For runners at every level, 2020 proved challenging and from early in the year, a virus called Covid-19 dominated the agenda. Lindie Naughton reflects back on a very different year than expected. 

Sport obviously suffered, with championships at every level cancelled and the Tokyo Olympics the most significant casualty. For elite athletes, it meant a major disruption to their plans, although the marathon runners in particular look sure of their places if the Tokyo Games do take place in 2021.

Already certain of his nomination is Northern Irish athlete Stephen Scullion who ran a personal best time of 2 hrs 9 mins 49 secs at the elite only London Marathon on Sunday October 4.

It knocked over two minutes off the 2:11.52 he had run in Houston the previous January to qualify for Tokyo. The time also shaved seven seconds off John Treacy’s official Irish record of 2:09.56 set at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics when it brought him a memorable silver medal

In a vastly changed athletics world of today, Scullion’s time saw him finish only 11th in the London race where, controversially, most athletes were wearing a new generation of super-charged carbon fibre plated shoes which, lest we forget, are said to provide around a 4% improvement in running economy and chip away at marathon times for athletes. They have changed the playing field drastically.

Also in London, Mayo woman Sinead Diver finished eighth woman and first W40 in 2:27.07. Her best marathon time of 2:24.11, set at the 2019 London Marathon, means she’s on course to represent her adopted nation of Australia in Tokyo.

Those may have been the stand-out performances of the year, yet across the varied athletics disciplines, other Irish athletes showed their mettle by excelling on road, track, trail and indoors. Among them were Ciara Mageean, Sean Tobin, Paul Robinson, Andrew Coscoran, Brian Fay, Michelle Finn, Nadia Power, Zak Hanna, Sarah McCormack and Anna Mundow.

A truncated cross country season

Cross-country running is at the heart of club athletics and at the Dublin Masters Cross-Country, on a cold January morning in St Anne’s Park Raheny, Kate O’Neill of Metro St Brigid’s AC and Colm Rooney of Clonliffe Harriers lead home a record entry in both men and women’s races.

Raheny Shamrock won three of the four team titles on offer – M35, M50 and W50 – and narrowly lost out to Sportsworld RC on countback for the W35 title. Starting the races off and standing on his usual spot at the finish was the late Pat Hooper. Little did anyone know that Pat was making his final appearance at the championships. His untimely death in October sent shockwaves throughout the sport.

Avondale House in Rathdrum was the venue for the National Masters Cross-Country on February 8 which coincided not only with an Irish general election but also a rugby international. Teresa Doherty of Finn Valley and Brian Maher of Kilkenny City Harriers proved worthy overall champions.

All Ireland Schools XC Photo: Lindie Naughton

Despite rising Corona anxiety, the All Ireland Schools Cross-Country was held as planned at Santry on March 7. Winners included Michael Morgan of Summerhill Sligo and Louise Holmes of Ard Scoil na nDeise in the senior races, and Abdel Laadjel of Kishogue CC and Eimear Maher of Mount Anville at inter level. Winning the prestigious senior team titles were the Belvedere boys and the Loreto Kilkenny girls.

Cancellations and a late reemergence of muddy running

In mid-summer came the expected announcement that the European Cross-Country Championships, due to be held in Abbotstown in early December, would be deferred for a year.

By autumn, it looked like there would be no cross-country racing for the rest of the year; however a number of county championships did take place before the second lock-down in October, although the National Championships never happened.

Most recently came a small flurry of activity, with Mark McKinstry of North Belfast Harriers and Catherine Whoriskey of City of Derry Spartans the winners at the Bobby Rea cross-country in Dundonald on December 20.

Athletics Ireland has announced dates for juvenile and senior championships in February and March. Fingers are crossed.

Staying safe indoors?

With the World Indoors cancelled, the National Championships at Abbotstown in mid-February proved a subdued affair.

Highlights included a new championships best time of 3 mins 41.36 secs for Andrew Coscoran of Star of the Sea AC when winning the men’s 1500m; Coscoran’s training partner, Brian Fay of Raheny Shamrock AC, was second in 3:43.13. In a tactical women’s 1500m, Louise Shanahan of Leevale AC out-sprinted Ciara Everard of UCD AC for victory in 4:40.45.

Defending champion John Travers of Donore Harriers won a thrilling men’s 3000m, regaining the lead from 19-year-old Darragh McElhinney of UCD AC on the final lap.

Mark English of Letterkenny AC was a comfortable winner of the men’s 800m, while winning the women’s 800m in 2:06.25 was Nadia Power of Dublin City Harriers AC.

At the Athlone International Grand Prix on February 12, Ciara Mageean of City of Lisburn AC improved her personal best to 8:48.28 secs when winning the 3000m, putting her third behind Mary Cullen and Sonia O’Sullivan on the Irish all-time indoors list.

