Race 7 of 9 in the Athletics NI Cross-Country League took place on Saturday at the Bawnacre Equestrian Centre in Necarne Demesne, Irvinestown, County Fermanagh. Would the Newcastle & District squads turn out to be thoroughbreds or donkeys? Apparently the equestrian cross-country course is not used that often anymore because of the wet conditions and the course proved to be heavy, very heavy by the end of the races. There were two big issues going into the races. One, leading the league going into the men’s race, but with the gap closing in recent races, would the red & yellows manage to stay ahead of City of Derry and two, would a women’s team register a historic first ever finish in the Women’s League?
First up, over 3 laps of the 1500m course, were the women and they were led out by Sam McNeilly who reached the top of the first climb in a determined 6th place with her club mates, Paulette Thompson, Rita Devlin and Debbie Kendall packing well behind. Going out fast can hurt a lot and in the second lap the pain was etched all over McNeilly’s face as she dropped a few places to 15th – Thompson had passed the faster starting Devlin with Kendall looking like she was really enjoying her first outing over the country since school days. Fair play to McNeilly who ran a strong last lap to come home in 12th in 19:45 for the 4.5km distance and with fast-finishing Thompson in 30th place (21:29), Devlin in 38th place (21:49) and Kendall in 51st place (23:07), the ladies registered 6th place and first ever team points in the League – congratulations.
For the men it was 5 laps over a course that was cutting up badly – undulating and a true test of strength and stamina in the vintage cross-country style. City of Derry’s Declan Reed was pre-race favourite having won the Ulster & NI Masters Title comfortably the previous week and reported to be knocking out 25 mile training runs in two and a half hours. After a comfortable first lap, Reed struck out for home and ran away from the rest of the field. Back at the race start, there had been a 2-minute delay before the gun, not sure if the wait was for Sky Sports 1HD to come back from their break or for Paddy Power to close the book on bets for Seamie Lynch to make the top 3. Lynch had indicated that he thought top 6 would be a good result but the smarter punters were backing him for top 3. Not wanting to let anyone down, Lynch ran another stormer and came home in a very competitive 3rd place in 24:49 to lead out the red & yellows.
Knowing that race 7 was key in trying to stop the building City of Derry bandwagon, the club fielded its strongest team of the season. It was first time up for David Steele and Ian Bailey in this season’s league and both hoping to help bring home a victory over the northwest favourites. Luke McMullan, who doubted at some stages that he would ever be racing at this level again, flew back from London just for the race. Steele did not disappoint and was next scorer in 7th place overall in 25:36 and he is rounding into the best shape of his life. Great packing saw McMullan in 9th (25:42), David O’Flaherty in 10th (25:49), Bailey in 11th (26:07) and Paul Carlin in 12th (26:23) to secure the much needed victory with 29 points over City of Derry in 2nd (55 points) and Acorns (Magherafelt) in 3rd with 72 points.
The great thing about the league format is that overall points are also scored by getting up to 12 runners home and with a bus load of runners and supporters having made the journey west, the club has an amazing 16 finishers in the main race (a decade or two ago that was about the total number of club members):
- Brendan Quail 22nd (27:27)
- PJ McCrickard 31st (28:42)
- David McNeilly 33rd (28:42)
- Marty Melville 41st (29:13)
- Paul Byrne 60th (31:02)
- Richard Rodgers 61st (31:08)
- Jerome McCrickard 64th (31:19)
- Donal Ward 74th
- Stevie Rice 78th
- Declan Magee 81st
There was great hospitality from the organisers back at the Bawnacre Centre with soup and sandwiches before the bus load retired to the Linenhall Pub in Enniskillen for more refreshments. So after 7 races and 2 to go, Newcastle & District’s lead of City of Derry is extended to 7 points. The penultimate race in the league follows up fast and is at Stormont next weekend where more of the same is needed if the club is to maintain its quest to secure the league title.