Probably the most open season ever in Hill & Dale history

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2012 Hill & Dale Series Preview by Bogusboy

Thursday 12th April sees the return of the ever-popular Newcastle AC Hill & Dale Series. Last year the series broke all records in terms of the number of competitors, the numbers completing the series (205 surpassing the 2011 total of 192) and the amount of verbals issued at the start of the races by the organisers (too many to quantify and generally too rude to print!). The eleven race series, stretching until 29th June returns with the traditional opener, the recently re-branded ‘Wells Classic’ in Castlewellan. This 5.5 mile race takes in 1080 feet of climbing before finishing by the wall of Castlewellan Castle.

Picking a winner in this race is always difficult and in recent years there have been a few surprises, most notably when Noel Collins, a talented junior from Omagh, notched up an impressive victory. Traditionally the series winner does not emerge too early and this race is an ideal opportunity for an athlete with a bit of leg speed from early season 10k races to claim a moment of glory in the ‘hills’. Last year David Simpson from Costorphine AC in Edinburgh was the unexpected winner. He proved that his victory was no fluke as he turned up again for race 11 in DonardForest and achieved a second race win.

It is now tradition for me to try and pick a winner of this race. To date I have never even been close to getting it right. My tip for last year is Jonny ‘the Steede’ Steede from Ballymena AC did not even take part in the race, leaving me red faced again (and not from the effort of finishing 49th!!). This year I am once again sticking my head out and tipping young Andrew Annett of Mourne as my winner. He won impressively on Loughshannagh last year and his young legs might just turn over too quickly for his more senior rivals. Failing that my outside bet is Deon McNeilly. Despite not winning a Hill & Dale race in the last two seasons, the ‘Big Fella’ has been in great form thus far in 2012 and is training harder than ever at the tender age of 49 and a bit!

The Mighty men of Mourne

Recent series’ have been dominated by Mourne Runners. Eddie Hanna was convincingly triumphant in 2009, Stevie Cunningham was deftly dominant in 2010 and Des Woods reigned supreme last year. However all three are not currently at their best and have not fully recovered from various injuries, aches and pains that characterise the aging process. However, if any of these three quality fell runners can get into shape at the right time, and put a mini series together in the more mountainous races, they are more than capable of adding another title to their existing one. Perhaps Mourne’s hopes are resting on younger shoulders this year in Andrew Annett, who, year on year, emerges stronger and more confident. He certainly now possesses the racing nous and confidence to believe that he can be crowned champion in June.

The 2011 Hill and Dale saw five different men win races: Des Woods chose his races carefully and notched up the six wins needed to capture the series. Outside of that David Simpson had two wins, while Andrew Annett, Alan McKibbin and Andrew Niblock each claimed on victory. I believe that there will be no single dominant force as has been the case in previous years and it will be the man with the best runner up positions who will emerge victorious in the overall standings. With that in mind the consistency of athletes like David O’Flaherty and Gary Bailey could see them emerge as serious contenders.

One way traffic in the ladies?

Last year the ladies series was done and dusted after the sixth race with Shileen O’Kane lodged as champion at the earliest opportunity. This was in marked contrast to 2010 when Karen Alexander did not secure her title until the last night of the series in the closest finish for many years. In stark contrast to the male event, the 2012 ladies, based on 2011 form, could already be a foregone conclusion. O’Kane reigned supreme winning an unprecedented 11 out of 11 races for a remarkable clean sweep. In many of the races she was well clear of her nearest rivals and often coasted to victory, often leaving many males looking like chelonians as she galloped past them (here I write from personal experience!). The absence of Alwynne Shannon and Karen Alexander certainly lessened the pressure on O’Kane. However, she did have to remain fit and strong and compete week on week against a posse of ladies who were ready and waiting to pounce if she made even the smallest of errors. To her credit she did not and rounded off a perfect series with another emphatic win inDonardForest. If Shannon and Alexander return fit and healthy, things may be a lot tougher for the Lagan Valley athlete as she defends her richly deserved crown. There will also be a challenge from Diane Wilson and Anne Sandford, both of whom have shown well in the NIMRA races to date. Lagan Valley ladies should be a shoe-in for the non-existent ladies team prize! It would be remiss to discount Ciara Largey, who in the NIMRA events to date this year has proven herself to be a serious contender.

Can Newcastle mount a serious challenge?

Last year Alan McKibbin was the best placed runner for the host club in a very credible third place as he returned to competition after suffering from long term injuries. His victory at the Monument race did much to restore confidence and proves that with a spell of un-interrupted training he could re-live some of the old glories that made him the most successful and respected athlete in Hill and Dale history. It was not that long ago that this preview would be considering who would be able to challenge him and concluding that the nearest rivals were battling for second place. For many years he was untouchable and the visible personification of determination, resilience and above all the insatiable will to win. We can only hope that he and others mentioned above can be fit enough to race to ensure that whoever is crowned champion has earned the title by beating the best of the rest. At the tender age of 49, McNeilly looks as likely as ever to be up there with the elite. He has been performing very well this season to date and has already notched up victories in NIMRA races. A man of this calibre can never be ruled out in any race and McNeilly still has the veracious appetite that is needed to compete at this level. This desire will surely be fuelled further by the fact that he did not win a race in either the 2010 or 2011 series’ and he will be as determined as ever to lay that ghost to rest and extend his record as the oldest athlete ever to win a Hill and Dale race.

