Alex Bell lived up to top billing in the Belfast IMC Meeting at the Mary Peters track with the fifth fastest women’s 800m seen in the world this year. But that was just one highlight in an incredible afternoon of world class performances with records and best times being scattered like tenpins. The event was the best of its kind seen at the venue for decades and excellently organised by meeting director Eamonn Christie and his team.
While many athletes are frantically running all over the USA and Europe in search of qualifying times and points, Alex Bell decided to return to Belfast where she had won in 2016. Running on what she describes as her “lucky track”, the Pudsey & Bramley athlete went through the halfway point on the heels of pacemaker Sinead Denny in a swift 58 seconds.
Left on her own at the front and with Georgie Hartigan on her heels, she ploughed on in the lead until the final bend when she managed to distance her pursuer. Showing typical Yorkshire grit, Bell kept the pressure on in the homestraight to break the tape in 1:58.52, an IMC record and fifth fastest in the world in 2021. Behind her Hartigan recorded 2:00.18 for a personal best and, more importantly to her, a family record edging out her mother Bev’s 2:00.39.
The Bobby Farren Memorial 800m was also a cracker even in the absence of Irish number one Mark English who opted for races on the continent this week. Kieran Kelly took the pace, taking the field to the 400m mark in 52 seconds when John Fitzsimons took up the running from Harry Purcell and Cavan man Roland Surlis.
You could have thrown a blanket over the trio right the way to the line with the Kildare man getting the decision by thousands of a second over Purcell, both sharing the same 1:46.53 timing. Surlis was a close-up third in 1:46.74 as the first seven men all recorded personal bests.
Another world class mark came from Phil Healy in the women’s 400m. The Cork woman’s 51.50 clocking put her in the global top 40, but she had to work hard to shake off an inspired Sophie Becker who went under 53 seconds for the first time with a 52.32 mark. Healy had warmed up earlier with a fast 200m in 23.29 (-0.4), to strengthen her claims to a place in the shorter event in Tokyo this August. Cillin Greene led another host of personal bests in the men’s 400m stopping the clocking 46.45.
Another Olympics-bound sprinter Marcus Lawler showed that lockdowns in the Republic had done him no harm as he stretched out to an impressive 20.99 clocking in the men’s 200m. Jacob Olatunde set a new national U23 record in the 100m, stopping the clock at 10.61 in almost still conditions. Molly Scott made short work of the opposition in the 100m with a promising early season 11.91 timing.
The men’s 1500m saw the first three men all record new bests with Darragh McElhinney a clear winner in 3:43.87. Similarly, Carla Sweeney had plenty to spare in the women’s metric mile clocking 4:17.57. Lisnaskea’s Masters’ champion Denise Toner impressed in third with a 4:20.80 mark.
Earlier Michelle Finn had opened the programme with a 9:39.44 3000m steeplechase to consolidate her Olympics ranking and new recruit to Ireland’s distance squad Tonusa Hiko impressed with the fastest 5000m (13:36.71) seen in Belfast for some years.
The legend just continues to grow as Jason Smyth adds another Paralympic gold medal. The 34-year-old Eglinton sprinter breasted the tape yesterday for victory in the T13 100m at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics after what was the tightest race of his career. It was his sixth gold Paralympic gold medal in a career that stretches back to Seoul in 2008 and he remains unbeaten in that period.
However, never before did he have to dip so frantically as he did on this occasion with Algeria’s Skander Djamil Athmani closing down the Irish man’s advantage in the final phase of the race.
Unlike the sluggish start in his heat earlier in the morning, Smyth was out of the blocks like a bullet in the final, gaining a two metre advantage on Athmani, who is the national able-bodied record holder of Algeria with a 10.29 second mark.
After that it was a case on clinging on and the Derry Track Club sprinter did just that, straining every last sinew in his body, as Athmani gained by the stride.
A last desperate lunge at the line saw Smyth home by the finest of margins, one-hundredth of a second, in a new Paralympic record of 10.53 seconds. Mission accomplished! And it was a relieved and happy Smyth, draped in a tricolour, who spoke after the event.
