Sunday 18 August 2019

Teen prodigy McElhinney is primed for high-stakes test

Darragh McElhinney, representing Coláiste Pobail Bantry, celebrates winning the 1500m at the All-Ireland Schools Track and Field Championships. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Darragh McElhinney, representing Coláiste Pobail Bantry, celebrates winning the 1500m at the All-Ireland Schools Track and Field Championships. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

Cathal Dennehy

Sometimes you just have to take your beatings. Line up with the prior acceptance that on this particular day, in this particular field, you're going to get unmercifully vaporised against the world's best.

Aarhus, Denmark - March 2019: Darragh McElhinney is walking through the mixed zone in a green vest with a red face, a symptom not of embarrassment but of his extreme exertion - not that he's singing from the rooftops about his performance.

Fifty-third in the U-20 race at the World Cross Country: over three minutes down on the winner, two and a half behind the first European.

It's not a bad run, nor particularly good (for him), but as he takes you through the previous half-hour of hell the question is: Why get on the line in the first place?

"I'm wrecked," he said. "I was at walking pace going up those hills, but I feel like I gave it my all. It's good to get a gauge. You take something from it."

Tampere, Finland - July 2018: McElhinney stands trackside and tries to make sense of his performance at the World U-20 Championships, where the 17-year-old has just been handed his arse in the 5,000m, finishing 18th in 14:53.63, lapped by the first six athletes.

Distance

"Not even a mile in I fell off the pace and couldn't get back on it," he said. "I'm seriously disappointed, but I'll be back."

At those events, it would be hard to twig McElhinney for what he is: the fastest U-20 distance runner in Irish history. Faster than John Treacy was as a teenager, faster than Mark Carroll. Fast.

A short, skinny kid from Glengariff in Cork with twin towers of athletic armoury: endurance for days and a vast range of gears. An outlier among his Irish peers.

Of course, many such fish have ventured into international waters only to be swallowed whole, and come the right age - 17, 18 - it was time for McElhinney to do the same. Such moments can send athletes one of two ways: turn them off the sport or switch them on. McElhinney was the latter.

In late May this year, 10 days before sitting his Leaving Cert at Coláiste Pobail Bantry, McElhinney knocked the Irish U-20 5000m record out of the park in Belgium, clocking 13:54.10 to become the first Irish junior to break 14 minutes.

A month later, he did the same to the Irish U-20 3000m record, clocking 8:01.48 in Watford.

Those times mean he is ranked number one ahead of this weekend's European U-20 Championships in Boras, Sweden. It's 28 years since Ireland won a long-distance medal at the event (Mark Carroll winning gold in 1991).

So, pressure? It's times like this it could easily seep into McElhinney's bloodstream, pollute his performance from the inside out. But it's times like this he also remembers why he got on those start lines: to harden his will and hone his skill for what's ahead.

"I've never gone into such a big race as calm, especially when there's more at stake than I've probably ever had," he says. "I just need to keep the ball rolling."

As fast as he's run, his hatchet job on the Irish records was not pre-meditated. In both those races the 18-year-old imagined himself in a championship final, covering moves and changing gears. The lost art of racing. Winning.

Late last year, when his long-time coach Steven Macklin took a job at the Aspire Academy in Qatar, the baton of responsibility was passed to David McCarthy, a 30-year-old former Irish international from Waterford who has a 3:55 mile to his name.

It was a gamble. McCarthy had little experience with such talented goods, but he'd trained under some of the best coaches out there, not to mention walking the same steps as McElhinney years before. Teenage star. Child prodigy. All that.

"He's been there and done that and it's why he's such a good coach," says McElhinney. "He knows himself how to get the best out of you, things that work and didn't work."

They haven't gone crazy. McElhinney ran about 60-65 miles a week throughout the year, with eight-day breaks scheduled every few months to allow his body reset before they go again.

"He's so easy to coach," says McCarthy. "He never questions anything but he understands everything really well."

When they sat down at the end of last summer, July 21, 2019 was the day circled, McCarthy plotting every single run and session McElhinney would do on the build-up to Sunday's 5,000m final. Working with a group that includes a cluster of other 14-minute 5K athletes, he's flourished to a new level.

"Training has gone well but it's not that I've been amazing myself with splits," he says. "The best thing about it is I'm training with the lads and I feel really energetic from start to finish."

He was never going to get sucked into the Leaving Cert wormhole, McElhinney choosing a course in UCD that wasn't going to stretch him to breaking point throughout the year. Sure enough, the offers flooded in from America, various colleges offering scholarships. He was tempted, he gave it some thought, but in the end McElhinney figured that, for now, an Irish base will suit him best.

Bit by bit, brick by brick, he's laying foundations for long-term success.

At the World U-20s last year, that race where he had his doors blown off over 5,000m, he felt as flat as a pancake going to the line. In the post-mortem he realised it was likely due to arriving too early, his emotional energy burnt off far too soon. A lesson learned.

This week he'll stay in Cork until Friday, then hop on a flight to Gothenburg, following the same approach he takes for most races throughout the year by arriving 48 hours before. For the first time, he'll be a marked man at a championship, which for all its pressure also has some benefits.

McCarthy knows that if it goes fast, he has the ability to stay in touch. If it goes slow, he has the gears to cope in a last-lap burn-up.

"We're going in with a want to win it, it's okay to think that, but that doesn't mean that it'll happen," he says. "Darragh is under no pressure. All he needs to do is sit in and stay out of trouble. He has unbelievable speed so he doesn't have to do anything [early in the race]."

There'll be bigger days ahead, either way, but a podium finish on Sunday would make him just the third Irish teenager to win a 5000m medal in the 49-year history of the event. John Treacy and Mark Carroll are the other two. The kind of elite company he'd love to join.

Irish Independent

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