Ian O’Riordan: McElhinney ready for sacrifices required to pursue his dream

Few sporting careers offer less security than distance running he's up for the challenge

Long before he took himself out on a cold dark night in the Rocky Mountains, 17 years ago this week, Hunter S Thompson had been championing the underdog, the adventurer, the rebel with a cause, initially in a literary sense, then across his own eclectic range of subjects from the Hell's Angels to Warren Zevon.

It was a sad and lonesome end for someone who never seemed to lose his youthful spirit, only for Thompson there was never any great value in the secure life, evident from this piece which wittingly showed up again this week, submitted to his school magazine, The Spectator, when he was 17-years-old.

“Security . . . what does this word mean in relation to life as we know it today? Let us visualise the secure man; in general, he has pushed ambition and initiative aside and settled down, so to speak, in a boring but safe and comfortable rut for the rest of his life. His future is but an extension of his present, and he accepts it as such with a complacent shrug of his shoulders.

“What does he think when he sees his youthful dreams of adventure, accomplishment, travel and romance buried under the cloak of conformity? Where would the world be if all men had sought security and not taken risks or gambled with their lives on the chance that, if they won, life would be different or richer?”


Few sporting careers offer less security right now than distance running, especially for anyone trying to make it on the properly global stage. It’s getting less attractive on the financial front too, only the select few able to carve a living out of it, fewer still even thinking about retiring for long off their earnings. It’s pure buttons really when set against something like the obscenity of the Saudi Arabia-backed breakaway golf league.

To even think about making it there are what might be considered mad sacrifices, including the need to spend several weeks of the year living at an altitude somewhere around 2,400 metres above sea level. Thanks to his own ambition and youthful dreams of adventure and perhaps even some romance, Darragh McElhinney wouldn't have it any other way.

It is 2½ months since McElhinney found himself centre stage in one of the better Irish distance-running stories of recent years, his silver medal won in the Under-23 race at the European Cross-Country Championships staged in Abbotstown also helping the Ireland team win gold.

At 21, the Glengarriff runner is still eligible for that grade this coming December, when the championships are staged in Turin, although there's certainly no security in that.

Promising position

Acutely aware it seems that countless Irish athletes in a similarly promising position soon disappear off the radar, sometimes never to be heard off again, McElhinney had already set himself fresh targets. Three days after Christmas he took off for Kenya, flying into Nairobi first, then taking a small transfer plane to Eldoret, before completing the trip by bus to Iten, the popular training ground at exactly 2,400m above sea level, on the western escarpment of Kenya's Great Rift Valley.

It was actually his fourth such journey, the first made at age 18, also his first year at UCD, where he's studying politics and history. Just prior to his Abbotstown success, McElhinney also signed a three-year contract with adidas, affording him some small financial security up to the Paris Olympics in 2024. Only the sacrifices all remain; without travelling to such high places as Iten he'd likely be at some disadvantage.

“I still really enjoy it, but in many ways the magic has worn off, it’s about getting the work done now. I also feel like I could be dropped off anywhere in Kenya and survive it, I know a lot about the place. You also pay quite a bit up front, the flights, take a financial hit on that, but once you’re out there you hardly put your hand in your pocket, the cost of living is so cheap.

“It’s still an inspiring place, there’s nowhere else in the world really where so many people run. I actually feel now I’d be scared to stay in Ireland for the month of January, to go into an indoor season without an altitude camp. After college, next year, the plan is to go full-time, so you need to get used to it.

“For me as well, just signing my first professional deal, these are the things I kind of have to spend money on now. It feels weird to say it, but I am being paid to be the best runner I can be, so if I ask myself where in the world is the best place to train, for the month of January, Glengarriff or Dublin or Kenya, it has to be Kenya.”

After four weeks training in Iten (the small Irish group including Keelam Kilrehill, his fellow team gold medal winner from Abbotstown, also coached by Emmet Dunleavy), McElhinney returned home to win the Inter-varsity 1,500m for UCD, then two weeks ago in Metz in France, improved his indoor 3,000m best by 10 seconds to 7:45.91. Only four Irish athletes have run faster indoors: Alistair Cragg, Frank O'Mara, Eamonn Coghlan and Mark Carroll, all senior championship medal winners in their prime.

He might well have chosen a different sporting career (his dad, born in south London, is a lifelong Crystal Palace supporter), McElhinney also played underage soccer with Bantry Bay Rovers.

Once he starting succeeding in distance running there was no turning back, beginning as a 17-year-old when he broke the Irish Youth 3,000m record, running 8:18.18, with that eclipsing the 8:20.40 which had stood to John Treacy since 1974.

In 2019, McElhinney further underlined his potential when he became the first Irish teenager to break 14 minutes, running a brilliant 13:54.10, and followed that up with a bronze medal at the European Under-20 Championships in Sweden, duly celebrated with a homecoming to Glengarriff.

Back at Abbotstown this weekend, this time at the Sport Ireland Indoor Arena, and one of the athletes standing in his way of winning the Irish senior 3,000m title is Nicholas Griggs, the 17-year-old from Tyrone, who two weeks ago became the first Irish teenager to break eight minutes.

“Yeah, he’s unbelievable, it’s funny how the field is shaping up, I almost feel like the old one now. I was 19 when I won my first senior title, and that’s the challenge of a junior, wanting to run the best you can off only junior training.

“It is so exciting, there’s a good wave of runners coming through now, running really good times. It’s my first time racing him, in a championship, and not many people would have thought we’d be the two potentially battling it out for a national title.”

With only a guarantee of more mad sacrifices to come.