Never mind last lap, bells should be ringing over sorry state of cross country

Sat, Nov 10, 2012, 00:00

ATHLETICS:Road racing is suffocating the sport that sparked it in the first place

You would not believe the number of requests that come in this direction looking to plug some new road race or another, most of which are politely ignored, under rule, after first being quietly cursed under my breath.

It’s not that road races are bad – at least not all of them – and indeed anything that helps wage war on obesity can only be good: the problem with road races, as if their suffocating proliferation and increasingly steep entry fee wasn’t bad enough, is their apparently negative impact on the sport that sparked them in the first place.

In other words, these road races, while clearly tapping into the so-called running boom, do very little to develop the sport of running, at least not in the competitive sense. Something just doesn’t add up, and don’t just take my word for it.

Last Sunday, at the Dublin Cross Country in Santry, the once epic men’s race drew just 46 entries, and only five full club teams. This is not taking from Alan McCormack’s fine individual victory, and welcome comeback, but it’s not that long since I last ran the Dublin Cross Country, finished somewhere around 46th, and considered that quite a good run.

God knows where the depth and quality has gone, and it’s even worse on the women’s front: there were just 20 entries in the senior race (and only three club teams) and only 13 runners in the junior women, which is a shockingly poor turnout, by any standards. On the same day, at the Cork Cross Country in Carrignavar, there were only nine entries in the junior women’s race, and only 24 seniors.

No one in Athletics Ireland seems overly alarmed about this situation, or at least not those busy printing the permits for road races. There must be some way of improving the link between the large numbers of people now lining up at the start of road races (including the 14,350 at last month’s Dublin marathon) and those lining up at club races, thus making competition more of an issue, and race status, rather than just participation, and the contents of the race goody bag.

Indeed club membership is a hot topic across all sports these days, for a variety of reasons, and there is evidence to suggest that athletics clubs might be bucking the trend, actually increasing membership. Overall membership of clubs affiliated to Athletics Ireland now tops 40,000, the highest in many years, with some of the more successful clubs in somewhat unlikely places, such as Galway, Kilkenny, and west Waterford, along with the more traditional city stops such as Crusaders, Clonliffe, and Dundrum South Dublin.

But with something like 50 clubs in the greater Dublin area, and around 5,000 members in total, it might be time to employ the rocket scientists to work out why the Dublin Cross Country can only attract a combined senior entry of just 66 runners – or why the competitive club scene in Galway has essentially dried up, too, while last month’s Galway Bay Half Marathon and 10km was a 3,000-runner sell-out, each one paying the not so modest fee of €45 for the right to toe the line.

Another case, perhaps, of knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing, although at the risk of sounding utterly cynical about that, there are a couple of road races coming up that do deserve a plug.

The first was brought to my attention in a corner of Mulligans on Wednesday evening, when Frank Greally, the indefatigable editor of Irish Runner magazine, told me about tomorrow’s Remembrance Run 5km, in the Phoenix Park. We were actually there to remember Con Houlihan, and the unveiling of a small photo tribute to his sad passing this summer, which turned out inspired Frank to put some of that memory into running.

“It was floating in my mind for a few years,” he said, “and Con’s death put my thoughts into action, as well as the death of my brother in-law, Leo Fitzpatrick. Perhaps an event like the Remembrance Run will encourage us to pause and remember, realise how we need to embrace our own gift of days and fullness of health.”

Entries, not surprisingly, are very strong, almost 800, and will also be taken tomorrow morning (see – one of the other differences here is that each runner gets to nominate their chosen charity, through the mycharity.iewebsite.

One man who inspires everything about the competitive side of life and sport is Mark Pollock, who presumably needs little introduction, and is behind next Wednesday’s Run in the Dark, at locations in Dublin, Cork, Belfast, London and New York (see First blinded, and then paralysed, Pollock doesn’t so much offer a good excuse for a road race, but a definite exception to this rule of not plugging it. Club runners are welcome too, by the way.

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