Google+ Running in Cork, Ireland: Guest article - Road running still in the doldrums / Ballycotton in decline...by David O’Dwyer

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Guest article - Road running still in the doldrums / Ballycotton in decline...by David O’Dwyer

The following article appeared in a recent issue of the Irish Runner magazine and is published here with their kind permission. It was written by David O'Dwyer of East Cork AC and it touches on the the decline in times in the Ballycotton '10' and outlines some possible reasons for this...

This year’s Ballycotton ‘10’ was won by Sergiu Ciobanu who completed a 4 in a row with a PB of 48.58mins. Going sub 49mins is no mean feat but it doesn’t even put Sergiu into the all-time top 40 performances in Ballycotton. The womens race was won by Siobhan O’Doherty in a time of 57.32mins. This time is outside of the top 20 performances in Ballycotton for women. Is this a snapshot of where Irish distance running is at the moment?

It is easy to get wrapped up in the nostalgia of how times of 20 and 30 years ago were faster than today. Albeit taken in isolation, the Ballycotton ‘10’ is a window on the standard of Irish distance running, not just for the present but also for the past. As the course has not changed in 37 years it is an accurate barometer when the times of this year are compared with previous times and the stats make for interesting reading.

The popularity of the race is bigger than ever but the elite performances are still some way off the times of yesteryear.


This year was the first time that 49mins was broken since 2005 when Dave Mitchinson (N. & Essex Beagles) won in 48.26mins. Another notable factor of the 2005 race was that the next two finishers were within 10secs of the winner, with Seamus Power in 3rd position. All 3 make the all-time top 40 which has not been updated since the 2005 race.

The glaring question is; Why are the winning times of recent years not challenging those top 40 performances? Is it simply a case of not enough of the elites turning up to mount a challenge? It would have been a fair assumption that Sergiu Ciobanu was going to attempt to retain his title this year. Did this scare away any would be challengers knowing that they would have a proper race on their hands if they turned up? His winning time of 48.58mins was more than 2mins ahead of runner-up and former winner of the race, Alan O’Shea, 51.06mins.

Is the fact that there are so many other races on the calendar now also a factor? Perhaps the standard of athlete is as good as those of the heady days of the 1980’s and 1990’s but there are more races to choose from today and the Ballycotton ’10’ is just another race. It could be argued that the abundance of road races has diluted the competition at the business end.

The winners’ prize of €500 is not insignificant but is it enough to attract the current top Irish distance runners? A 10k in Dublin on the same day had €800 on offer for the winner. John Walshe, the Ballycotton ‘10’ race director doesn’t believe that money is necessarily a factor. Or at least it has never been a factor in Ballycotton. There have never been incentives to attract the big names and even when nike were on board as a main sponsor the prize money was not excessive. John Walshe believes that a more pertinent point is the lack of track races that the top guys are running. This is borne out by taking a closer look at those who are already in the top 40.

Closer examination of those top 40 performances shows that 19 have been set by 5 Irish athletes. 4 each for Liam O’Brien, Robert Costelloe, John Griffin, Noel Berkley and 3 for Jerry Kiernan. All home grown athletes who kept coming back for more. The last of these times was set in 2000 and since then Seamus Power is the only Irish addition to the top 40 from his 2005 performance.

A common denominator of those athletes mentioned above was the fact that they were all competitive on the track. Liam O’Brien was a multiple national champion in the 3,000m steeplechase and former national record holder for the distance with 8.27mins. Noel Berkley has 6 national 10,000m titles with a PB of 27.55mins and a PB of 13.32mins for 5,000m. Jerry Kiernan may be best remembered for his 9th place finish in the marathon in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics but he has also notched up a 4min mile plus a national 10,000m title and is a former national record holder for 3,000m. Robert Costelloe also has a national 10,000m title to his name. Seamus Power, also a national 10,000m champion and the most recent addition to the top 40 has PB’s of 28.18mins and 13.31mins for 10,000m & 5,000m respectively, the former set when picking up a AAA title.

Even if the current cream of Irish distance runners were to toe the line would they push one another to break into that top 40? A few of today’s top distance runners are 28.30men for 10,000m but they are not racing each other on the roads. There are too many races and too few athletes at this elite level.

Noel Berkley believes that the decline in times being set is not just an Irish phenomenon. He believes that it is the same in the UK and the US with the odd exception. Noel believes that there are a number of contributing factors from lifestyle changes to the dearth of good coaches, in this country at least. Also over training is as much a problem as under training. “Anyone can put in 100miles a week but it is quality as much as quantity”. Liam O’Brien is of a similar opinion, “How many fellas are training twice a day? How many reps are they doing in sessions? It is probably 12-15 as opposed to 25-30”.

Both men also believe that societal changes are also a factor. Noel Berkley says that “In general terms we are a bit softer. How many guys are cycling to college or work in the morning, training afterwards and then cycling home again?”

Marathon Mission has as one of its entry requirements sub 50mins for 10 miles. Should this be now revised down?

The demise of the National Inter Club Cross Country Championships is also a factor according to John Walshe. In the past the Inter clubs would have been used in the selection criteria for the World Cross Country Championships and competition would have been keen to say the least. The sad demise of this race is a topic for another day but it is fair to say that it has had a knock on effect on the quality of performances in Ballycotton. The Inter Clubs would traditionally have been held towards the end of February with the Ballycotton ‘10’ on the first Sunday in March. If you made the Irish team you might fancy your chances in Ballycotton or if you just missed out then you might still fancy your chances as you would be in the shape to mount a challenge. This year only 3 of the top 10 finishers in the Inter Clubs ran in Ballycotton and two of those were from East Cork AC, the local club. Perhaps Ballycotton is in the same downward spiral as the Inter Clubs?


Sergiu Ciobanu in some respects is battling against the tide and is at least attempting to emulate the previous generation in that he had a real go in the Inter Clubs where he finished 3rd and followed this up with a new PB for 10 miles in Ballycotton. Who wouldn’t bet against 5 in a row next year? It would be interesting to see if anyone will mount a challenge…

Do you agree with David's points? Any thoughts or suggestions as to how standards could be improved at the sharp end of the field?

The next Ballycotton '10' race will be in March 2014. Entry details should be announced sometime in October.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Nothing to argue about there as all correct and factual. Just wonder has its popularity as a run taken from the fact that it is a serious race???
Is it now just a day out and the elite are bypassing it because of it..!

Anonymous said...

Great article, everything said is very true and accurate. Good to hear comments from noel berkley and liam o,brien athletes who have done it all. Times have definetly dropped for some reason, recent winning times would do well to make top 10 or 15 in the early 90,s. Guys like sean harte, mark bickerdike, john o,driscoll,john kearney would have won the race i latter years with their times. The top athletes don,t race each other often enough on the roads which is a pity. If they did i,m sure the elite times in ballycotton 10 would come down.

Anonymous said...

Great article John. It rings true in respect to another article I read a couple of years ago about the marathon times in the 80's as opposed to now. Here's a link to it, its really great reading.
http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/the-running-blog/2013/mar/11/faster-1980s-old-school-running-training