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BELFAST HISTORY 26.2
ON TOUR

 1969

 

The Northern Ireland’s athletics year got off to a very early start in 1969. While in present times the keen and the foolhardy burn off the calories and suffer the hangover with a gentle saunter up Glenariff on the afternoon of New Year’s Day  their predecessors of 40 years ago could not wait that long.  At the stroke of midnight on the Woodvale Presbyterian Church clock 37 of the countries leading road runners took off for a three mile race around North Belfast.

 

The event was the brainchild of Duncairn Nomads Eddie Johnston and he was no doubt disappointed at the turn out as there were sixteen prizes on offer.  The winner 13 and a half minutes after midnight was North Belfast’s Michael Teer  the then reigning six mile track and marathon champion. Ten seconds back in second place was Cyril Pennington a Willowfield junior with the late Ian Morrison of Ballydrain in third. Others prominent in the race were current Belfast City Councillor and MLA Robin Newton in eighth; Athletics NI General Secretary John Allen 12 th , over 55 Cross Country Champion Jim Newberry 13 th and the late Tony McKnight 15 th .

 

These were in the days before the International cross country events hit the scene so the event the following Saturday between Queen’s University, Edinburgh University and a Northern Ireland All Stars team captured the imagination. The visitors despite fielding several  Scottish and indeed one Northern Ireland international, did themselves no favours as they arrived in Belfast just 90 minutes prior to the  race after a daylight sailing from Ardrossan! Despite this they did provide the individual winner in the shape of Dave Logue, a North Belfast Harrier and destined to be Northern Ireland steeplechase champion and Commonwealth Games representative.  Although the All Stars, five of whom had run the Midnight Race, were victorious Edinburgh won the Blues race.

 

The excitement really began the following weekend when the ‘Blue Riband’ of Cross Country, the Northern Ireland Junior Cross Country took place at Ballyclare. Why this event rather than the Senior Championship should be held in such high esteem has always been a mystery to me.  Indeed why the event even exists is open to question and there have been attempts over the years to make ‘Junior’ mean under 20 like it does in every other part of the world but to no avail.

 

Indeed in 1969 being Under 20 did not automatically get you a run in the ‘Junior’. Like everyone else you had to be in the category of never having won anything over the country either as an individual or as a member of a team. Having achieved a ‘Junior’ or ‘Senior’ individual or team winner or runners up medal you were then too good to run in the Junior not even if your team medal was gained by finishing as six scorer in 56 th place.  Still with me?  Ah well!  The point is the ‘Junior’ is the ‘Big One’!

 

The winner in 1969 was the aforementioned Cyril Pennington of Willowfield from Alfie Chivers of Duncairn Harriers and Ballydrain’s youth Denis Price. Achieving Senior status by virtue of winning the team title were Co Antrim Harriers after a gap of forty years.  The same day the Boy’s Championships saw the emergence of a young man called Greg Hannon of St Malachy’s College who was to go on to become the fastest marathon running Northern Ireland ever produced. He led his school to team victory. 

 

Older brother Gerry did not have such a good day as he was refused entry to the Junior Championship due to his having competed the previous week for Casement AC which was affiliated to the dreaded (in the eyes of officialdom at the time) NACAI.   This 32 county body had ploughed a lonely furrow for many years unrecognised by the IAAF and resulted in the ludicrous situation of athletes not being allowed to compete against one another. This of course is a simplification of a very complex issue but it was to take another two decades before any semblance of sanity prevailed. In the meantime Gerry Hannon and others paid their penance and affiliated to the NIAAA.

 

Meanwhile back at Ballyclare those who were deemed too good for the ‘Junior’ fought out a hard but somewhat meaningless seven miles of mud clinging cross country in the Senior (non championship) race with Derek Graham being the not unexpected winner from Roy Kernoghan.

 

Derek had further success the following week when winning the late lamented Miskimmin Cup at Ballyclare. The Miskimmin promoted by East Antrim Harriers had a long and illustrious history often attracting entries from the leading clubs in the Republic. It made its final appearance on the fixture list in 2003 when the winner was Paul Rowan. Back in 1969 ‘Big D’ was winning his eighth individual title in the race.

 

With the International Cross Country due to be held at Clydebank in Scotland in March one of Duncairn Nomad’s enterprising young members Norman Bissett chartered a plane from Aldergrove for the day and seats were on offer for the princely sum of £7, 5 shillings! Easyjet eat your heart out.

 

Ninth Old Boys blotted their copy books in February by calling off their Crawford Cup promotion the night before the race with many not finding out until they turned up on the Saturday. Unable to find a suitable Cross Country venue the Ninth had announced that they would run a road race at Upper Malone but the fear of icy conditions in Strangford Avenue led to a last minute cancellation.

 

A new cross country club appeared on the scene early in the year, namely Stranmillis College. The instigators were Ballydrain’s Maurice Dunlop and yours truly.  A fixture list was quickly drawn up with regular races against school teams. Training runs took place along the Lagan Tow Path close to the college and it was not long before two of the College’s Ugandan students showed an interest.  Despite the fact that one of the men was a fair bit overweight they were made very welcome and the pace along the Lagan was slowed to accommodate the new arrivals.

 

Being the friendly person that I am I engaged one of the Ugandan’s Stephen Chelimo in conversation as we made our way towards Shaw’s Bridge.  “Have you done any running before Stephen I asked”.  “Oh yes John”, he said “ I ran for Uganda and finished fifth in the Commonwealth Games!”   Unfortunately Stephen never got the chance to return to his previous form as events at home in Uganda with a certain Idi Amin put paid to the hopes of most of the trainee teachers.

 

Another race which has gone by the wayside is the Roddy Wilkinson Memorial Cup.  Run in memory of a former Chairman of North Belfast Chairman, the 1969 edition took place in what was described as the worst conditions for over 40 years.  Shades of Stormont in January 2009!  The result was another Derek Graham win ahead of Pennington with the hosts taking the Cup with Tony McKnight closing in their scoring six.

 

Nomad Roy Kernaohan donned the vest of his 114 Squadron Royal Engineer’s regiment to retain his British Territorial Army title in Stratford on Avon.   The Antrim Road based outfit also took the team prize and Northern Ireland had three in the first four with John Nodwell in second and yours truly running for Queen’s University OTC (cheap drink) finishing fourth.

 

 

The Northern Ireland Senior and Youth’s Championships found a new venue at Lady Dixon’s Park, just down the road from the present Mary Peter’s Track.  The lush parkland was a far cry from the old Dundonald course which had sadly fallen to the lure of the developer.  The result of the individual race was inevitable. Derek Graham of 9 th Old Boys had already won five Senior Cross Country titles and he was in a class of his own finishing 48 seconds ahead of Michael Teer who would after four silver medals eventually win three titles in row in 1971, 72  and 73.  9th Old Boys were also dominant and won their eighth title in eleven years.  The victory was repeated the following year before the club went into terminal decline  eventually disappearing from the scene.

 

 

Mike Teer                                   Derek Graham        Cyril Pennington

 

 

 

The Lady Dixon’s race was a trial for the European Cross Country and the teams announced were:

 

Senior: Derek Graham and Malcolm Edgar (9 th Old Boys), Roy Kernoghan and Stanley Vennard (Duncairn Nomads) Mike Teer, David Logue and Kevin McCormick (North Belfast) Ian Morrison (Ballydrain) and Cyril Pennington (Willowfield)

 

Junior: Tom and Denis Price (Ballydrain) Bertie Atkinson (Albertville) Jim Robinson (Co Antrim) and John Allen (Willowfield).

 

Both teams were sadly outclassed in Scotland with Derek Graham having an off day finishing 25 th while the team finished 12 th of 13 managing to defeat only Canada. The Juniors fared little better finishing sixth of eight. The best finisher was Denis Price in 16 th .

 

On the same day Northern Ireland teams were in action in the RAF hanger at Cosford near Wolverhampton. This was the only indoor venue in the UK at the time with a 200m banked wooden track. By modern standards conditions were Spartan but for the majority of the Northern Ireland athletes it was their first experience of indoor competition.  Maeve Kyle led the women’s team finishing third in the Long Jump and Hurdles.

 

At the end of March the harriers switched from country to road but this made little difference to the results as the first event, the Ballyclare 10 miles was won by Derek Graham in 49:45 and 9 th Old Boys took the team title with three in the first six.  Graham’s dominance of the local scene on country, road and track was hardly surprising given his standing in world terms.  Apart from his haul of local titles the tall ‘Old Boy’ could list the Tokyo Olympics, fifth in the Commonwealth Games  and runner up in what was then the World Cross Country in his C.V.  His 13:41.4 and 20:00.2  5000 and 10000 metres track times would still rank very highly 40 years later.

