Report by Eoghan Totten
The Newcastle & District AC senior men’s team has tasted success on the roads during the past two weekends. On September 23rd, we won the Northern Ireland and Ulster team road relay title in Victoria Park in east Belfast by a margin of one minute and thirty-five seconds. Averaging this margin out over the four runners (Eoghan Totten/me, Niall Goodman, Robbie Hagan and Patrick McNiff) for each of the four short legs (3,380m) equates to roughly eleven seconds per mile, per runner. This is a huge pace differential for any distance race but especially for what can still be considered a middle distance event. The statistic demonstrates the strength and depth of talent within the club at present. Most importantly, it shows that, under the coaching methodologies and guidance of Richard Rodgers, we are getting something right, and getting it right consistently.
This victory was quickly followed up last Saturday (September 30th) with another Northern Ireland and Ulster title for the senior men’s team at the Bangor 10k. The team (Eoghan Totten/me, Robbie Hagan, new club member Patrick Sheridan and Patrick McNiff) scored a combined time of 2:05:31, nearly four minutes clear of runners up, North Belfast Harriers (2:09:19) and nearly seven minutes clear of Annadale AC. We faced some very tough competition from athletes with impressive dynamic distance range, from the mile up to half marathon: athletes like Andrew Milligan (29:22 10km road PB and a blistering 3:40 1500m PB achieved this summer); city of Derry athlete Conor Bradley (a 4:01 miler, 28:59 10km road PB, as well as a sub-65 minute half marathon), as well as Eskander Turki (Annadale AC), exciting St. Malachy’s AC talent Conall McClean, and more.
As far as athletics is concerned, 2022 and 2023 have been difficult years for me, having struggled to recover from time out in 2021 due to persistent stress reactions in one of my feet. Having made a return to structured training in August 2023, Bangor 10K gave me the opportunity to test my fitness over a distance that fits my strengths as an athlete (the longer, the better). Going into the race, my priority was to ensure that testing my limits after six to eight weeks of training did not come at the cost of sacrificing the collective team priority of securing the win.
I led the race from the gun, going through the first downhill kilometre in about 2:55, flanked by Robbie, Patrick and Patrick, before the course hangs right along seafront. As this was a championship race, I had a suspicion that most competitors would be content to sit in the front pack and let another athlete do the work. I found myself having so much fun out there that I made the somewhat reckless decision to stay at the front, some ten to twenty metres in front of the pack. My teammates did the sensible thing and tucked in with the lead group.
The gap that I had on the main pack remained the same until 5km, where the course goes inland and seesaws over undulating country roads until it doubles back on itself along the seafront between 7-8km. I went through in 15:20, with the chasing group five to six seconds behind me. Unfortunately, this lead grew slimmer with every passing step until about 8km, when five to six athletes closed it entirely, dropping me about five hundred metres later. As the course made its final turn away from the promenade towards the notorious hill at 9km, I glanced over my shoulder to see Robbie Hagan having the run of his life and looking strong. This motivated me to hang on when I was really struggling. I held out for 7th place (30:54), with Robbie finishing 8th (31:14 – a new PB), followed by Patrick Sheridan in 10th (31:32 – also a PB. It is worth noting that I remember training with Patrick as early as 2009 when he was just twelve years of age. He had the heart of a lion then and has evidently applied that work ethic to his recent return to the sport) and Patrick McNiff, who held on when it mattered to run 31:48 and secure 11th place.
I have been running competitively for more than fifteen years at this point, often in pursuit of my own individual goals. Newcastle AC’s recent team titles have reminded me of the important and supportive role that community plays in helping a runner realise their potential. This community dates back more than forty years, to the extent that some of its athletes’ achievements have reached the status of lore. Last Saturday, when I looked over my shoulder, far from my best form and suffering, I could see our red and yellow jerseys strung out along the course — and I thought of Deon McNeilly’s 2nd place in the British Cross Country all those years ago; Kerry O’Flaherty’s gutsy runs at the 2015 World Athletics Championships and 2016 Olympic Games; Ryan Forsyth’s stellar 4th in the 2018 European U23 cross country championships; Zak Hanna’s 5th place finish at the 2022 World Mountain Running Association championships in Thailand; Patrick McNiff’s 14:23 at the 2020 Armagh 5km, aged just seventeen — the list goes on!
I thought of my own lifetime achievement of 2:16:08 in the 2019 Dublin City Marathon, when the club turned out in force to support me and other club runners, including Joe McCann, who first spotted my talent in school — and of course, my coach, Richard Rodgers (it would be hard to forget the sight of him grinning from ear to ear and cheering wildly, when I came through twenty miles in 01:44:00!) The list of feats by the club is exhaustive and I’m confident that this success can continue into the future, with a wave of new talent coming through (it now draws members from a large catchment area that extends throughout the Mourne area, as well as south and east Down).
Racing last Saturday reminded me that I am lucky to be part of this club. Even though I am far from my peak level of fitness at present, I know that its members are rooting for me as a person and not just an athlete (they’re rooting for us all!). This is something that, admittedly, I have taken for granted at times. As coach Rodgers said to me after last Saturday’s race, I raced like I was thirty going on sixteen. While he was referring to my far from optimal race tactics, his words were also somewhat poignant. Sometimes it seems like 2007 (when I first joined Newcastle AC) and those first training sessions on the Tollymore river loop were yesterday. They aren’t. While I still have somewhere between five to ten years left to realise my potential as a marathon runner (if the metric of fulfilment or success is a fast time, which it needn’t be), I have, in all likelihood, less time left to realise my potential than the time that has already passed. So, to everyone in the club, whatever your goal, embrace every session, value every run with good company, because it goes quickly! American distance runner Tommy Rivers got it just right on Instagram last week when quoting the poet George Herbert,
Do not wait; the time will
Never be ‘just right’.