East Down pair retain Christmas Cracker title for 2012

East Down pair retain Christmas Cracker title as record pairings complete the Castlewellan course.

A special report by Bogusboy’s Successor

By 11.45am the function room of Castlewellan GAC was buzzing with excitement as the athletes began to arrive en masse to register for the annual 14k trek around the environs of the market town.  The entry of 192 teams in 2011 was quickly surpassed due to the innovation of online registration, and by 12.45pm a record breaking 292 (exactly 100 above previous year) teams were registered and the atmosphere was beginning to reach a crescendo.  Indeed a high class field had assembled and each of the teams that would finish in the top 7 had at least one international athlete in the pairing, while a current NI track record holder James McIlroy would finish 14th in his debut over such terrain.

The Pundit gets in right – for a change!

As confidently predicted in the preview, Venney and Teer of East Down were going to be difficult to beat.  This proved to be the case, although they did have to work extremely hard for their victory in the early part of the race.  The decisive moment appeared to be at the turn for the summit of Slievenaslat when McCluskey and O’Hanlon appeared to miss the marking while in the lead.  In typically sporting fashion the East Down lads called them back and were able to press home their advantage to win by over a minute. However the race is all about running with one’s partner and this proved decisive for the East Down men with Venney leading his more decorated partner to the finish to record a well-deserved victory.  Brian McCluskey, an established tri-athlete and his partner, Irish international hill runner Gary O’Hanlon (sounds like an introduction form Strictly Come Dancing!) overcame their disappointment at losing the lead and held on strongly to capture second spot for the second successive year.  Each of the top three were home within 62 minutes, impressive running on an undulating and at times muddy course.  Marty McVeigh was forced to pay up his bet to Paul Rodgers having boldly declared that no-one would break the one hour barrier.  Rodgers was thankful to the East Down duo whose efforts left him £1 richer.

Perhaps the greatest surprise of the day was the fact that the ‘the young bull Luke McMullan and the slightly older bull David McNeilly were the first team home for the host club, with almost three minutes to spare over treble chasing McNeilly and McCrickard who would finish 7th and win their category.  Carty, an old warhorse of Hill and Dale and his younger and better looking partner, Blaney made steady progress through the field and ran well to claim fourth, two places below the former’s usual finishing slot!

A view from the front of the race

On reflecting on his experience of the race Luke McMullan sent the following: “From the off the East Down, North East/Clonliffe and the two Newcastle teams (Eamonn/Deon and Myself/David) lead it out down the main road. After heading up the laneway and through the mucky field before the woods, the East Downs and North East boys had put about 10secs into myself and David with Eamonn and Deon a further 15 behind when the two lead pairs didn’t follow the markers and found themselves having to climb a barbed wire fence into the woods when myself and David seized on the opportunity to take an unlikely 5 second lead. With the woods proving to be an impossible place for any overtaking, I happily slowed the pace so myself and David could take a slight breather knowing we would not be passed and then made a small move near the end of the woods to emerge back into Castlewellan to the shock of the crowd being in a “not so imaginary” first place.

We entered through the gate and the East Down boys and North East/Clonliffe starting to push the pace and myself and David stuck in and worked our way up Slievenaslat about 15 seconds behind the leaders when again the North East/Clonliffe boys missed the turn off right up the rough section to the monument at the highest point in the park.

The East Down boys were never seen again and myself and David ran effectively side by side with the North East/Clonliffe boys for the next few miles downhill when eventually David started to fade and left them with a fairly safe (20ish) sec lead over us heading down the avenue by the entrance to the park. Upon knowing that there was no one within a few minutes of us when landing in the final field, myself and David coasted to the finish to complete a thoroughly enjoyable race and well worked partnership. Fantastic race and East Down were fully deserved winners.”

What a mixture

A stunning performance from Marty Rea and Gladys Ganiel O’Neill of North Belfast Harriers enabled them to win the mixed category in a highly impressive 5th place overall.  The Newcastle athletes bunched well a little further down the field with Kendall and McVeigh the best of the rest in 16th. Next in was new recruit Gareth Toner in an excellent 20th place with running partner Michael King, Brain Steele and Paul Watson in 27th, Alan Strachan and John ‘Hen’ Kelly in 34th, Brendan and Sean Donnelly in 39th.

Lots of tubes on You Tube!

There was some video footage of the big event taken mostly by East Down’s Neil McCartan.  This is available from the Newcastle and East Down websites, but does carry a government health warning – caution chunky and unfit athletes will run by!  To make matters worse most of them are wearing tight fitting lycra that fails to hide their wobbly bits! Obviously one or two had failed to lay of the turkey and had dived into the sweetie tin more often than was advisable – there is always next year and the new year invariably brings a list of well-intentioned resolutions.

Does anyone fancy a bowl of soup?

Meanwhile as the racers returned to the warm showers of the club changing rooms the cook was under pressure to feed the masses.  Such were the numbers that a 4th pot of soup was required at very short notice and there was even a shout for loaves and fishes which could be multiplied.  To make matters worse cutlery and crockery were in such demand that an ace team of domesticated males were pressed into action in the kitchen.  Audey, Donal, ‘Hen’ and Francie duly stepped up to the mark and saved the day, working like beavers on overtime.  Hen was actually serving soup to the table for some of his club mates and was heard by a reliable source uttering the words, ‘Would you like one bread roll or two Mr King?’ In fact if these men could run as well as they can wash up, Newcastle would have dominated the top 10 in the race!  It is obvious that these boys are very well trained in the art of housework; congratulations to all their ladies for making such good men out of them.  We are gratefully to all at Castlewellan GAC for their outstanding hospitality which added significantly to the success of the day.

A lot of great work for charity

Many adults and children took part in the annual charity walk that has become an integral part of the Christmas Cracker experience. This year, through the very generous donations of the walkers and that of Newcastle AC, the Neo-Natal Unit of the Royal Victoria Hospital Belfast will be presented with a cheque for £1248. The organisers of the walk would like to thank all of those that contributed in any way to the success of the event.

Well done to all!

Organising such a large scale event requires a lot of hard work before, during and after the event.  Race Director Marty McVeigh commented on the large numbers of club members and friends who had been involved in the preparation, execution and aftermath of the plan to make this one of the most memorable and talked about events of the 2012 racing calendar.  He praised the many volunteers for their efforts in publicising the event, setting up the online registration, leading the training runs over the course, marking the course and the many other pre-race activities necessary to make the day successful.  Castlewellan GAC received much warranted praise for their part in ensuring that all went according to plan and that all athletes went home clean and fed. Next year is the 30th Anniversary of the race and plans are already afoot to celebrate this landmark in spectacular fashion.