 

Anyone who has attended an edition of the Whitehead Road Race on Easter Monday in recent years will find it hard to believe that this was once one of the major events of the road running calendar, and not just for runners. Easter Monday in the 60’s was an occasion for the family and buses were booked to take club members and their families along the Antrim Coast for a day out.

 

Memory is of course tainted by time but I and many others recollect that Whitehead on Easter Monday was invariably hot and sunny and the ice cream salesmen were in their element.  The one and half mile lap started  with a fast downhill sprint towards the sea then a long climb up past the local golf club and a long straight plunge down to the finish.  It was undoubtedly the fastest finish to any race in the country (fell races excluded) and on one memorable occasion resulted in an official receiving a broken leg as a result of being knocked down by a fast moving runner.

 

The Novice event in 1969 had a field of 200 runners and resulted in a win for the late John Baillie then a seventeen year old schoolboy at Ballymena Academy. Baillie was an outstanding athlete as can be gauged by the fact that he beat Greg Hannon on that day by over 30 seconds although the St Malachy’s man would get revenge the following year in the Youth’s Cross Country Championship.

 

At the expense of boring you it has to mentioned that the Senior race over the same distance was won by, yes you guessed it, Derek Graham and the following week things were to be no different. 

 

The longest race on the calendar, apart from the marathon, was the Duncairn Nomads 15 mile road race. The route it has to said was far from inspiring. From Twadell Avenue the runners climbed up the Crumlin Road and then proceeded over the switchback of the Ballysillan Road before climbing further up the Antrim Road to the turn.  The turn was just that – a 360 degree circumnavigation of a brave but foolish official (in 1969 it was Eddie Johnston) standing in the middle of the Antrim Road. Health and Safety regulations were still a figment of some sad bureaucrat’s imagination in those happy days.

 

After the turn it was back to the start by the same route passing fleeting hellos or gentle banter at the oncoming runners behind you (unless you were at the back of course). The last two miles was all downhill provided you made it across the Crumlin Road without mishap.

 

The feature of the race was undoubtedly the finishing certificate. Every runner received a large beautifully design certificate each one delicately embellished by hand with the recipients name, time and finishing position.  Granted, if you were good enough to be in the prizes the carriage clock or salad bowl added to the satisfaction of the day. Derek Graham’s house must have been overflowing with household articles, enough certainly to have paid a regular visit to Joe Kavanagh’s pawn shop in Smithfield.

 

On the day in question Graham and Teer battled into the strong headwind going through 10 miles together in 52:00 minutes. After the turn however Graham used his considerable advantage in stature to stride majestically home in 1:16:50 almost a minute ahead of the North Belfast man with host’s Roy Kernoghan  a further two minutes adrift in third.  The team race was judged on accumulated times of the first three scorers which needless to say gave 9 th Old Boys a strong advantage:

 

1     9 th Old Boys  D Graham 1:16:50   G Millar 1:23:05   J Johnston 1:30:00     4:09:55

2    North Belfast   M Teer  1:17:47     K McCormick 1:24:15   T McKnight 1:28:53                          4:11:12

3              Nomads              R Kernoghan 1:19:59 J McClenaghan 1:23:03        JT Glover 1:28:52                              4:11:54

 

It is interesting to speculate what Graham might have run for the full marathon distance. Given his dominance at everything from a mile to 10000 metres he clearly felt no need to move up to the 26 miles 385 yards where opportunities at that distance were very limited in those days. Teer on the other hand was already the national champion and went on to record a 2:16:52 for the longer event.

 

9 th Old Boys had a busy eight days as on the Wednesday night after the Nomads 15 they won their own Crawford Cup which had been postponed earlier in the year and on the following Saturday they again took top honours in the North Belfast 12 mile road relay. Graham of course won the individual in the Crawford and took the fastest three mile leg in the relay. The fastest two miles went to Ballydrain’s Ian Morrison and a bright young 21 year old from Duncairn Nomads won the first one mile leg with the fastest time of the day. Modesty does not allow me to reveal his name.

 

                The beginning of May saw a new event on the road calendar as Co Antrim Harriers promoted their first Half Marathon race over a course which went from Harberton Park  out through Drumbeg and the Hillhall Road to Lisburn and back.  The early leader after 100 metres was the same young youth who had starred at the North Belfast Relays but after 100 metres with the press photos taken he promptly disappeared into the pack and left the racing to the serious distance men.