“Delighted, obviously an extremely close race. I knew coming into it that the Algerian had run quick in the heats, and he’s run very quick this year – quicker than I have,” he said with obvious relief.
“So, I knew I was up against it. If I reflect back on the year I’ve had, it’s probably one of the toughest years I’ve had in quite a while with injuries. Nine months ago, I was wondering if this was me done. Three months ago, I was wondering would I be at the Games and to be able to be at this level. But we got things right and we came together right at the right time.”
This week was Patriots’ Day in Massachusetts. For athletics followers, Patriots’ Day is synonymous with the Boston Marathon but unfortunately the event did not go ahead on its usual date for the second consecutive year.
The first Boston took place in 1897 and was inspired by the marathon race in the previous year’s Summer Olympics in Greece. Its course goes from Hopkinton in southern Middlesex County to Copley Square in Boston and had run without interruption until the cancellation of the 2020 event.
That inaugural event only attracted 15 starters, but more recent editions have seen around 30,000 registered participants each year. The Centennial Boston Marathon in 1996 established a record as the world’s largest marathon with 38,708 entrants, 36,748 starters, and 35,868 finishers. Apart from the active participants, the event attracts 500,000 spectators each year as well as a worldwide television viewership.
Winner of the first race was Irish-American John J. McDermott who covered the 24.5 mile course in 2:55:10. The event was scheduled for the then recently established holiday of Patriots’ Day, linking the race with the Athenian and American struggles for liberty. The race, which became known as the Boston Marathon, has been held every year since then, even during the World War years & the Great Depression, until 2020.
In 1924, the starting line was moved from Metcalf’s Mill in Ashland to Hopkinton Green and the course was lengthened to 26 miles 385 yards (42.195 km) to conform to the standard set by the 1908 Summer Olympics and codified by the IAAF in 1921.
Probably the most unfortunate Boston Marathon was in 2013 which was still in progress when two homemade bombs were set off about 180 metres yards apart on Boylston Street, in approximately the last 200m of the course. The race was halted, preventing many from finishing, but not before three spectators were killed and an estimated 264 were injured.
The last Ireland-born athlete* to win Boston was Niall Cusack. The Limerick man entered the 1974 race as an unknown entity with New Yorker Tom Fleming the favourite. His university East Tennessee paid his way to the race but Cusack, on an impulse, decided to pin a shamrock to his fishnet vest. Little did he know how important an element that shamrock was to play in his win.
Cusack started conservatively, he did not hit the front until 10km and was never headed thereafter. At the halfway mark he was one minute ahead of Fleming. And cruised home 46 seconds ahead of the tearful American in a time of 2:13.39, the second fastest winning effort up to that point. Finishing well down the field was an up and coming Bill Rogers, who subsequently became synonymous with Boston and New York.
He started the race not quite an unknown, despite having won the NCAA cross country two years earlier but crossed the finish line as an international star. “I didn’t realise how big this event was until I crossed the line,” said the former St. Munchin’s College student. “It was bedlam. The Irish in Boston went mad – they were stuffing ten and twenty dollar bills into my bag. I was the toast of Boston.”
Cusack had represented Ireland at the 1972 Olympics in the 10,000m and went on to a second Games in Montreal 1976, finishing 55th in the marathon. He later won the 1981 Dublin City Marathon but never managed to scale the heights of his triumph in Boston 47 years ago this week.
*Contrary to popular belief Niall Cusack is not the only Irishman to win Boston. Jimmy Duffy (born Sligo 1 May 1890 – 23 April 1915) was the winner of the 1914 Boston. Two years earlier, representing Canada he was fifth in the Olympic Marathon won by Co. Antrim’s Ken McArthur representing South Africa – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jimmy_Duffy
Derry Track Club runners were finally able to avail of some competitive action, albeit virtual in a 6 x 5K relay against our friends at Tafelta AC. The times could be recorded at any time over the weekend with the six fastest from each club counting in the contest.
After a close run affair, the Magherafelt men eventually ran out winners by a margin of just over a minute. All the DTC runners expressed themselves happy with the outing and keen for a re-match against the County Derry men.
