It's a rare thing for Mark English to punch the air at the finish of any race, only this felt good, very good. In the small step of winning back the 800 metres at the National Championships in Santry he took one giant leap towards the Rio Olympics.
That’s because English hadn’t raced all season before this weekend, due to injury, and with the Olympics now just six weeks away, the winning was all that mattered: the time not so much, his 1:51.70 coming off a typically tactical championship race, though exactly what English had ordered.
He was tested hardest by Declan Murray, the Irish-American running for Clonliffe, who took second in 1:51.83, although in truth English did all his running in the last 100m – coming through from fourth off the crown of the last bend.
“Right through from first to eighth was very strong, so there’s good depth there,” he said. “So coming off the back of injury, winning is a great achievement. To just get back to where I was, feeling good, is a good day for me.
“The plan was to sit back through to 600m, and move up through the gears after that, not to panic, and just be patient. Enough room opened up for me to turn on the jets and go from there, so hopefully more to come. The excitement is starting to build around Rio and I’m looking forward to it.”
English still has plenty more to improve to get back down around his best of 1:44.84, set in 2013, and the sort of time English would need to be running to make a final in Rio. Although for now the priority for the UCD athlete is simply to get more races under his belt,but not including next month’s European Championships in Amsterdam.
However Thomas Barr will run in The Netherlands. Even though his season has also been curbeen to date through injury, he put his Rio preparations right back on track in Santry with an impressive win in the 400m hurdles.
After running 52.03 in Saturday’s heat, Barr was keen to test his hip injury a little more, and certainly opened up his stride in the last 100m to take the win in 50.28 seconds, perfectly satisfying given the wet and breezy conditions.
Like English, he was made work for it too, Jason Harvey taking second in 51.30, with Ben Kiely, a Ferrybank club mate of Barr, coming through for third in 51.47
“I think that’s national title number six, so delighted with that,” said Barr.
“But more importantly I’m glad to get another race safely under my belt, after messing up my stride pattern in the heats. I didn’t feel too tired, so that’s helped make my mind up on the Europeans, that I can go there and race now.
Other Rio-bound athletes put their form to the test with equally satisfying results, especially Michelle Finn from Leevale, who took the 3,000m steeplechase in 9:46.81 ahead of Kerry O'Flaherty from Newcastle AC, who has also run the Olympic qualifier, some distance back in 9:58.81.
Rio qualification proved a little beyond Síofra Cleirigh Buttner in the women's 800m, although not through lack of effort. The 20 year-old DSD athlete, home from a US scholarship at Villanova, produced a gun-to-tape victory in 2:04.74 which in more favourable conditions would certainly have seen her inside the qualifying standard for Amsterdam. Still she finished well clear of Louise Shanahan of Leevale, second in 2:10.02.
The men's 400m lived up to its billing as one of the more stacked races of the day, David Gillick looking to turn back the clock on his great career after coming out of retirement. The popular Dundrum athlete certainly made a thrilling race of it, but in the end Brian Gregan from Clonliffe held on to defend his title in a season best of 46.28, which Craig Lynch from Shercock holding on for second in a personal best of 46.40.
Still, Gillick was well pleased with his bronze medal, in 46.44, and with that giving him a chance of making the men’s 4x400m relay team for those European Championships.
The fastest man in Ireland for 2016 is once again Paralympics star Jason Smyth, who won the 100m in 10.71 seconds, while the women's title went to defending champion Amy Foster of Lisburn AC in 11.83.
Rounding up the afternoon in suitably convincing style was Ciara Mageean, on the way to her first Olympics, who won the women's 1,500m with a quite devastating turn of pace over the last 400m, which she covered in an impressive 61 seconds. In that sort of form she won't be far from the podium in Amsterdam either. John Travers left it much later to win a brilliant men's 1,500m.
Saturday's finals saw Brandon Hargreaves (DSD) win the 10,000m from defending champion Mark Christie (Mullingar Harriers), 29:45.01 to Christie's 29:45.50.