From Glengarriff to Rosapenna, Darragh McElhinney comes of age with first senior cross-country title

Sarah Healy, still only 21, also lands a first senior women’s title, battling ahead of Ciara Mageean

It is more or less an eight-hour run from Glengarriff in west Cork to Rosapenna in north Donegal. In the car, naturally. Some of which was in mind when Darragh McElhinney made sure to produce the – so far – best distance run of his young life.

This was also a homecoming of sorts; the McElhinney clan originating from Donegal, the 22-year-old from Glengarriff marking that return to his roots – with ample family and friends in tow – by winning his first senior National Cross-Country title over the magnificent sandy hills of Rosapenna golf course, set against the backdrop of Sheephaven Bay and the wild north Atlantic beyond.

It was an occasionally wild day, in between the rainbows and sunshine and showers plenty of superfast running. The young west Cork man produced the best of it; the senior men’s race of 10km eventually reduced to a 800m showdown against last year’s champion Hiko Tonosa Haso, who, at age 27, we know doesn’t give anything up lightly.

Haso was first to make his move on the last uphill stretch, briefly going a few strides clear, before McElhinney brilliantly struck back, ripping up the final downhill stretch to take the win by four seconds. This time last year, at Abbotstown, Haso beat him by three seconds.


It was super-impressive too, one of the finest finishes to this esteemed cross-country championship in years, eclipsing a similarly exciting climax to the senior women’s race, where Sarah Healy, like McElhinney running for UCD AC, also still under-23, kicked away from Ciara Mageean over the last 800m of their 8km race, eventually winning in winter daylight by 15 seconds.

Talk about prospects: it’s the first time two under-23 athletes claimed both senior cross-country crowns. This also being the focus of both McElhinney and Healy come the European Cross-Country in a parkland in Turin in three weeks’ time.

Better still, three of the top five in the senior men’s race are also under-23, Efrem Gidey, who showed strong mid-race, taking fourth (behind Kilkenny’s Peter Lynch), with Keelan Kilrehill from Moy Valley AC in Sligo, like McElhinney also coached by Emmett Dunleavy, also under-23, which certainly makes for a formidable Irish team challenge.

For McElhinney, who was second outright in last year’s European under-23 race staged at Abbotstown, leading the Irish team to gold, the prospect of going one individual place better in Italy next month is now his sole motivation. It won’t be easy, defending under-23 champion Charles Hicks from Great Britain, also still young enough for the grade, won the American NCAA Cross-Country on Saturday, the first athlete representing Stanford University to win that race, first staged in 1938.

“It took me a while to get going, but I felt comfortable the whole way, I am way fitter than last year,” McElhinney said, “and because of the nature of what we did last year, nothing is going to satisfy me unless I win individually and gold for the team. I was second last year, and still in the same age category this year, against the majority of the same lads. It wouldn’t make sense for me to be aspiring to do anything other than win it.

“Team-wise, to be honest, I think we are even stronger this year. We didn’t have Efrem last year. We have an unbelievable team, there’s no two ways about it.”

Indeed Gidey (22) who finished sixth in the European 10,000m in Munich in August, helped ensure Clonliffe Harriers won back the senior men’s team title, won last year by Dundrum South Dublin. The top three in each race, in the three categories, all gained automatic selection for Turin

For Healy, who incidentally like McElhinney endured a more forgettable experience at those European Championships in Munich, a first senior title in the women’s race proved every bit as majestic.

Mageean hadn’t raced since her stunning season on the track, winning Commonwealth and European silver over 1,500m, and looked well poised to land another senior cross-country title, first won in 2018, once she broke clear alongside Healy with 2km to go. Running stride for stride for a long while, Healy kicked away in breathtaking fashion over the last 800m, winning in 27:05 ahead of Mageean’s 27:20: “I enjoyed it, as much as you can enjoy 8K cross, it’s a very scenic course,” said Healy (21). Defending champion Michelle Finn from Leevale AC, who went to the front early on, held on for third.

Dublin City Harriers won the team title ahead of defending champions Letterkenny AC, who had Ann-Marie McGlynn in fourth, just weeks after finishing second best Irish woman in the Dublin Marathon.

Still a month shy of his 18th birthday, Nick Griggs from Mid Ulster AC made no secret that winning another under-20 title, like he did last year, was the least of his ambitions. Win it he did, only not after the hardy Dean Casey from Ennis made absolute sure he earned it, matching the Tyrone runner every inch of the way before Griggs kicked for home with 400m to go.

Griggs afforded himself an Ovett-esque wave coming into the finish, Casey just two seconds behind, that Irish under-20 team for Turin also having gold medal ambitions written all over it. Jonas Stafford from Ashford in Co Wicklow, still under-18, finished third.

There’s a strong under-20 women team in the making too; Anika Thompson from Leevale returning home from Oregon running away in the second half of that race, winning by six seconds from Anna Gardner from Down, also under-18.

Results – National Cross-Country Championships, Rosapenna, Donegal

Senior men – 1 D McElhinney (UCD AC/U-23) 29:59, 2 H Haso (Dundrum South Dublin) 30:03, 3 P Lynch (Kilkenny City Harriers) 30:06

Teams: 1 Clonliffe (86), 2 East Cork AC (89), 3 Mullingar Harriers (100)

Senior women – 1 S Healy (UCD AC/U-23) 27:05, 2 C Mageean (City of Lisburn AC) 27:20, 3 M Finn (Leevale AC) 27:25

Teams: 1 Dublin city Harriers (64), 2 Letterkenny AC (65), UCD AC (76)

Junior men – 1 N Griggs (Mid Ulster AC) 17:43, 2 D Casey (Ennis AC) 17:45, 3 J Stafford (Ashford/U-18) 18:11

Teams: 1 Ennis AC (33), 2 Nenagh Olympic (109), Dundrum South Dublin (160)

Junior women – 1 A Thompson (Leevale AC) 14:06, 2 A Gardner (East Down/U-18) 14:10, 3 R Roberts (North Belfast Harriers) 14:13

Teams: 1 Youghal AC (56), Finn Valley (126), Moy Valley AC (185)

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics