The Castleknock College student was eyeing up a unique 800m, 400m and 4x100m treble in a bid to help his school win the College of Science trophy for best senior boys’ school and prevent Belvedere College from claiming the crown for the 16th year in a row.
Act One started in record-breaking fashion when he toed the line for the 800m at 2:10pm. Purcell powered to a championship record in 1:49.42 to become the first schoolboy to go under one minute and 50 seconds in the history of the championships.
The time bettered that of Sean Tobin’s, now on scholarship at the University of Mississippi, previous record of 1:50.65. Tobin’s younger brother and sister were competing on the day. Anthony was second in the intermediate boys’ 2,000m walk (8:50.22) behind his High School Clonmel classmate Aaron Egan, who set a new record of 7:54.60. Another Tobin, Laura (Loreto, Clonmel), was third in the senior girls’ 3,000m in 10:34.32 behind Institute of Education’s Deirdre Healy (10:29.21) and Loreto Kilkenny’s Aoibhe Richardson (10:30.96).
Purcell surprised the field by going to the front from the start and built an early lead passing 200m in a swift 25 seconds. He pressed on and went through 400m in 52 seconds, with Gormanston’s Robert Tully in pursuit.
The fast early pace began to take its toll but Purcell had just enough to hold off Tully, who also bettered the old record with 1:49.95. Danny Lawler (Pres Carlow) finished strongly for third in 1:52.25.
Act Two was set for 4:05pm with the heat buildingphysically and metaphorically in a sun-drenched Tullamore Harriers stadium as Purcell settled into his blocks in lane 5 for the 400m.
With Paul Murphy (St Augustine’s Dungarvan) missing due to injury it was up to Ulster champion Andrew Mellon (Bangor Grammar) to test Purcell.
And that he did, leading into the home straight with Purcell only passing in the final 50m, crossing the line in 47.83 to Mellon’s 47.93. Paul White (Nenagh CBS) was third in 49.18.
At this stage Purcell was certain of the Lar Byrne Memorial Trophy for athlete of the meet but the team competition was far from certain — that would be decided on the last of 107 events of the day in the sprint relay.
Interspersed amongst Purcell’s heroics were a number of top performances.
Gina Akpe Moses of St Vincent’s Dundalk scorched to a 100m and 200m double in the intermediate girls’ age group in 12.01 and 25.08.
This sprinting feat was replicated by Niamh McNicol of Stella Maris (12.24 and 24.4) in the senior girls’ events.
Sean Lawlor (Kylemore) and Zak Irwin (Sligo Grammar) mirrored their performances in the intermediate and senior boys’ 100m and 200m — Lawler triumphed in 11.18 and 22.22 with Irwin crowned the fastest schoolboy in Ireland running 10.73 and 21.38.
Kate O’Connor managed an interesting double when winning the junior girls’ 800m and javelin. The St Vincent’s Dundalk student won the 800m 2:21.08 and checked in to the javelin ten minutes later, throwing a record 40.77m.
Kevin Mulcaire (St Flannan’s Ennis) impressed in the intermediate boys’ 3,000m in 8:33.92, breaking the 36-year-old record held by Brian O’Keeffe (8:36.3). Mulcaire then won the 1500m in 4:10.91.
Yet despite all these excellent performances all eyes were on Purcell and his unlikely treble — “the Usain Bolt of the middle distance” as Paddy Maher (Dunshaughlin) who classily won the junior boy’s 1500m described him.
The stage was set in Act Three at 6:00pm, with Purcell on the anchor leg to guide Castleknock to team glory. A fifth-place finish would have sufficed for the team title.
But then came the ‘predictable unpredictability of sport’. The earlier exertions took their toll on Purcell and he fell to the track clutching his right hamstring. The fairytale ending falling at the final hurdle. Stretchered off the track he still won the Lar Byrne trophy.
Byrne, a legend of Clonliffe Harriers and Irish athletics, passed away in 2009. His famous line ‘Nil Desperandum’ (never despair) now adopted as a club slogan for Clonliffe rang true.
Clasping the trophy on the stretcher Purcell was far from despair. “I’m delighted with the trophy,” said the Castleknock student. “The main thing is to get it [the hamstring] right.”
Flat out in his singlet and shorts, another of Byrne’s famous lines was particularly apt for Purcell and all the athletes competing on the day: “Sweat is the nectar of good health.”