Christmas Cracker 2011 Preview

McNeilly and McCrickard are on ‘treble time’
A preview of the 28th Christmas Cracker – by Bogusboy

The Christmas Cracker is enjoying a renaissance since it was taken over by Newcastle AC and relocated to Castlewellan in the early ‘noughties’ and remains one of the most unique and popular races in the annual ANI calendar. Last year 143 teams completed the course. This year the race will be on Tuesday 27th December.

The race is a multi-terrain event over approximately 10 miles and is suitable for runners of all abilities.

Part of the beauty of the race is that the race is run in pairs, so you are only as good as your partner; a harsh fact of life that I learn every December and somehow forget by the following year. Runners like Deon McNeilly, Paul Rodgers (when he was a good runner!) Damien Brannigan, Eddie Hanna, Mark Kendall and more recently Audey McVeigh have all been unfortunate enough to have been my partner and all cursed the fact as they hollered from the top of the hills that I should hurry. Needless to say that a cheerful individual like Audey, imbued with the Christmas spirit, was more than charitable in his thoughts and words as he trundled along at a snail’s pace waiting for me to catch up. This year I have a new tactic (find a partner who has never seen me race!) and my partner elect has no idea just how slow I have become!

Equally fascinating is the fact that, while the race remains around 10 miles in distance, the course is always different and runners have come to expect the unexpected. With ‘Old Man Grumpington’ McVeigh over a year into his permanent gardening leave (there is hardly a tree left on his estate!) and with plenty of time to ponder the most arduous and painful route possible, this year will be no exception. As he cycled the length and breadth of the country, he was no doubt dreaming up the most challenging of courses. Having said that, he has been unusually benevolent this year and the course, while undulating, is more than fair.

For those who have resisted the temptation to purchase a Garmain 405 LX GTI Deluxe Sport Ghia or some other equally complicated ‘lower arm running computing and analysing device for online performance management and monitoring’ (aka a watch!) the course has been uploaded to the club website by some generous soul and can be found at Suffice to say there will be a bit of road, a few climbs, an odd field or two, some good forest tracks, plenty of breathtaking scenery and undoubtedly a sting in the tail between the bottom of the descent from the ridge off Sleivenslat and the finish at the main entrance to the park.

There have been rumours of Sunday Morning gatherings in the Upper Square to ‘have a wee trot around the course.’ Most of these have lad to post-run visits to Bilbo’s to sample some traditional Castlewellan cuisine; tay and scones! Retired teachers have even been known to drop in for the craic and witness the melee that ensues each and every week when the bill is produced. There are some who do not produce their wallets until they ascertain how many are seated and if the numbers are low they insist on paying. Others are more magnanimous and proffer their wad no matter who is present!

Predicting a winner of this event has proven notoriously impracticable given the promises that are made and broken in the weeks leading up to the race and due to the fact that many runners keep their fragile alliances close to their chests: paranoia creeps in when one’s partner is observed talking, never mind running with another athlete! This year I am not even mentioning the McKibbins! Since my subtle reverse psychology did not work last year, this year I am categorically stating that they have no chance at all of winning. McNeilly and McCrickard have two wins, in 2008 and 2010 and both are reported to be training very hard to record a third victory in a race where they are traditionally strong. McNeilly assuaged the anxieties of his running mate by declaring the partnership unduly and one hopes that McCrickard is not resting (does that man ever rest?) on his laurels believing that having got his man the rest is a formality. Ironically McNeilly was the winner of the first ever running of the event when, paired with Dermot McGonigle, he led the field home in 1984. The years may have passed and the inaugural champion may be in the twilight of his illustrious career, but the will to win and the characteristic determination remain as strong as ever.

One would hope Seaton and Marsh from North Down would return to attempt to reclaim their well deserved 2009. Marsh turned up last year with a new partner, Budde, and finished second: maybe if they ‘bloom’ on this occasion they could go one better! Rumours also abound that East Down’s Brendan Teer and Liam Venney will be taking the line, though my predictions have proved less than reliable to date! If they are present they will prove to be serious contenders as both are running very well at present and have posted impressive times at major races in recent weeks. Will Neil Carty, a Hill and Dale stalwart, convince Paul Blaney to partner him again to try to improve on their second place from two years ago? Ballymena Runners, Larne AC and East Antrim have been well represented in recent years and should again feature. No doubt Joe Quinn will call a party whip and East Down will be well represented outside of their main contenders. The host club have other capable athletes: Brannigan and quail were 4th last year; McVeigh and Kendall have forged an unlikely alliance and any of the three ‘Davids’, Steele, O’Flaherty or McNeilly, if paired correctly should certainly be in the mix. If rumours are to be believed Steele is partnering Quail, David McNeilly and O’Flaherty will pair up and Strachan and Brannigan are probably definitely maybe joining forces, though the latter is by no means a foregone conclusion, as Brannigan, a gangrel of a man that he is, may not have a slot in his hectic hedonistic diary!

Mourne Runners are currently nearing the end of their annual period of hibernation. It will be interesting to see how many of their number will see this as an opportunity for a good workout; for some their first workout in months. Last year the youthful pairing of Johnston and Annett ran hard and performed exceptionally well, taking 3rd place, around 2 minutes behind the winners. They certainly have a few ‘big guns’ who, if firing, could easily cause an upset and take the coveted victory to add to the many trophies in WJB’s sideboard. A lot will depend on who has been training hard and who is available and willing to run. One or two may prefer the Turkey Trot, the day before and running both hard would be a big ask of any athlete.

Registration will take place in the clubrooms of Castlewellan GAC from 11.45am, with the race starting at 1pm. There will be refreshments in the clubrooms after the race and the presentation will be at around 3.30pm. Entry forms are available on the club website and it would be helpful if these were completed before arriving to the race.

One of the performances of 2010 was the incredible 6th place finish of Jim Benson and Gladys O’Neill of Abbey AC in the mixed team category. They were less than 4 minutes behind the winners and ran a very strong race. Equally impressive were Julie Balmer and Ali Robinson were the top female team in 41st place overall. We hope to see many mixed and female teams in the race this year and Murlough AC should be very strongly represented in both categories.

Last year there was a Charity Walk organised over part of the course. This proved very successful, with over 150 walkers, and there will be a similar event on again this year. Registration is in the Castlewellan Club, from 10.30 – 11.00. There is a choice between a 4, 6 or 8 mile walk, with all donations going in aid of the Neo-Natal Special Babies Unit at the Royal Victoria Hospital. Last year £1038 was raised for this very worthy cause. We are grateful to Adam ‘the Mighty Mitty’ Mitten of Go Figure for his generous sponsorship of the walk. All walkers will be entered into a draw for a months complimentary membership of Go Figure, a great way to start the new year! The ace usually attracts a large crowd of spectators who utilise the many scenic vantage points to cheer the athletes on. Refreshments will be available for all in Castlewellan GAC clubrooms after the race and there will be a full report and photos in the next issue.