McCrickard and O’Flaherty were also well placed in the overall standings last year and while the latter should perform better on the forest trails the former is a great man on the rough conditions that characterise the races in the second half of the series. Fresh from the world of race organising at Leitrim and buoyed by his recent innovative training methods, Brendan Quail is another Newcastle athlete who has the potential to do very well. The same could be said of David Steele, who continues to grow in strength and has a fantastic turn of speed; however a lot could depend on his choice of footwear.

The best of the rest

While it would hard to bet against a Mourne Runners champion in 2011, there are some seasoned campaigners who have the potential to cause an upset. Neil Carty, the perennial bridesmaid, can never be written off, though like many of us age is no longer his friend. There will also be fierce rivalries renewed in the veteran categories: most notable of these will be the V-45 category where the aforementioned McCrickard, Dale Mathers, Audey McVeigh and Gerry Kenny will be battling to challenge McNeilly for the last time before the latter hits the magic 50. Damien Brannigan will enter into this category for the first time as will the McKibbins which will make for exciting racing if Brannigan can eke out a little of that bottled up commitment! So far I have managed to get him to acknowledge that he is aware of the dates of the various races: I call that progress!

Eugene McCann has joined the V-50 age group (Gene’s desire is clearly evidenced by the fact that he has been instrumental in getting his club mates up at the crack of dawn every Saturday since Christmas to train in the mountains!) and will offer a strong challenge to Jim Brown, especially on the faster tracks. There should also be a royal battle in the V35 between Mourne’s Willie Marks, Bryan ‘elbows’ Magee from Larne and our own Mark Kendall. Brendan O’Hagan will face a new challenge in the form of Dominic ‘mad dog’ McGreevy in the V-55 category while Harry Teggarty should be comfortable in retaining hisV-60 title. Hopefully the ever young John Adgey is training hard to retain his V-65 title.

Millstone retained

In our continued attempts to make the series interesting and different each year, we proudly presented a new race in 2011, the Millstone Horseshoe. This race starts and finishes inDonardPark,Newcastleand follows an interesting climb up towards the quarry before veering left to take in the steep climb to Millstone. A sharp, but clean descent follows back to the Quarry before dropping down on trails to the finish in the park. Our exit poll after the race indicated that runners loved this race and so it has been retained for the 2012 season. Seasoned Hill and Dale campaigners found this a more than interesting and challenging addition to the series.

Something for everyone

The Hill and Dale series offers something for everyone and while the focus thus far has been on the ‘elite’ athletes; each and every category is hotly contested and every place in each race important to those vying for them. Participation in the series in 2011 broke all previous records and it is fantastic to see such huge numbers travelling from the length and breadth of the province to take in the spectacular scenery, insofar as that is possible while traversing a rocky precipice, and test themselves in these wonderful races. Most hardened Hill and Dalers will tell you that it is not the winning, but the taking part that counts; knowing that you have gone where few boldly go is sufficient satisfaction and gratification for many. There is also a great camaraderie among the increasing numbers of loyal supporters who turn up each week to watch their favourites and avail of the many excellent vantage points to watch the action unfold. The evening always ends on a high with a bit of light super in one of the many excellent pubs in the area, where if you are lucky you may get a spot prize and a slating from the man with the microphone if your racing indiscretions are found out. Pete Grant and the Nugent ‘twins’ are living proof of this following the now infamous ‘Roostergate’ scandal that was revealed in Maginns last year!

Junior Hill and Dale races 2012

Building on the outstanding success of the Newcastle AC Junior Club and the McGrady Financial Service Cross Country Series, we are delighted to introduce our inaugural Junior Hill and Dale races. These three events are sponsored by Toscano Pizzeria and begin in Castlewellan on the first night of the senior series. The series affords an opportunity for all children to enjoy the atmosphere and excitement of a Hill and Dale evening while getting some exercise at the same time. The organisers are keen to point out that these races are primarily fun events to introduce junior athletes to the world of forest running. The runs start at 6.45pm and will be completed with time to spare which enables the juniors to spectate and see some of their coaches and heroes in action. Online registration is also available through the club website and the entry fee of £2 is payable at each race. Parents are asked to ensure that children arrive in plenty of time to register and warm up and to be mindful of the fact that car parks are usually busy from 6:15 onwards with many competitors in the senior races travelling directly from work.

See you on April 12th

The series begins on 12th April and runs for eleven Thursdays, culminating in the now traditional last night celebration on Friday June 29th. Further details are available at the Newcastle AC club website (, where online registration for the series is now live. Competitors are advised to complete this form prior to registering for their first race as this will speed up the entry process. Athletes are also reminded that entries will close at 7.15pm sharp and that the regulations regarding health and safety are non-negotiable.