these vagaries of life, the market town was awash with colour as the minutes counted down to Uncle Frank’s whistle to set the masses on their way. 651 teams completed the course and the positive feedback testified to the hard work that had made the event happen.

Last year’s mantra was stun ‘the legs and play with the mind’ and we were left to wonder what tagline would characterise the 2023 version. In the end it was declared that ‘keep them wondering and bite hard at the end’ was an apposite summary for what unfolded. Phrases like ‘Jimmy King’s ground is under 2 feet of water’ did little to assuage the fears of the small number of those with a glimmer of an idea as to where the course would potentially go.

There are several reasons why this event has become so popular with runners all abilities. Firstly, is the unique format of the race where you run with a partner and your result is based on the second finishers time. In other words, you are only as good as your partner and picking the correct partner is ultimately the key to success. Alliances can be fragile and a down turn in form can signal an acrimonious split. There was an unconfirmed rumour that one NAC member had worked hard throughout the year to improve his fitness levels only to be told that he was sacked. Clearly festive cheer was in short supply in that pairing. The dumped athlete had the last laugh as he was there to jeer his erstwhile friend as he approached the finish line with his preferred partner. Relationships can also be strained on the course on the day as one partner exhorts the other to go a bit faster and run a bit harder. ‘Come on Jinksy, come on Jinksy’ was a phrase that reverberated constantly causing many to feel sorry for the poor fella. His coach was relentless and merciless in ensuring that her partner did not let the side down. At the end, a few who had listened to the encouragement for just over an hour and a half came over to make sure Jinksy was ok and recovering from his verbal ordeal. Laughing it off, he simply said, ‘that’s my coach and that’s what I pay her for.’

Secondly, while the race is roughly 8-9 miles, the course is different each year and there is always great mystery and suspense around where the course might go and what twists and turns to expect on the day. For the course setter there is the challenge of finding something new, different and intriguing and then putting in the hours needed to get all the relevant permissions, permits and co-operation from the various authorities. Thirdly, the race allows for male, female and mixed teams with different age categories keenly contested. Finally, there is the idea that the event, while serious for the elites, is a great social occasion for mere mortals with opportunities to literally to boldly go where few have gone before.

This year we were treated to something quite different as the course which began on Mill Hill went out the Bann Road before swinging left through a myriad of fields before a climb into a forest that was virgin territory for runners. Normal service was resumed when the course re-entered Castlewellan Forest Park at Dolly’s Brae Gate. The fun and games recommenced with a climb to the Moorish Tower followed by the steep ascent to the highest point of the outer boundary. As the finish approached it was the best part of a lap of the lake in an anti-clockwise direction before the final sting, a sharp right turn that would eventually lead to the Crow Road and break the hearts of most who were unprepared for this final twist – we should have known better. My trustworthy Garmin recorded 9.26 miles, a little longer than routes in recent years. Overall, the course was runnable for the most part and scenic. There was certainly some of the wet, mucky ground that we have come to expect, but this was nowhere near as bad as it might have been given the rain that had fallen in the days leading up to the race.

The tussle at the front of the field was intense early on. In time, McGrady and Lennon would assert their authority and take command of the race storming home in an impressive 56.40 for the 9+ miles with over 1000 feet of climbing and navigating tricky terrain. Pre-race favourites Hanna and Annett were second, holding off the more youthful pairing of Crudgington and Johnston by around a minute. As the hour passed, the teams started to come in thick and fast with some great sprint finishes and battles for the line as teams fought for every position.

In the female category, Helen Lavery and Sarah Lavery of Beechmount harriers were first across the line in 71st place overall in 1:16:41. Just under a minute later the North Down pairing of Clair Quigley and Fiona McQuillan came home in 2nd place and 79th overall. The female podium was completed by Amanda Perry and Elise Logue in 102nd overall.

The mixed race was won by Robyn McKee and Loclainn Connolly of Annadale in 23rd overall. They were followed by their teammates Alison Stocks and Niall O’Gorman in 34th overall and Paul Hyland and Sinead McDonald in third place. The category winners in each of the age ranges are included in the attached summary of results.

The organisers would like to thank everyone, too many to mention by name, who contributed to the preparation for the race and the delivery of the event on the day itself – clearly a case of teamwork making the dream work.

Moving forward, it will not be long until registrations open for the 2023 Hill & Dale series which undoubtedly will be as popular as ever as athletes challenge themselves over interesting courses that explore the wonderful area that many of us are blessed to call our playground.