The 2017 Downey’s Nissan Laois Athletics Cross Country season came to a close on Sunday with what is the main event of the season, the county senior championship race.
The day also incorporates a juvenile cross country relay program, with teams of four athletes, running a 500m course each. Hosted by St Abban's AC, the event was again held in the picturesque grounds of Stradbally hall.
Weather conditions were as good as can be expected for the time of year, with no rain and temperatures around five degrees ensuring the ground stayed reasonably firm for the most part. The juvenile relay races were held around a 500m oval course, and were due to start with the U-9 girls.
Unfortunately, there was not enough young athletes to fill the teams on this occasion, so the organisers allowed them to run a straight race rather than a relay. Ballyroan’s Emily Dunphy won out and took the gold medal, followed by the St Abban’s pair of Karen Ayres and Ailbhe Burke. The U-9 boy’s race was where the planned relays actually began, and Rosenallis Kilcavan took the gold medal.
Relays continued through the U-11s and U-13s as programmed, and then all attention switched to one of the main events of the day, the Ladies senior race. Twenty three athletes from four clubs took to the line, including last year’s winner Mary Mulhare of Portlaoise AC. As the start whistle was blown and the race began, it looked like it was going to be a four way fight for first place between the Portlaoise champion, Cheryl Nolan of St Abban's and the Ballyroan pairing of Avril Deegan & Sorcha Maloney.
By the end of the first lap things looked a little different, with Mulhare, Nolan and Deegan moving away from Maloney slightly, and these positions change little as they ran through the third kilometre. With only the last kilometre of the 5k race left to go, Cheryl Nolan started to make her move to take the race on and she opened a gap on Mary Mulhare that some viewers thought she would find hard to maintain, given their finishing positions in last week’s National finals.
However, maintain it she did and the St Abban’s athlete crossed the line with a convincing lead, taking the 2017 Laois Senior cross country title for her first time. Mary Mulhare finished second to Ballyroan AC’s Avril Deegan in third place.
Racing then briefly returned to the juveniles and the U-15 girls. With numbers at this age group generally low a straight race was held, rather than a relay. Rosenallis AC’s Graine Lawlor took the gold medal from Ballyroan AC’s Blathnaid Degan in second and Oughaval AC’s Alice Bickerdike in third. Relays then continued as planned up to the U-17 age groups with all races filled and athletes happy with the course.
The men’s senior race was next up and included the defending 2016 champion, Ballyfin AC athlete Colin Maher. He lined up at the start in a field of thirty seven runners from four of the county’s athletic clubs. As the whistle sounded they made their way to the first turn without incident, and made their way around the first of five two kilometre laps in this arduous ten kilometre race. By the time they were half way round the first lap it was clear to see where the battle would be, and last year’s winner was not going to be in for an easy ride.
Colin Maher (Ballyfin AC) and Harry Lupton (Portlaoise AC) were in a race of their own for the title, moving further and further from the rest or the field with every stride, pushing one another on as they ran. It was a very different situation in third place, as St Abban's man Stephen Hunter ran the race alone. Like the front runners ahead of him, he stretched his lead on the chasing pack with every stride he took, but just couldn’t keep pace with the front two, leaving him to run a very lonely and difficult ten kilometres alone.
The front three positions changed little for the first six kilometres with the front pair swapping first and second between themselves as they ran, ever increasing their lead on the chasing pack who in turn were easily led by Hunter in third position.
After the seventh kilometre things began to change slightly at the front, with the Portlaoise man ever so slightly pulling away from the defending champion, and with one lap left to go Harry Lupton had a ten meter lead that was growing and looking harder to close.
Harry Lupton crossed the line in first place and took the 2017 senior men’s title with 30 meters or more of a lead on last year’s winner Colin Maher, who had to settle for silver this year. Stephen Hunter took a very impressive third place and was comfortably ahead of the chasing pack behind him.
With the 2017 Downeys Nissan/ Laois Athletics cross country season now over, we would like to thank everyone who has attended and taken part in our championships and to all the host clubs and venue owners who put the races together. Particular thank also to our sponsor, Downey’s Nissan Portlaoise, without whom, none of this would have been possible.
2017 LAOIS SENIOR CROSS COUNTRY POSITIONS
1st - Cheryl Nolan (St Abban's); 2nd - Mary Mulhare (Portlaoise); 3rd - Avril Deegan (Ballyroan Abbeyleix & District)
1st - Harry Lupton (Portlaoise); 2nd - Colin Maher (Ballyfin); 3rd - Stephen Hunter (St Abban's).
1st – Portlaoise; 2nd - Ballyroan Abbeyleix & District; 3rd - St Abban's.
1st – Portlaoise; 2nd - St Abban's; 3rd – Ballyfin.