 

Mike Teer finally got his first win of the season and got his name on the Great Northern Mineral Trophy with a fine 66:46 almost two minutes ahead of Roy Kernoghan and Co Antrim’s own Roy Brown.  In a supporting 1.5 mile Youth race Greg Hannon improved his increasing reputation.

 

Meanwhile the Track and Field season had got underway in the time honoured manner with the students having their Championships before heading off for their three month holidays. The Irish Universities were in fact taking place only a short distance from the road race at the Queens Track at Upper Malone. This of course was pre Mary Peter’s Track days and the surface, while a rubber solution and preferable to the old cinders of Shaw’s Bridge, Tillysburn and Albert Foundary, was not up to the standards that would exist after Mary’s great triumph in 1972.

 

 Mike Bull did not do his usual party piece of soaring over 5 metres in the vault but still took two gold medals in the Long Jump and Shot, he was after all also a decathlete.  Malcolm Edgar of Queen’s University and 9 th Old Boys retained his three mile title. Malcolm is now Chairman of Liffey Valley AC in Dublin. There was also double success for Johnny Kilpatrick in the 100 yards and 120 yards hurdles. In the female events Queen’s pair Gay Porter and Linda Teskey both achieved double success in the Shot/Discus and 100/220 yards respectively.

 

The following week at the same venue hosts Queens defeated Trinity College and University College Dublin in the annual Lord Londonderry Trophy meeting.  The feature of this competition was that the majority of track events were in the form of relays including the hurdles shuttle relay!  The corresponding women’s match was run along traditional individual events and resulted in triple wins for Maeve Kyle and Gay Porter with the latter setting a new Northern Ireland Native and All Comers Record in the Shot Putt with 43’ 9” or 13.33 metres in today’s metric world.

 

The Ballyclare May Fair week was always a hive of athletic activity due to the enthusiasm and expertise of the East Antrim club.  By the end of the 1960’s the local club was in the early stages of decline but for over two decades it and Ballydrain Harriers had dominated local cross country and road running and East Antrim had provided Britain with a 1948 Olympian in Steve McCooke.

 

The opening event of the 1969 Fair was a 10 mile walk. Race Walking was a popular activity in the country at the time and nowhere more so than in the Ballyclare area.  The event attracted a strong field led by British Olympian Brian Eley from Somerset and his Bristol clubmate Dave Smith who would represent Northern Ireland at the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh in 1970.

 

Eley and Smith dominated the race but the local East Antrim quartet of Johnston Scott, Jimmy Todd, Jim Miskelly and Alex Agnew were far from disgraced with Scott, for many years to come a fixture on the local timekeeping panel, finishing in third in 84:37. 

 

The President’s Trophy took place on the cinders of Ormeau Park track which was situated on the grass area behind what is now the Tennis Centre.  A venue for domestic and international events in its day it suddenly disappeared one morning as the Belfast City Council sent in the bulldozers to make way for another soccer pitch.  One of the highlights of the meet was the battle between John Allen and Brian Hill in the mile with the current Athletics NI press officer just getting the better of the current General Secretary. The three mile event was won by Derek Graham who two days earlier had represented Great Britain in the same event in Lodz, Poland winning in 13:51. 

 

The women were in competition the same day at the Ulster College of Physical Education at Jordanstown, now the campus of the University of Ulster.  Once again Maeve Kyle and Gay Porter starred and the 880 yards was won by 18 year old Adrienne Lynch.  Lynch would go to Edinburgh the following year where she recorded the fifth fastest 800 metres of the Commonwealth Games  and smashed the Northern Ireland record. In more recent years as Mrs Smyth she became President of Northern Ireland Athletics.

 

Another local venue which has succumbed to the demands of those who like to spend their time chasing after balls of various shapes and sizes is the Shaw’s Bridge Track at was the playing fields of Stranmillis Teacher Training College and is now the home of Cooke/Instonian’s  sporting teams.  The cinder track nestled in the lower reaches of the grounds close to the Lagan Canal and was the home of the Ulster Schools Championships for many years.

