Relay team are champions

Relay team are champions

11 October 2017

THE Newcastle AC team of Eoghan Totten, David O’Flaherty, Patrick McNiff and Zak Hanna won the highly competitive Ulster & Northern Ireland Road Relay Championships in Victoria Park, Belfast, on Saturday.

The first Saturday in October has become the traditional date for the increasingly popular event and Newcastle & District AC have been attending them for the past seven years.

O’Flaherty, who has competed in all seven editions, said beforehand: “The women won the championship in each of the last two years, but the men have never made the podium — this year is it’ll be different.” 

There is nothing like a bit of confidence before taking the line.

The day was a bit blustery with skiffs of showers passing through and the intermittent thunder of an Airbus 320 just after leaving the City Airport runway, adding to the dramatic setting at the tented village akin to that witnessed at the Quidditch World Cup final, where the start and finish of each leg was situated. 

Large crowds lined the route as the dramatic spectacle unfolded. The relay festival starts with juvenile races and culminates with the signature masters’, women’s and men’s during the afternoon. Each leg is 3,380m (2.1miles) and takes in two flat laps of the park — it lends itself to a great spectator spectacle and fast times are guaranteed.

Jack O’Hare led out the masters’ men for the club, running a solid leg to come home in 11:46 (5:36 mile pace) and was followed by David McNeilly 11:15 (5:21 pace). 

Michael McKenna took leg three and demonstrated his improving endurance ahead of the Dublin Marathon with 11:57 (5:41 mile pace). 

On the anchor leg, David Hicks, who has had a couple of great victories recently in races more than two hours rather than two miles in the mountains this season, scythed through the field with a 10:55 clocking (5:12 pace) to bring the team home in a very respectable 10th place (out of 59 starters).

Kerry O’Flaherty led the team out in the women’s relay, running away from the field to record 10:47 (5:08 mile pace), a second inside her best over this course set last year, to give the club a 35 second advantage going into leg two. 

Mari Troeng ran a solid 13:02 in leg two (6:12 mile pace) and Nicky McKeag ran the anchor in a big personal best of 14:09 (6:34 mile pace) to bring the team home in a respectable sixth place. 

Queen’s University won the race with Banbridge’s Emma Mitchell clocking a new course record for a leg with a stunning 10:21 on the anchor.

In the men’s race Eoghan Totten ran a half-marathon personal best of 67:21 in the Great North Run in September and followed it with a road personal best of 30:38 in the Swansea Bay 10k two weeks later. 

It’s two weeks on and this Saturday saw him toe the line for the first leg in the club’s quest to podium for the first time. He failed to disappoint. 

His main protagonists were Neill Johnston of Springwell (in lifetime best form over 3000m on the track this summer running sub-8:30) and Russell White of Dromore AC (number one Irish triathlete who competes in the World Triathlon Series).

After 200m Totten hit the front and pushed on remorselessly, knowing that his best chance of success was to run the finish out of the others. 

His bravery paid off. While Johnston and White pulled away over the final 400m to record 9:29 and 9:31 respectively, Totten came home in 9:35 (4:34 mile pace) in third and 16 seconds faster than he ran last year. 

The main threats of North Belfast Harriers and City of Derry Spartans were not too far behind in a field of ‘stacked’ teams, all capable of winning.

Totten handed over to David O’Flaherty, who is also building towards the Lanzarote Half-Marathon in December. O’Flaherty has been putting in more miles than ever before and he looked controlled as he ran an even-paced leg to rein in Dromore AC and almost catch Springwell, recording 9:59 (4:45 mile pace). 

Next up was 18-year-old Patrick McNiff, who caught Springwell to put the team in the lead for the first time and started to pull away in front. 

McNiff is a great natural talent and a welcome new edition to the club over the summer. While he lives and goes to school in Banbridge, he has strong connections with the town where his father, uncles and aunt all grew up. 

McNiff also ran a sensibly paced leg to record 10:05 (4:48 mile pace) and hand over to Zak Hanna, who took off with a 15 second lead.

Hanna hails from the slopes of Slieve Croob and had a brilliant summer on the mountains wining the Classic Slieve Donard race and gaining international vests at both the European and World Mountain Racing Championships at each end of July. 

A novice to ‘flatter’ running, he has untapped talent, but he wouldn’t be finding any hills in Victoria Park. Hanna too has been learning the art of pace control and his club mates looked on as he paced the stat/finish area after lap one wondering had he gone out a little slow? 

North Belfast’s Mark McKinstry, who is in a rich vein of form, had started 24 seconds behind Hanna and by the end of lap one the gap had ped to below 10 seconds behind him. 

With 500m to go the gap was down to just one second. Hanna is just the man anyone would want to anchor a relay as he is very competitive and never gives up. 

Swimming in lactic acid he kicked hard and his face was wracked with pain, but he edged away as the finish line approached, coming home with three seconds to spare, despite the valiant efforts of McKinstry to rein him in. 

What a victory for the men in red and yellow — an Ulster & NI Relay title for the men to add to that of the women from 2015 and 2016 and to add to the men’s national cross-country title in 2016. For the record Hanna’s time was 10:09 (4:50 mile pace). 

Backing up the team’s victory in 25th place were the B team, led out by Paul Byrne in 11:44 (5:35 mile pace) — “I never knew that just under 12 minutes of running could hurt so much.”

Byrne handed over to Michael McKenna — “I enjoy hurting so much, that I did it twice in the one afternoon” — who ran 12:16 (5:50 miles pace) and in turn passed on to Patrick Higgins who then proceeded to run a solid 11:30 (sub 5:30 mile pace) re-finding his ability to run through the pain barrier as the Dublin Marathon beckons. 

On the anchor and glory leg was Ronnie Horrox, who is known for his fast twitch fibres and as he approaches his half century he still has a fair turn of speed. 

However, he is also a masochist and that’s why he ‘loves’ the marathon training, despite the low prevalence of slow twitch fibres in his legs. 

Horrox has big heart and he ground out a good leg in 13:34 (6:28 pace) and soon after he recovered his breath he told anyone who would listen (and even those who wouldn’t) back at the team gazebo how easy he felt during that 14 minutes.

Congratulations to all on a historic day for the club, now in its 37th year since it was founded in April 1981.