Adrian Boyle was fastest for DTC, and indeed of all the participants, with a 16 :11 mark. Ben Mellon showed he has wintered well with a 17:35 but may have been outshone by his father David Mellon who recorded a personal best of 18:57.
It was good to see Pete Tuohey (19:54) and Robert Bigger (20:31) back after injury and illness respectively. And like there would be no show without Punch, no occasion would be complete without Conor (Big Dawg) McIlveen contributing. In this case the Dawg chipped in a very useful 21:22 timing.
Just outside the top six, David Stewart recorded a more than adequate backup time of 22:43. Mikey Dineen also was on the mark with a 27:02 timing.
Tafelta were comfortable winners of the women’s relay but the DTC squad has time on its side with the three ages of the girls totalling only 40 years.
Thanks to Tafelta coach Francis Purvis and everyone who took part fully observing current regulations.
Details of teams and times
An easy win for the Magherafelt women.
Virtual action resumes the weekend of 6/7 March when the club offers a prize of £25 to the athlete who improves the most on his time over 5K. All marks, where possible, should be recorded on the Greenway. PLEASE NOTE THAT COVID-19 REGULATIONS STILL APPLY – NO MEETING IN GROUPS UNLESS ITS A FAMILY. YOU CAN MEET WITH ONE OTHER INDIVIDUAL.
The outstanding Ulster middle-distance runner of the 1920s was undoubtedly J.P. Clarke. Not only was he Irish champion over 880yds/ 1 Mile in 1923, he also successfully defended his mile title the following year. For most of the 1920s, the County Antrim Harrier was Ulster or Northern Ireland champion over 440yds/880yds/1 mile and at least in one year he also added the 1000yds to his collection of titles.
In open sports meeting Clarke could compete successfully at distances from 100 yards right through to two miles as well as the high and long jumps. His appearances over cross country appear to be rare and did not compare with his prowess on the track where he preferred a cinder surface to grass.
Clarke first came to national prominence when he was a surprise winner of the 880yds title at Croke Park on 30 June 1923. Clonliffe Harrier Norman McEachern was the two lap doyen of the time and started hot favourite for gold, but the Belfast policeman turned in a scintillating final straight to win in 1:59.8.
He franked that form the following day, taking the mile, again by eight yards, in 4:37.4. Almost 100 years later these times would still put him top of the CAH rankings. Clarke returned to Croke Park in 1924 but McEachern got the better of him in the 880yds run in heavy rain. Undeterred, Clarke turned out on the Sunday to retain his mile crown in 4:39.6.
That earned Clarke the honour of representing Ireland at the annual match v England v Scotland which in 1923 took place at Stoke although it was felt a better venue could have been chosen. It was central enough, but the track was not considered to be good enough for the standard of international competition.
Clarke and J.U. Stuart wore the shamrock vests in the 880yds where they faced Douglas Lowe and Edgar Mountain of England, and the Scots Duncan McPhee and C.S. Brown. Mountain had represented Great Britain at both the Antwerp (1920) Olympics, where he finished fourth, and again in Paris four years later when Lowe had taken the gold medal in 1:52.4.
The race in Stoke was said to be run in “uncommon fashion” with Clarke going off hard and quickly building up a lead of 3-4 yards. This had increased to six at the bell and a serious attempt was made to catch him with 300 yards to run which they did quite quickly. At the furlong mark, Lowe piled on the pace with Mountain and McPhee in chase.
However, Clarke stormed back to take third spot 13 yards behind Lowe who broke the tape in 1:57.2. Clarke’s time at a conservative estimate would have been around the 1:59 mark. One contemporary report had the County Antrim Harrier finished second six yards behind Lowe.
He turned out later that afternoon in the mile but finished outside the podium positions. The race was won by England’s Henry Stallard, who would pick up a bronze medal in the 1500m in Paris following year as well as finishing fourth in the 800m. Highlight of the meeting was a fantastic treble (100/220/440) treble by Chariots of Fire hero Eric Liddell who led Scotland to team victory.