 

Those who complain that track and field is currently bereft of officials should take some comfort from the reports of the 1969 Youth and Junior Track and Field Championships at which the non-turnout of the majority of the officials named in the programme nearly resulted in the meeting being abandoned. Only one timekeeper appeared and the situation was only resolved by the good services of volunteer spectators – many of them schoolteachers who cast doubt on the ability of the NIAAA’s to organize a proverbial drinking session in a brewery. It is perhaps ironic therefore that one of the champions of the day, John Allen, was to find himself forty years later at the leading edge of Athletics Northern Ireland. Sadly of the all the medal winners on that day precious few made any headway at Senior level  with Joe Chivers, Denis Coulter and Jim Newberry as well as Allen being prominent exceptions.

 

Another athlete who performed with great success that summer was one Les Jones of 9 th Old Boys. He was the winner of the 880 yards in the second round of the Presidents’ Trophy at Shaw’s Bridge a week after the above championships.  Les was a winner of the Northern Ireland Junior while still a schoolboy at Portadown College but was to make his name as an administrator. He became Secretary of the NIAAA and British Team Manager. He was responsible for bringing some of the world’s greatest athletes to the Mary Peter’s Track for meetings that brought crowds of over 10000 people. Sadly Les died of a heart attack while on duty as British Team Manager. The meeting and function room at the Mary Peter’s Track is named in his memory and his photograph adorns the walls. The Les Jones 10k each year also upholds his memory and is run over his favourite training run.

 

The end of May brought another classic event long since put to rest by the rising popularity of the internal combustion engine and the dreaded Health and Safety regulations. The Lagan Valley 61 mile Road Relay had nothing to do with today’s Lagan Valley club which was still 20 years in the future. Rather it was run through the towns which make up the geographical boundaries of the River Lagan. It was the ultimate test of club strength in depth as it required not only a twelve man team but also a considerable back up entourage.

 

On the stroke of 10.00am the leadering runners were set on their way from the Albert Clock by Miss Belfast Telegraph, the newspaper sponsoring the event. Sadly nowdays it is doubtful if the same tome would even print the results such is the sparse coverage of our sport. The first section of the opening leg as far as Queen’s University was supposed to be ‘neutral’ like the start of cycle stage races. In practice while there may have still been a bunch almost together the back markers were hanging on by the skin of their teeth.

 

The race progressed via Dunmurry, Lisburn, Dromore Banbridge, Gilford, Portadown , Lurgan, Moira, Lisburn and back to finish at the track at Ormeau Park.  The history of the event is riven with hard luck stories of runners missing the changeover, others disappearing over the hedges mid run to answer the calls of nature or as was the case in 1969 of runners being injured or collapsing before the end of their stage.  Such a disaster befell North Belfast on the Moira-Lurgan stage as their runner Billy Picken collapsed 500 metres from the end and did not recover until some time later in the local hospital.

 

The unusual feature of the 1969 event, the tenth in the races history, was that the middle section of the race was run in the opposite direction to the ‘traditional route’. The reason for this departure from anti-clockwise to clockwise was to avoid a clash with a band parade in Dromore! What was not unusual about the event was that it was won by 9 th Old Boys after a devastating tenth leg by Derek Graham who turned a 1:50 deficit into a three minute advantage against Ballydrain’s International Cross Country runner Ian Morrison.  Brian Hill was able to sweep into Ormeau Park in splendid isolation 5 hours 32 minutes and seventeen seconds after Jim Ferris his first leg runner had left the Albert Clock  start – and Miss Belfast Telegraph was there to greet him.

 

In view of the recent controversy about the Maze Stadium it is interesting perhaps to note the call by the Belfast  Director of Parks, Reg Wesley, in 1968 that the city required a super stadium. His proposed venue was the 31 acre site in Ormeau Park!

 

In pouring rain and gale force winds the marathon runners set out from Paisley park on the West Circular Road for their journey to Templepatrick and back. Pre race favourite was Mike Teer who won the previous year on his debut. He duly came up trumps with not only a victory but a new Northern Ireland best performance of 2:17:37  nearly fifteen minutes clear of Robin Newton (MLA)  and Ray Kirkland.

 

In part two of the Senior track Championships Graham added the three mile title to his collection while Stuart Wilson of the RUC was handed the 880 yards on a plate. Easily the best 440 man in the field the others allowed him to dictate a slow first lap and that was the end of that.  The 220 yards was a cracker with the likes of Carson, Cyril Crawford, Davy Bennett, Johnny Kilpatrick and Mike Forrest. Forrest made the journey home from London worthwhile as he defeated former Sulivan Upper schoolteacher Bennett with all six finalists breaking 22.8 seconds. In the field Ulster Rugby star Stuart McKinney won his first title in the Shot Putt and Ballymena schoolboy Kevin Gray took the High Jump.

