Saturday, March 11, 2023

It’s National Cross Country Day and we are off to Kilkenny. As my father said, “It isn’t half far away enough for ye.” It’s his way of saying we’re cracked! We probably are, but there is something about cross country that draws us back every year and the national event is always over three hours away – Wicklow, Cork and Kilkenny to mention the last few treks.
Cross country is a unique and challenging event, running in an open field and pure racing at its best. There’s no time for looking at your watch, pace or distance, just try and pass as many in front as possible and stay on your feet, not fall or get knocked over or twist an ankle.
It’s another Sunday of being up early to get ready for a long day. Breakfast, lunch and tea all packed. There’s something about being outdoors all day that works up a hunger worse than even a long run. The most important thing to pack for this weekend though are the cross-country spikes and of course the Mayo Athletic Club vest. Because there’s only a handful of us from the west competing it is even more important to wear our colours with pride.
I meet the girls in Tuam and the day begins, Google Maps helping us to figure out the best way to get there. The chats begin, who’s in each category, have we a team, the aches, pains, discomforts, the dramas of the morning and the plans for afterwards are all discussed. Everyone now is in good form and buzzing to get going.
A very quick stop for strong teas and coffees. The muffins are avoided and the smell of chips doesn’t sit well. Instead, Lucozade, water and jelly babies are all stocked up on, and then it’s onto the bad roads of Carlow before eventually we see some race signs. Some think it’s directions for horse racing – we’ve made that mistake and ended at the wrong race before!
A different landscape and surface is observed along the way, indicating we are in for a tough day of racing. Eventually we see the tents.
Out quickly, pack the bags and the walk begins to get our bearings. Ceased up from sitting in the car for nearly four hours, there’s a need to stretch the legs too before one could even think of running. Race numbers collected, toilet stop and we begin to see the familiar faces of our competitors.
A strong breeze hits us on the corner; it’s a wide open field with no shelter. The children are powering around, no sign of muck, hills or bad weather here today – not what we are used to at all. In Mayo we train on hills, muck and difficult terrain. We head off for a walk around the course to realise this it is flat, dry and firm underfoot but parts have horse hoof holes so mind the ankles. It’s going to be flat and fast today.
We are in acres of an open field, surrounded by athletes. The kids are already running their hearts out so we encourage and cheer on, with a special roar for anyone from the west.
We are not as greatly represented today, probably to do with the seven or eight-hour round trip. You’d be in Spain quicker. The masters are warming up and the officials are keeping it all on track. We find a space in the middle of the field and drop the bags before a 10-minute warm-up. It’s a fab day for running, especially for cross country; crisp, cold and dry rather than wind and rain.
Standing on the green pasture, getting lost in the swarm of running vests, I spot out of the corner of my eye a castle over to the left in another field. For those few moments my mind wanders to another place, I have to see more about this castle and so off we go exploring. We warm up around the route into the other field, around passed the historic building, a small, perfectly built castle, still intact except part of the top has eroded away. It’s strange because it stands alone, no orchards, forts or large surrounding walls.

After his race at the National Cross Country Championships in Kilkenny, Stephen Monaghan gets a supportive ‘well run’ from clubmates and fellow competitors Breege Blehein, Mags Glavey, Colette Tuohy, Joan Walsh and Pauline Moran.

I have forgotten about the national cross country and am drawn towards the local history. We are running in Gowran, beside the remains of Ballysean Castle, built in the 14 Century by the Butlers. The decorative windows are eye-catching. One of the many things I love about running is that it allows us to experience the present, to take in the moment; nature, beauty and our surroundings distract us from the hussle and bustle of life before even realising it. But now running through horse hoof territory my mind returns back to the job at hand and most importantly to not turning an ankle. This is horse country and two minutes out the road is one of Ireland’s leading racecourses, Gowran Park. It has 16 national hunt and flat meetings all year round. This explains the surface we are running on, a contrasting type of clay, rocky, uneven paths and acres of big fields. A different type of land from the mucky, hilly, west of Ireland countryside.
Arriving back at base, things are running bang on time. A quick change into spikes, a few strides and it’s time to line up. All the green and red hang together with pride at the start line, surrounded by packs of teams mainly from Leinster as this is their territory today. The gun goes off and it’s a very quick start; run as fast as one can for the first 300 metres to avoid getting too boxed in. As it gets narrow and the legs begin to tire it’s hard to move out. One keeps pushing and trying to catch more up ahead. The humidity is cruel so I’m glad I am as near to barefoot today; spikes without socks means I can feel the wet seep through and cool my feet. I spot a man to the right running barefoot, a shiver goes down my spine. My dad tells a story of cross country running in Hollymount and all running barefoot but at least back then they weren’t surrounded by spikes and the danger of getting ‘spiked’.
A mile to go and because it’s flat and not mucky as cross country goes too, this is very tough today – nearly as fast as a road race. Just hold on and survive, the long journey is now catching up, it’s a flat-out finish. Everyone bent over to get their breath while still cheering for the Mayo gang. The relief to have that completed, a very tough day. When all have finished, smile for a quick few photos, head for results, a few very happy faces, some medals going home.
A very slow cool down into another horse hoof field to rid the legs of some lactate acid, avoiding stiffening up completely on the three-and-a-half-hour journey to the west. Now the lads are off and we get to cheer the two Mayo athletes while cooling down. They have a tough adventure ahead, 8k on grass. They smile each time as we cheer; we shout louder.
Finally, back to our bags, water, jellies and a badly-needed change into dry clothes before getting into the car again.
All are buzzing, the legs aren’t too bad and off we head. Google Maps is out again as we have no idea where we are going, grass in the middle of the roads for the first few miles until we finally reach proper tarmac.
Toilet stop in Tullamore and a quick cuppa to go. A very welcome treat with food in the back of the car. We share, we eat, we chat and laugh, the adrenaline still pumping and the talk begins about the next adventure, the training plans are discussed, the races planned. We’ve the Western People Women’s Mini Marathon to look forward to because a run with all our friends, not too far away, outdoors, on a scenic route will be a welcome change from this long-distance haul.

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