In the USA, Coscoran had run times of 3:56.85 and 3:57.83 for the mile and 3:37.98 for 1500m on a trip that took in the Millrose Games. Charlie O’Donovan of Leevale AC/Villanova went under four minutes for the first time with a time of 3:58.95 secs in Boston in mid-February, where in the 3000m, Jack O’Leary of Mullingar Harriers/ Iona College ran a personal best 7:53.47. A fortnight later, O’Leary ran 13:44.12 for 5000m.

On the road again

First big road race of the year was the Raheny 5-mile in Dublin on the last Sunday of January, which attracted a record 4,064 entry.

Hiko Tonosa in 2019. Photo: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile

After a thrilling a sprint for the line, Ethiopian-born Hiko Tonosa of Dundrum South Dublin edged it in a time of 22 mins 40 secs, with the top five all under 22 mins 45 secs; the course record is 22 mins 39 secs. Fionnuala McCormack of Kilcoole AC was first woman with a superb personal best time of 25 mins 55 secs.

McCormack, in fine form, produced the Irish performance of the day at the Barcelona Half Marathon in February when finishing 11th woman in 71 mins 41 secs. Ann-Marie McGlynn of Letterkenny AC wasn’t too far behind in 72:13. In the men’s race John Travers of Donore Harriers clocked 64:43.

At the Seville Marathon on February 23, Kevin Seaward ran a personal best 2:10.09, followed by Hugh Armstrong of Ballina AC in 2:12.26.

Postponements and cancellations

Locally, directors of the bigger races, had no choice but to postpone and then later to cancel their events when government restrictions were imposed. Among them were the Belfast Marathon in May, the Dublin Women’s 10km Mini Marathon and Cork Marathon in June, the National Half Marathon in August and the Dublin Marathon in late October. All BHAA races in Leinster and Munster and Parkruns all over the country were cancelled indefinitely.

Smaller road races still took place around the country, with restricted numbers, no spectators and staggered starts. Among them was the Allihies 5-Mile in Co Cork, where Lizzie Lee of Leevale AC made a winning return to racing.

Race organisers became more creative with PopUp Races in Kildare using the Mondello race track for strictly supervised races, while Champion Chip Ireland did much the same at Down Royal Racecourse.

The world comes to Larne Half

In the restricted Larne Half Marathon, held in September, Stephen Scullion clocked a personal best of 61:08; the fastest time of the year. On October 4 came the pared down London Marathon and Scullion’s new Irish best time.

That was followed by the World Half Marathon Championships in Gdynia, Poland on October 17, with three Irish athletes travelling. Ann Marie McGlynn clocked 71 mins 40 secs for 40th place knocking 20 seconds off her previous best, while Kevin Seaward of St Malachy’s AC finished 58th of the men in 62 mins 58 mins and Hugh Armstrong of Ballina AC 70th in 64:37.

On Sunday October 25, the traditional day for the Dublin Marathon, a restricted marathon took place in Lisburn, where Tommy Hughes of Strive AC defied the windy weather to sent a new men’s over 60 marathon record of 2:30.01.

Abroad, Leevale AC’s Dylan Hassett clocked a time of 2 hrs 36 mins 53 secs at The Marathon Project, held on 4.3-mile loop in Chandler, Arizona, on Sunday December 20. Hassett’s time of 2:35.29 at the Houston Marathon in January was the fastest by an Irishwoman this year.

Track and field action

With some restrictions lifted, a shortened outdoors track season proved possible, with a few Dublin Graded meets providing good competition.

In the July meet, Eric Keogh of Donore Harriers ran a personal best 29:20.3. That remained the fastest time of the year until December 19 when Sean Tobin of Clonmel AC ran 28: 30. 91 at the Athletics Northern Ireland winter meet in Belfast. He was followed home by Brian Fay in 28:41.71, Andrew Coscoran in 29:01.21, and Hiko Tonosa in 29:06.10.

At an August graded meet, Tobin had improved his 5000m personal best to 13:53.65, although that time put him only third in the annual rankings behind US-based Barry Keane of Waterford AC, who in December ran 13:41.89 in California, and Brian Fay with 13:51.59 at Hengelo in October.

Tobin showed his consistency by topping the rankings not only for the 10,000m, where he also took the national title, but also for the outdoor mile with a time of 4:00.38 from Moyne, Co Tipperary in July and for the 3000m after a personal best run of 7:45.46 in Barcelona in September.

A record entry of 700 had signed up for the All Ireland Track and Field Championships possibly linked to the absence of road races.

1500m dive for the line

Race of the championships, held in Santry over two weekends in August, was the men’s 1500m, where a desperate lunge across the line gave Paul Robinson of St Coca’s AC his first national title in eight years at the expense of Sean Tobin, his training partner. In September, Robinson would run a 1500m time of 3:38.26 in Zagreb – the fastest of the year.