 

The Women’s Championships took place in splendid isolation at Shaw’s Bridge on 21 st June and saw Adrienne Lynch take her third 100 yards and second 880 yards titles while the amazing Maeve Kyle won her eleventh consecutive 440 yards title making it a total of 23 titles in all with four more still to come! The championships also saw competition extended beyond a half mile for the first time with Joan Wilson of Shorts winning the first 1500 metres.

 

In August Belfast was treated to a feast of International athletics at the two night Hughes’ Bakery International, again at Paisley Park.  These meetings provided a rare opportunity for local male and female athletes to compete in the same meeting as generally domestic competition was still highly segregated. 

 

The visiting stars at this meeting included Olympic Champion David Hemery and the bronze medalist John Sherwood and his wife Sheila who beat Thelma Hopkins All Comers record in the long jump setting new figures of 6.39.  Also on show were John Boulter, Alan Rushmer, Val Peat and Brian Green.  John (who cares who is third) Sherwood ran his specialist event and broke the Northern Ireland All Comers Record set the previous year at the same venue by Brigham Young University star Ralph Mann who would go on to win the Olympic title and break the World Record.  Sherwood’s time was 52.5 ahead of Trevor Alderdice and my good self.

 

The increasing unrest in Northern Ireland at the time finally hit athletics with the cancellation of the proposed Women’s International match. This bad news for the Women’s Association was exacerbated by a wave of bad publicity over the status of Mary Peters  to represent Northern Ireland. Despite having lived in Northern Ireland since 1950 Mary was not a member of a Northern Ireland club at that time and it is fair to say was not part of the ‘establishment’.  Thankfully as history records common sense prevailed and her Dameship continued to compete for her adopted country and not that of her birth – otherwise Upper Malone would probably by now be a soccer or gaelic pitch and not the Mary Peters’ Track.

 

As the track season drew to a close speculation was high as to who might be selected to represent Northern Ireland in the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh the following year. With the Games so close to home it was hoped that a bigger team than usual might be possible.  The attitude of the press just one season away was that there were few certainties and in the event some of the so called certainties were to be disappointed.

 

Ray Knox made a very impressive debut in the decathlon championships to take victory with 5788 points.  The big fella from Craigavon never really achieved  his potential in the event and eventually returned to raking rally cars around the country. Mike Teer also picked up a track title when he ran away from the opposition in the 6 miles in 28:52.8 just over a minute ahead of old sparring partner Roy Kernaghan. Trevor Alderdice picked up a fourth 440 yards hurdles title.

 

Back on the roads Ballydrain Harriers got the season off to a great start with victories in the Divisview Shield the Coleraine Road race and the Andrew Smith Memorial Road Relay at Duncairn. The big talking point at the latter being the appearance of a new name on the club scene, Achilles AC.  Formerly Casement Park the ex-NACA club was to make a very big impression in the following few years with names like Greg and Gerry Hannon, Jim McGuinness, John McLaughlin and Paul Lawther. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There was a sense of shock and consternation at a meeting of the NIAAA when it was discovered that the upcoming International Cross Country Championship would take place in France – on a Sunday. Of course no decent Northern Ireland athlete would dare compete on the Sabbath – at least not wearing a Northern Ireland vest. And so representations were to be made to the International Board to have the date changed!  Somewhat ironically at the same meeting it was agreed that from the following year track and field events would fall into line with European regulations with metric distances and measurements.

 

Ballydrain’s dominance continued along the seafront in Larne when they defeated the might of 9 th Old Boys including Olympian Derek Graham.  While the Larne race, which began in 1951,  has survived it has changed utterly and sadly a terrible beauty has not been born. In its heyday the event was held on a two mile loop which included the seafront and the drop down into the town past the old Laharna Hotel with a steep climb towards the finish. Three four  mile legs and three of two miles meant winning times in the region of an hour and a half with 10 mins and  20 minutes being the individual benchmarks for the legs.