Clarke’s prowess in the middle-distances almost the centre of a tug-of-war the following year. He and two other Ulster athletes, Ulsterville Harrier Alec Gilmore and Cecil Ogle of Duncairn Nomads, when their names were brought up at a meeting of the British Olympic Committee. All three by this stage had been included in the Irish squad selected for special training in advance of the Paris Olympics. Their eligibility to compete for Ireland was queried by Harry J. Barclay.
General Kentish who was a member of the International Olympic Committee was unequivocal in his reply. For the purposes of the Olympic Games, Ireland could not compete as one, but the Free State must enter as the Free State and Ulster must come in with Great Britain. Consequently, as all three athletes were not born in the 26 counties, they could not represent the Free State.
Clarke was also one of a number of athletes who fell victim of what appeared to be over-zealous officialdom in 1924. Clarke who was a Special Constable in the RUC was reported for “not trying” at a Celtic Sports and suspended until 1 June 1925. He was said to have been in conversation with a bookie prior to the start of the race in question. He rejected the accusation and repudiated the charges made against him in a letter to the Irish Independent.
He explained that the race in question referred to a heat of the 880yds in which he had qualified for the final in second place. He also said that his time of 2:01.5 was one of the fastest of his career. His appeal against the suspension was heard by the Central Council of the NACA who rejected Clarke’s arguments. He also pointed out that nowhere was there an obligation to run flat out in a heat and cited examples of athletes finishing second in their heat at the 1924 Olympics but winning the final.
He also cited instances where other athletes had been reported that season for “not trying” and explained the extenuating circumstances. He highlighted that it was the same set of judges who had been behind each and every instance. He said he had contacted an eminent (athletics) judge about the matter and in his opinion was that it was “absurd”.
Unfortunately, his representations fell on deaf ears and he was suspended until the following June. He was phlegmatic about the suspension in that it only covered the cross country season in which he had not intended to take part. The lay-off from competition did not seem to do him any harm and he returned in top form the following year.
The suspension may also have been a blessing in disguise in that he was prevented from being involved in the problematic Celtic Sports on Easter Monday 1925 that, directly or indirectly, led to the formation of a separate athletics body (NIAAC & CCA) in Northern Ireland.
Clarke was said, in the contemporary press, to be well in advance of his time in terms of training and lifestyle. He did not have a local trainer but was coached by correspondence from Alec Nelson, the Cambridge University trainer at the time. He had a basic gymnasium of his own at home comprising punch ball, skipping rope, gloves, dumbbells, and other paraphernalia. At home each evening he went through a series of “Nelson” exercises.
His diet was a little unusual in that he was reported to be satisfied with half a potato a day, preferring bananas and cream for nutrition. He did not smoke nor drink alcohol and eschewed cinemas and theatres. He also wisely avoided training in the smog of 1920s Belfast, going out to the country “to get the air about him.”
There was speculation that Clarke would remain with the NACA after the split in 1925 but this proved unfounded as he stayed with his club, County Antrim Harriers, who opted to form part of the new Northern association. He won the Ulster 880yds and mile titles in 1925 and 1926 but there is no evidence of him continuing active in the sport after that. He is probably remembered for being the recipient of the first medals struck by the new Northern body after winning the 880yds and mile championships in 1925.
Trinity Harriers were formed in 1894 and operated out of the premises of the Holy Trinity Church of Ireland on the corner of Ballysillan Road and Cliftonville Roads. At the time clubs organised weekly runs (paper chases) for its members usually on a Saturday. Trinity’s first outing was to Hollywood when 63 runners turned out.
The club was quick to embrace the competitive side of the sport and on the 27 December 1894 was involved in a triangular match with Dublin club Elysian Harriers and County Down Harriers at the Oval in Ballymacarrett. According to the Freeman’s Journal a good crowd of spectators gathered to witness what was described as a six mile steeplechase.
