Winding my way up through the Vale of Avoca towards the beautiful Avondale Forest Park, venue for last Sunday’s Leinster Senior and Juvenile (uneven ages) Cross Country Championships, I noticed a blue-clad figure in the far distance (I am long-sighted!) holding a mini-bazooka at shoulder height and pointing it in my direction. “Howya guard,” says I. “Is this the road to Avondale House?” He tucked the bazooka away in his oxter, whipped out his phone and sauntered over to me and, after a few pokes and types at the device says “yah, keep going towards Rathdrum and follow the signs. Is there something on there?” “Cross country,” says I. “Four legs or two?” he asked. When he heard it was the latter he kind of lost interest and he wished me a pleasant onwards journey. Either the bazooka wasn’t working or he was being nice to me!
The grounds of Avondale Forest Park were formerly part of the vast estate around Avondale House, home to the Parnell family. There are more than 500 acres of mature woodland in the park with stunning views over the surrounding mountains, making this one of the most attractive parkland settings in the country. The girth and height of some of the majestic trees would suggest that they had already put down roots when Charles Stewart Parnell, born in 1846, was still in short pants.
In stark contrast to the miserable conditions in Ballyhale for the previous day’s Leinster athletics action the unseasonably mild and sunny weather at Avondale made this a perfect day for cross country running, for both athlete and spectator. While the going was solid throughout, the up and down nature of the course ensured that some apple carts would be upset along the way.
SBR’s Joe Byrne, competing in the under 19 boys 6000 metres provided the main highlight of the day from a Wexford point of view. From the start, a start which presented athletes with an immediate climb of 80 metres or so, Joe was to the fore. And once the race settled down he was the one out front dictating the pace. On the second lap he was nudged back into a chasing role by Ratoath’s Marcus Clarke with Seamus Anderson of Trim keeping out of trouble yet keeping a watchful eye on the pair. Joe bided his time until into the third and final lap when he broke away on one of the deceptively tough uphill sections. He was in cruise control at that stage and, when he crossed the finish line, he had 13 seconds to spare over the fast finishing Anderson in 2nd place with Clarke in 3rd paying for his earlier exertions. The popular SBR athlete is in seriously good shape and will undoubtedly be in the mix come the nationals. Alex Gregg of DMP found the going a little tough mid-race but he recovered well to place 13th. Croghan’s Daniel Byrne was five places back in 18th.
Highlight number two for Wexford was the performance of DMP ace Claragh Keane in the under 19 4000 metres. She has already shown that she is in fantastic form, having taken the under 18 title a few weeks back. Like Joe Byrne, she grabbed the race by the horns early on and soon had opened a small gap on the field. In running, as in cycling, when you decide to take it out from the front it is important that you do so with conviction so that hope dies in the pursuers. Claragh’s lead never stretched to such a point, and with Tullamore track specialist Ruby Steuvens among the duo chasing her, Wexford supporters were exhorting her to “USE THE DOWNHILLS”! However, Ruby’s tail was up at that stage and she moved into a lead which she held all the way to the finish. A game Claragh took the runner-up spot just five seconds adrift of Ruby with third placed Ava Costello of Trim well behind in third place. Worth noting is that while Ruby could barely stand after the race, Claragh looked as though she could do it all again! Ciara Dolan of Menapians adopted a conservative pace throughout to finish in 18th place.
We have had two highlights so far; a third was provided in the boys under 17 4000 metres. Myles Hewlett of United Striders was, like Joe and Claragh, happy to take it out from the start. However, in his case there was to be no opening up a gap on the field with the pace of the leading pack being fast and relentless. Among those on his tail was clubmate Will Park. Jonas Stafford of Ashford AC took up the lead, Myles by now looking a little less enthusiastic but still in touch. As in all of the other races, the undulating nature of the course left it until well into the final lap to suck the life out of tired limbs. With exceptions. Stafford stormed home to take a well-deserved win with Gowran’s Billy Coogan 2nd and, just behind him, Myles in the bronze medal position. Will Park, having lost concentration mid-race, ran a great final lap to take 4th place, just 7 seconds adrift of Myles. Another Striders athlete, Sean Lennon, placed 13th and team mate Eoin Shannon was 60th giving United Striders team gold. This is a fantastic result for the club which, with this group of boys, has won almost every age group in successive years. Danny McDonald of Adamstown AC was 29th. Unfortunately the county was one short of a full team.
Abbey Wolohan of Croghan ran a cracker of a race to place 11th, with qualification for the nationals, in the under 17 girls 4000 metres. It is worth noting that a mere 11 seconds separated 5th place from 12th place, showing just how competitive an affair this was. The County finished 7th with Emma Hannon of United Striders 36th, Cara Kelly (DMP) 47th, Freya Thompson (Kilmore) 62nd, Áine Byrne (Croghan) 63rd, Aoife Lyng (United Striders) 69th and Ciara Mooney (Adamstown) 70th.