23 August 2020; Paul Robinson of St. Coca’s AC, Kildare, left, crosses the finish line to win the Men’s 1500m, ahead of Sean Tobin of Clonmel AC, Tipperary, right, who finished second, during Day Two of the Irish Life Health National Senior and U23 Athletics Championships at Morton Stadium in Santry, Dublin. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

Winning both the 5000m and the steeplechase was Michelle Finn of Leevale AC, who also finished fourth in the 1500m behind Amy O’Donoghue of Emerald AC.

In the men’s 5000m Darragh McElhinney used John Travers as a windbreak for much of the race before passing him out for a memorable victory.

Photo: Cathal Dennehy @Cathal_Dennehy

Solid year for Mageean

Absent from Santry was Ciara Mageean, who finished 12th in the 1500m at the Diamond League round in Stockholm on August 23.

It was a good year for Mageean who, in July, had become the first Irish woman to break two minutes for 800m when she set a new Irish record for the distance of 1:59.69 in Berne, Switzerland and a few weeks later broke Sonia O’Sullivan’s 1000m record with a time of 2:31.06 in Monaco.

Earlier in the year when running indoors, Mageean had set an Irish record of 4:06.42 for 1500m in Boston and at the Athlone International, ran a personal best 8:48.27 for 3000m.

Rounding out the summer season was the masters track and field championships held at Santry in early September, with another impressive entry including 103 for the men’s 5000m alone. Leading home 20 finishers in the M35 race was John Craig of Annadale Striders in 14:56.96. In the M60 age group, Tommy Hughes had over two minutes to spare on the chasers when finishing in 16:47.59.

In the women’s 3000m, Ciara Hickey of Brothers Pearse AC was the fastest overall winner and first W40, while Anne Gilshinan of Slaney Olympic continued her impressive year with victory in the W55 age group. In June, Gilshinan had set a world W55 record of 4:41.46 for 1500m in Belfast.

Finally, a few weeks ago in California, Roisin Flanagan of Omagh Harriers rounded out the year with a personal best 15:38.27 for 5000m; twin sister Eilish ran 15:40.14, also a PB.

Ultra marathoners are socially distanced anyway

Aoife Mundow of Drogheda and District AC started the ultra year off with a bang when she set a new Irish women’s 24-hour record of 231.376km (143.22 miles) at the Athens International Ultramarathon Festival in Greece on January 11/12. Mundow finished fourth overall and first woman in the race.

Later in the year, in September, Mundow would set a new women’s record for the Kerry Way Ultra 200km, where her time of 25 hours 25 minutes 49 seconds knocked 2 hrs 30 mins off the previous record. Overall winner of the race in 23:37.17 was Gavin Byrne.

Mundow, who started working with coach Sarah McCormack in late 2019, has seen a wonderful improvement under the Irish international mountain runner’s guidance. If the World 24hr Champs in Romania in May goes ahead it will be exciting to see how the ultra-runner fares.

Ultra -runner Nichola Duffy of Navan AC braved Storm Aidan to run a personal best 207.02 km/128.51 miles at the Gloucester 24-hour in late October. She finished eighth overall in the race.

Back to the Spine

Before it all kicked off early in the year, twice former winner Eoin Keith returned to the Spine Race, the super tough 431 km winter jaunt along the Pennine Way in England and Scotland.

Keith finished second in 100 hours 11 minutes, which put him over 12 hours behind the winner John Kelly of the USA. Keith has a unique record of two wins and three second places in the race.

On a good day for the Irish, Carole Morgan, woman’s winner in 2017 and 2018, was first woman in the shorter Spine Challenger clocking 31:47.37 for the 173 kilometre distance.

On February 8, Gary O’Hanlon of Clonliffe Harriers won the National 50km title in Donadea forest, Co Kildare, breaking his own course record with a time of 2 hrs 49 mins 13 secs. O’Hanlon rounded out his year with a 2:19.05 time at the Valencia Marathon in early December.

Outside of official racing Nicola Duncan set a new Fastest Known Time for the Fife Coastal Path in 23 hours, 14 minutes. A big step up for the Edinburgh based former road marathoner who is doing more and more exciting things on the trails and longer distances.

Mountain Running

Keeping the flag flying in the mountains were Zak Hanna of Newcastle and District AC and Sarah McCormack, who’s based in the English Lake District.

Photo: Damiano Benedetto/

Both ran a number of races in Italy later in the year, with victory for McCormack at the Trofeo Nasego, a classic 21.5km race with 1,336m of climb, in Caso, Italy  in early October a highlight. A day earlier, Hanna had finished a fighting second at the Vertical Nasego at the same location – a 4.4km uphill race with a 1000m climb.

A week later, McCormack took another win at the  Chiavenna-Lagunc VK – a classic 3km  vertical uphill race with 1000m of  climb. Hanna was sixth in the men’s race. Both had a successful outing to Italy representing the strength in Irish mountain running. 

Looking forward to 2021

So, on balance, not entirely a lost year – but, let’s face it, who isn’t looking to a return to the normal routine of training, racing, coaching, officiating and spectating in 2021?

Happy New Year – and may the road rise with you!