It was a tough baptism for the green and whites with their first runner Boyd taking 9th as J Archer led Elysian (36) to a comfortable victory over County Down with Trinity, only having two finishers, unable to complete a team. Archer would take 5th in the Irish Senior Cross Country Championships a few months later with Elysian taking silver medals in the team competition behind Belfast Harriers.
Undaunted the club entered the Irish Junior Championship in early 1895 and finished a very credible sixth of the ten competing clubs. Clonliffe Harriers (92) scored a narrow one point win over Belfast Harriers. Other northern clubs were Cliftonville Harriers (4th) and County Down who failed to complete a scoring six. The club soon consolidated its position as one of the leading clubs in the Northern Branch, continuing weekly training runs. Taking advantage of public transport, the club travelled to a variety of venues. One such was Craigavad which the club visited in November 1895.
The Irish News and Belfast Morning News described that “the Saturday evening was all that it could be desired, as far as favourable weather is concerned, for harriers’ outings.” The club travelled to fulfil an invitation from Mr. H McCormick. The Harriers arrived on the 3:35 train and “lost no time in divesting themselves of clothing and donning the togs”.
The hares, James Boyd and James Stoupe, laid out a trail across the County Down countryside and were back in 45 minutes. The fast pack were said to be in “full cry, to the no small delight of the country folk.” Mr McCormick laid on refreshments for the 59 harriers in his home after the outing, the second time he had done so. Trinity also met frequently for Saturday runs with other clubs such as Newtownards Harriers, County Antrim Harriers and Belfast Harriers, whom they described in reports as their “friends”.
There was further improvement in the Irish Junior the following year, moving up to sixth spot behind a crack Cork Harriers squad who won with the incredibly low score of 37 points. Belfast Harriers slipped to third but again had W Finlay in the top six while Trinity yet again did not have a finisher in the top 10.
That was rectified in 1897 when Trinity’s J Lockhart (9th) and J Alexander (10th) broke new ground for the Ballysillan men. The club did not seem to contest the 1898 championship and in review of the clubs at the time, Leveret in the Sport observed: “I cannot see what is up with Trinity. There seems a want of enthusiasm and a new Reverend R Carr required before the club can dream of success.”
Trinity returned to the fray in 1899 when no less than three Northern clubs made their way south to Dolphin’s Barn in Dublin. The course was beside the canal, alongside the Crumlin Road and adjacent the tramline terminus. Special trams were laid on for the benefit of spectators.
The area was known as the Slob Lands and the going was generally regarded as heavy. The race marked the emergence on the national stage of the great John F Joyce from Ballinasloe Harriers who carried off all four (Junior and Senior) national titles that year. Ulsterville and County Antrim tied on 204 points for joint fourth with Trinity in sixth spot, again not providing a top ten placer.
In the first Northern Branch Championship in 1899 they lifted silver team medals behind County Antrim Harriers. Better was to follow in 1900 with William Miller taking the individual title and leading Trinity to a convincing team victory.
The Green and Whites slipped to fifth (of five) the following year as County Antrim regained their team title and Ulsterville’s J W Jefferson took the individual crown. Trinity were again out of the medals in 1902 as County Antrim successfully defended the top spot in the North and also supplied the individual winner in J McAuley.
The Premiers, as they called themselves, were strengthened by the recruitment of James Ferguson from North Belfast Harriers probably later that year. The first mention found for Ferguson in the press of the day was in June 1900 when he finished second in the Mile Flat race at Downpatrick Sports in the grounds of Down Cricket Club. S Minnis of Ulsterville was the winner in 4 minutes 37 and 2/5ths seconds with
Ferguson at the time running in the colours of North Belfast Harriers. The weather was said to be “inclement” and there were numerous falls in the cycling events without anyone being injured.
In the 1901 census, he is shown as living at 6 Bray Street in the Shankill Ward of Belfast City. He shares the home with his mother Elizabeth, two sisters and a brother. James is the youngest of the family at 23 years. Nothing much is seen of him on the track that year but he more than makes up for it in 1902 when he seems to race fairly frequently at the many local meetings.
The following year he made the switch from North Belfast Harriers to Trinity. The reasons for this switch are not known but certainly Trinity appeared to be a much more ambitious club at the time than North Belfast or maybe being of the Church of Ireland faith, he felt more at home among his own denomination.
