Do we need to build an Ark?

Christmas Cracker 2023 by Rory Morrow

As the rains battered Castlewellan early on the morning of 29 December, it is alleged that the Prophet was battering the doors of Shilliday’s looking to procure a large consignment of timber, a few hammers and a big bag of nails. Fearful that the rains which were now reaching biblical proportions were not going to abate and he would have to reinvent himself as Noah, the Prophet was taking no chances. Francie and Hen were told to get the utility belts and Snickers trousers on and be on standby for a big job. Thankfully, as the undeterred masses waded through the flooded roads to reach the market town, the rains miraculously stopped and the skies turned a kinder shade. Plans to build the Ark were returned to the contingency folder and normal service resumed. 

Just under 1,350 participants completed Newcastle AC’s annual Christmas Cracker race in Castlewellan on Saturday. In total, 672 hardy pairs of runners took to the, as always, devious course.

The winners, Jared Martin of Ballydrain Harriers, and Thomas Renshaw of Aldershot & Farnham District AC, finished in a super speedy time of 50:26 – the latter literally arriving that morning after 20 hours of travel from Australia.

Route preparations and arrivals were disrupted by torrential overnight rain, with flooding on the way into Castlewellan putting many heart rates uncomfortably up even before any running had begun!

Despite the best endeavours of some to eke out precious route details, as everyone lined up to start at the gates of St Malachy’s High School, all runners intrepidly took off through the town, into the daunting hills.

Ploughing through the fields of boggy mud and farmyard manure, race partners did their utmost to stick together and passing Dolly Brae carpark, could be forgiven for possibly dreaming of a lie down!

Castlewellan Forest’s more familiar trail paths soon kicked in, most athletes were able to summon up a last gasp burst of energy as they approached the finish environment brimmed with fabulous noise, support, and colour!

The first three pairs crossing the line were all split by just over a minute as Aaron McGrady, of East Down AC and Timmy Johnston, of Annadale Striders, were second home, swiftly followed by Newcastle AC duo, Robert Hagen, and Tom Crudgington in third.

With a splendid time of 1:03:07, Rhiannon Paton and Charlotte Buckley, of Westbury Harriers and Thames Valley Harriers, respectively, scooped up the FU80 category as well as becoming the first female pair home, inside the top thirty, taking twenty-ninth.

In sixty-second, the second all-female pairing, Martjse Hell and Shileen O’Kane, of Lagan Valley AC, whizzed around in an excellent 1:07:22.  Rounding off the Ladies podium shortly afterwards were the partners, Amanda Perry, and Denise Logue, claiming seventy-fifth place alongside a splendid sub-seventy-minute time of 1:09:33.

The following age category prizes were claimed by: Martin and Renshaw won the MU80.  Next were eighth placed pair, David McNeilly, and Gareth Lyons, who took home the MU80-99 prize with a sub-hour time of 57:43.

Residing in the top twenty, eighteenth, the quickest mixed pair, Caitlyn Harvey, and Noel McNally, both representing Roadrunners AC, won the MIXU80 category with a terrific time of 1:00:52.

Completing the course in a time of 1:23:18, Brian Todd and Mary Mackin, of Orangegrove AC and Dromore AC, earnt the MIX140+ accolade.  Ian Taylor and John Adgey won the M140+ prize as they finished in a superb, sub two-hour time of 1:59:48.

Mary Mackin, after the race, declared Brian the best Cracker partner ever, “he ran two paces behind me all the way in silence.”  Could this be the perennial dream team?

Of course, the Christmas Cracker is, first and foremost, a great community event, which whilst celebrating its winners, more importantly, celebrates everybody who braves the conditions and comes out to run, walk, cheer, or help out in any way.

It provides a crucial, rarely available, platform for many runners to have a proper crack at the rough and tumble of Mournes racing in an environment that gets the adrenaline going but is always putting the safety of its athletes as a top priority.

Route mystery and the intrigue of which satanic twist awaits our already crumpled legs at the end is a traditional tease of the Cracker.  Although many try valiantly to suss out clues beforehand, the adventure that the race provides, across multiple terrains, is never diminished.

The Cracker’s enduring popularity as a highlight of the festive season for athletes remains evident by the continued growth in numbers, and the mid-November rush to be paired up and entered before all the entries are gone.

To properly enjoy the Cracker, its best to have the luck to end up with a partner who pushes you but also has the verbal subtleties to mutter those immortal words “Anytime you want to push on now.”

As ever, there were some splendid costumes on show as we witnessed matching Mario and Luigi outfits (twice!), inflated Heinz Ketchup bottles, moving Christmas trees alongside festive elves, snowmen and women, nuns and even inflated dinosaurs the green t-rex especially eye-catching!

As many braved the elements, special thanks should go to all the organisers at Newcastle AC and everyone else, for marshalling, issuing out race numbers, clapping us all along and most of all, ensuring that everybody got around safely.

Along with them, thanks should also go to all the caterers who provided wonderful, warm hospitality in the form of hot soup (gratefully received!) afterwards, the medal designers and the youngsters who excellently distributed them out to everyone finishing.

The Christmas Cracker was a brilliant way to wrap up 2023’s running for many partakers and for many, it will be one of the first events circled, bright and prominent in the athletics calendar for 2024.  (After the Hill and Dale Series, of course!)