 

In 1969 the fastest time of the day for the four mile leg was an astonishing 19:08 by Willowfield’s John Allen with 9 th Old Boys Jim Ferris taking the two mile in 9:23.  The Novices race was won by Achilles but they were duly disqualified for having an ineligible runner, namely Gerry Hannon. It had not been a good year for the ex-St Malachy’s pupil. The race was awarded to a delighted Albertville quartet.

 

Having failed to have the date of the International Cross Country changed, the NIAAA General Council (remember those) made the momentous decision to select teams to compete on the Sabbath (outside of Northern Ireland of course) and to leave it up to the athletes to accept or decline selection.  The voting was a clear majority of 19-3.

 

The Wallace Park Relays organized by Lisnagarvey Harriers (now City of Lisburn) have always been considered as the unofficial Northern Ireland Championships and since I first ran in them in 1963 (they were first run in 1961) it has been one of my favourite events.  Initially only two races took place, the Senior 6 x 3300 meters and the Youths 4 x 2200 metres and competition to even make the ‘A’ team was intense.  Often 30-40  teams went to the narrow starting line opposite the bandstand including visitors from Donore , CLonliffe and Civil Service from Dublin.

 

The reasons for the sad decline of this event is hard to fathom. It provides an annual ‘baseline’of form in conditions, which apart from the weather, never vary and over the years it has seen the appearance of many a new star. In the 60’s and 70’s  breaking 10 minutes for the three laps was the sign of a quality run and for some of the top teams such a time was required to make the ‘A’ team.  Certainly in 1969 the leading two teams Ballydrain and 9 th Old Boys both broke the hour barrier for a sub 10 average.

 

At the end of the first leg in 1969 John Moreland of Willowfield handed over in sixth place in a time of 9:48 the leg having been won by Alfie Chivers in 9:20 ahead of Dennis Price 9:21!  Both of these pale into insignificance when compared to Terry Greene 8:54 in 1985 yet in 2008 only two men broke 10 minutes !

 

It was Ballydrain again at the Horner Relays at Balmoral. Run over a circuit incorporating Harberton Park, the Malone Road and Balmoral Avenue each six man team had to comprise two seniors , two Northern Ireland Juniors and two youths.  This of course was in the days before the Boucher Road had become a shopping mall. Anyone attempting to run down Balmoral Avenue on a Saturday afternoon now would be unlikely to make it to the bottom.

 

The bubble finally burst for the Ballydrain men as the terrain changed from the road to the country. The traditional opener was the McConnell Shield entry to which was afforded only to those eligible to compete in the Northern Ireland Junior.  Gerry Hannon finally managed to get through event without being banned or disqualified and he did so in style coming home more than a minute clear of John Baillie in second. With younger brother Greg in seventh and supported by the likes of Jim McGuinness, destined to become a sub four minute miler, Achilles took their first Northern Ireland victory. They finished ahead of Queen’s Unversity with the Parachute Regiment in third place keeping themselves fit for patrolling the Shankill Road.  In the accompanying Senior race it was back to the usual with Derek Graham beating Mike Teer.

 

Barnett’s Park was the venue for the Malcolm Cup which due to adverse weather conditions was held a week later than planned and as such had a relatively small turnout.  The promoting club in those days was Queen’s Unversity and they put in a big effort to beat Ballydrain in the team honours depite the Co Down men having provided two of the individual medal winners with Tom Price winning and brother Gerry in third with Alfie Chivers separating the two.

 

The running year came to an end aptly enough at the home of Ballydrain Harriers with their third running of the Comber Cup Cross Country Relays.  Six legs were run in a one-two-three-one-two-three mile order and the hosts finished their highly successful year with a bang beating 9 th Old Boys.  One mile legs have a habit of throwing up unusual contestants and on this occasion the start line comprised the expected like Davy Seaton, Jim Ferris, Ernie Wilson and Jim Hayes as well as the unexpected Shorts sprint star Don McBride!

 

An unusual feature of this race was the appearance of a, rare at that time, women’s cross country race. Held over one mile the winner was Ulster Schools track champion Carol Trenier from Craigavon.  Trenier once arrived at the start line of an Ulster Schools 880 yards final as the gun was about to go. Schools officials being what they were fired the gun anyway and Carol undeterred proceeded to win the race divesting herself of her tracksuit during the race!

 

As the hands of the clock ticked inexorably towards the midnight hour on December 31 st 1969 a small band of those who had no friends to party with (me included) lined up at Woodvale Presbyterian Church ready for the second running of the Midnight Race……………………………………………………………

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