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in command!

Captaining the Irish team at the European Championships in Zurich this week is Robert Heffernan, who at the age of 36 is technically a "master" - an athlete over the age of 35.

He would have been very welcome at Sunday's Glo Health Master's Track and Field Championships in Tullamore, where athletics "lifers" mix with the many more who come into the sport later in life.

In the past five years alone, more than 14,000 men and women have joined Athletics Ireland as masters, outnumbering senior athletes by well over two to one.

Many, such as Seán Breathnach of Galway City Harriers, are still competitive at senior level. Just a few weeks ago, Breathnach won the Irish men's shot putt title with a throw of 15.94m. The big Galway man turned 35 last February and, in Tullamore, he won four of the five throws.

He took his specialist shot with a best of 15.93m, and also won the discus, javelin and 56lb for distance. Best hammer throw of the day - a distance of 50.81m - came from former Ireland rugby player Gary Halpin, now 48.

Compared to runners, throwers have few enough opportunities to compete, which is maybe why they carry on long after their senior days.

Oldest athlete at the meet was the redoubtable Hugh Gallagher from Carrigart in Donegal, who has just celebrated his 90th birthday.

In over 50 years as a master, Gallagher has collected more than 150 medals and he added three more gold - for discus, hammer and weight - in Tullamore. In the shot, he had to settle for second behind Denis Howard of Rising Sun.

On the track, sprinter Kevin Cogley of Menapians, another former international athlete, held off the challenge of Waterford's Brendan Leahy in both the M35 100m and 200m. Oldest sprinter was Nenagh's Pat Naughton of Nenagh, who won the M80 100m in 21.12 secs.

Joe Gough of West Waterford, who holds the world M60 800m record, stuck to the shorter 400m this time, winning in 62.49 secs.


The middle distances attracted big numbers and in a close-fought M35 1500m, Peter O'Sullivan of Loughrea held off Rathfarnham's Paul Fleming and Niall Sheil of St Killian's, while Letterkenny's classy Ciarán Doherty won the 5000m.

Women weren't quite so numerous this year, but there were still some fine performances. Blackrock's Michaela Marnell won the W35 100m and 200m and national cross-country champion Marie McCarthy of Farranfore Maine the W35 1500m.

And if you think that's it for master athletes, well, you'd better think again.

Next week, there's the European Championships in Izmir, Turkey and after that comes the Northern Ireland Championships in Belfast. Then it's just a brief break before cross-country.

Want to join the fun?

See www.irishmastersathletics.com.