Wexford had a strong team in the girls under 13 race. There were some exciting finishes among the Wexford girls – Saoirse Flanagan, DMP, placed 33rd with, one second behind her, Ruby Gallagher O’Reilly of Croghan, in 34th and one second behind her Laragh Walsh of Menapians in 35th. This pattern continued with Cara Murphy of St Killians in 49th, Grace Goggins, DMP, 50th and Siún Byrne, Croghan, 51st, all with a single second separating them. This excellent ‘packing’ of places gave the Wexford team a 5th place finish. Kayleigh Butler, Taghmon, had a good run to finish 78thwith clubmate Izzy Aspel 78th. Laragh McCarthy of Croghan was 88th, Kate Fortune, Kilmore, 96th and Jaden Ryan, also Kilmore, 139th.
Enda Byrne of SBR was one of the main players in a fast and furious under 13 boys event. He ran a very sensible race, kept his head and had enough in the tank to put in a really good home straight to take 11th spot. Top 12 qualify automatically for nationals. Kilmore’s Conor Hancock finished an excellent 19th with Aidan Bowe (SBR) 44th, Oisin Ennis (DMP) 78th, Aaron Hancock (Kilmore) 81st. Jack Johnson’s 108th place and Clint Johnson’s 109th place, contributed to SBR placing 12th club overall. The County team finished 8th.
DMP were hoping for a good result in the girls under 15 team event. Things did not get off to a great start with some of the athletes taking a tumble early on. Emma McCarthy of St Killians led the county home in 17th place. DMP’s Aoife Walsh was 22nd with clubmate Maria Coone 31st. Rayna Thompson (Kilmore) was next across the line in 37th. Éabha Keane 46th and Nicole Lageu 64th played their part in getting DMP up to 6th position. Ava Barry (Kilmore) finished in 68th place with Sarah O’Mahony (DMP) 72nd, Katie Foley (Kilmore) 75th and Emma Barrett (DMP) 91st.
Max Murphy of United Striders was the top Wexford performer in the boys under 15 race finishing in 20th position with DMP duo Shane Doyle and Tadhg O’Leary 35th and 71st respectively, and Patrick Byrne of Croghan 77th.
The day started with the under 11 races. The Wexford girls’ team performed well finishing 8th county. Niamh McCarthy (DMP) was first Wexford girl home in 82nd, followed by Samhradh Ní Thóibín (Croghan) 107th, Sarah Dupuy (Kilmore) 112th, Lily Shannon (Kilmore) 120th, Lottie Stewart Lennon (Craanford) 123rd, Mia Hancock (Kilmore) 125th and Aoibhinn Farrelly (Menapians) 127th. Great experience gained by these young girls.
The under 11 boys were also 8th county with excellent running from everyone. Sean Gahan (Craanford) was first Wexford boy home in 25th place. Sean Power (DMP) was 28th, Cian Hopkins (DMP) 61st, Oran Ennis (DMP) 77th, Eoin English (Adamstown) 80th, Dara Murphy (Kilmore) 102nd, Bobby O’Shea (Adamstown) 114th, Harry Kent (Adamstown) 116thand Conall Delaney (United Striders) 126th.
In the Senior Women’s 5000 metres race Fiona Kehoe of Kilmore was in the thick of the action from the start. She professed to finding the main drag on the final lap tough and the pace overall to being ‘relentless’. Nevertheless, she showed that she is still a force to be reckoned with as she fought all the way to the line for a fine 12th place finish. Since arriving on the athletics scene in the relatively recent past, Croghan’s Clodagh Kelly has shown herself to be a tenacious talent, one who improves with every outing. Once again she showed that she is not afraid to mix it with the top guns as she crossed the line in 15th place. Kilmore’s Elaine Cardiff was 35th with clubmate Sinead O’Brien 57th.
In the final race of the day, the Senior Men’s 10000 metres, the first Wexford athlete to show was Denis Whelan of Slaney Olympic. Once the rush of blood to the head eased he moderated his pace somewhat. Croghans’s Mark Poole eased past him and settled into a nice groove as he moved up through the field. Mark crossed the finish line in 24th place with Denis 33rd. A little further back Croghan athletes packed very well with Kevin Morris 47th, Pat Foley 48th and James Porter 54th. Ger Maloney of SBR was 58th, Thomas Moran of United Striders 60th and the Croghan duo of Brian Mahon Croghan and Andrew Dowse Croghan 68th and 73rd respectively.
Just time then for a quick sandwich and a hot brew from the Last Lap Café before helping Paddy to break down the tent. Back on the road, I was past the Meeting of the Waters before it struck me that my friendly Garda with his cylindrical device might still be knocking about. So, having eased off on the throttle and turned up the music (Norwegian jazz by way of the Helge Lien Trio: Badgers and Other Beings), I eased my way south through the Garden of Ireland.