Either way he quickly profited from the transfer by leading Trinity to the Northern Branch Cross Country Championship at Belvoir Park in March 1903. After a close battle Trinity easily prevailed over the defending champions County Antrim 33-90 with West Belfast on the 114 mark.
Contemporary newspapers report Ferguson leading at the end of the first lap of the six mile trip from County Antrim duo J. Thompson and J McAuley with another Trinity man, H Connor, and St. Gall’s H O’Neill heading up the main field.
Thompson, the defending champion, was said to have got ahead in “splendid style”, leaving McAuley far behind while Ferguson and Connor “maintained a good steady pace” to finish second and third respectively. The attendance was said to be very good despite an inter-league soccer match (League of Ireland 1 – 0 Scottish League) being held at the same time in Grosvenor Park.
Some weeks later the green and whites, as they were known, made their way south to contest the Irish Junior for the first time. It was dry but windy at Elm Park in Dublin and, on a day of controversy, both the winner of the race P J McCafferty and the winning team Cork Harriers were disqualified, Trinity failed to click and finished back in seventh place in the team listings. The race was awarded to Cavan native Hugh Muldoon who took Clonliffe Harriers to the team title as well.
However, Trinity made no mistake the following year taking home silver medals in the Irish Junior behind a strong Galway City Harriers combination. On a cold day with a blustery wind and frequent heavy showers Hugh Connor (8th), Ferguson (9th) and William Millar (10th) gave Trinity a solid start. Such were the conditions one-third of the field failed to finish including the crack Haddington Harriers who had been favourites for the team title.
West Belfast’s Sammy Lee won the individual gold and made it a double a few weeks later by adding the Northern Branch Senior title. Trinity repeated their victory of 1903, defeating Hibernian Harriers by just two points with Connor (3rd) and Ferguson (5th) their leading men. Trinity came back to take second in 1905, tying on 114 points with Willowfield, well behind County Antrim (89) led by individual winner T McCullough.
A third spot in 1906 marked the end of a golden spell for the Ballysillan outfit and one they were never to repeat. In September of the following year a small group of Ballyclare-based runners who were members of Trinity Harriers decided to form their own club in the town. They met in a barn at the back of Baird’s public house on Main Street and chose the name East Antrim Harriers. Little did they know that from these humble beginnings they were forming what was to become one of the most successful running clubs in Northern Ireland athletics history.
There is no evidence of James Ferguson competing after 1904. He married in 1923 and, with his wife and young son, emigrated to the USA in 1925. Lisa Morse never met her grandfather as he died before she was born but she has every reason to be proud of him and his feats in our sport. We are grateful to LIsa for initiating this interesting story and for the use of her photographs.
Conor Duffy and Grace Carson were the winners of the Greencastle 5 Miles Road Race in Tyrone. The race was brought forward from its traditional St. Stephen’s Day date and the field limited to 120 runners to comply with current guidelines.
Despite the changes, the 35th edition of the race lacked none of its character as Duffy made it third time lucky after placing second and third in recent years. The Glaslough Harrier was always in control and led a group of four through the three mile mark in 14 minutes and 41 seconds. Moving away on the notorious final long climb, the Castleblayney postman was able to breast the tape with a comfortable advantage in 24:35.
NI & Ulster Senior cross country champion Neil Johnston was next home, some four seconds in arrears with Ethiopia-born Eskander Turki grabbing third spot with a 24:43 timing. Mountain specialist Zac Hanna (24:49), Conán McCaughey (25:04) and Matthew Neill (25:22) made up the top half dozen. Tommy Hughes showed no signs of fatigue from a track 10,000m the previous day as he claimed the over-60 prize in 27:55.
Grace Carson was a class apart in the women’s competition, taking advantage of the mild conditions, the Mid-Ulster athlete impressed with a 28:22 winning time. Rachel Gibson was the next women with a 30:36 timing while Pauline McGurren, in third overall with a 32:10 mark, was the leading female Master.