For so many years it shone like a beacon above its rivals but then, in a flicker, it was gone.
On Thursday evening, word filtered through that the lights had gone out for the final time on the Ballycotton 10-mile road race and, suddenly, the Irish road-running scene seems a much darker place.
For a much-loved race of international renown, one which had always thrived on the personal touch, the statement announcing its demise seemed an incongruous way to reach the finish.
It read like a lament, a heartfelt thank you to those who helped it thrive and a not-so-subtle sense of frustration about why it had to end.
On Wednesday night, Ballycotton Running Promotions held a meeting where it was unanimously agreed that their races would no longer take place after 40 years in the business.
“On our own terms,” their statement read, “and before circumstances outside our control dictated so.”
Though the Ballycotton 10-mile road race was the undoubted jewel in their crown, the group had expanded their repertoire over the years, staging 156 races as part of its summer 5-mile series and 80 smaller local road races. They, too, will now also be consigned to history.
And more’s the pity, because what made Ballycotton’s races stand apart was their commitment to value — a low-cost, high-calibre series of races that maintained astonishingly cheap entry fees at a time so many others were milking the running boom for all it was worth.
That’s thanks in no small part to John Walshe, the driving force behind the race since its inception.
“It was due to a number of issues,” Walshe told the Irish Examiner.
“There were issues with parking, and we’ve also been involved for 40 years and it’s getting harder to get people to help. We said we’d go out on a high with our 40th edition rather than carrying on for another few years and being forced out because of something beyond our control. On a local level, the fact we kept something going for 40 years is an achievement, and we had a good influence on the running scene in Ireland.”
Back in 1977, when the first edition was held over five miles, the entry fee was just 20p, and such was the budgetary restraints that no race numbers were used; instead athletes were given a card with their finishing positions which they handed to a recorder along with their name.
There may have been just 34 entrants, but the quality says much about how different an era it was, with 27 of them breaking 30 minutes and Irish internationals Ray Treacy, Richie Crowley and Donie Walsh leading the way home. A fun run, it was not.
Since then, more than 80,000 runners have made their way through the tiny village in East Cork as part of the series’ history, and for the athlete best associated with the event, it’ll prove a major loss to the sport.
Noel Berkeley won the Ballycotton 10 six times between 1996 and 2002, and for him the race’s charm was also the reason it could no longer continue.
“Ballycotton was old style, they gave more value for money than anyone,” he says. “But in many ways it lost its charm because it got too big. It was a big ordeal for the organisers, a logistics nightmare with the parking. People who lived there became prisoners in their own homes for a day and some people embraced that but a lot of people wouldn’t.”
This was mentioned in the organisers’ statement, which also cited a lack of volunteers to keep the wheels turning.
“With proposed traffic regulations on the way, the staging of an event with up to 3,000 runners in a village with just one road in and out would prove insurmountable,” it read. “Unlike other such races organised by athletics clubs who have a huge supply of members to call on, we are just a small promoting group.”
Walshe also explained how in today’s social media age, every mistake by race organisers is amplified, which can occasionally make it a thankless pursuit.
Back in Berkeley’s heyday, that was never an issue. Indeed, if there’s one thing he fondly remembers about Ballycotton, beyond the racing, it’s the nights spent celebrating with his winner’s cheque in The Blackbird pub.
“That place used to be rocking, rocking!” he says. “We’d be swinging out of the rafters and have great craic.”
Berkeley would always travel down to Ballycotton the night before, and competitors would often be surprised to see the high-performing race favourite having a few casual pints on the eve of the race. But when it came to race time, he says, “warrior mode would kick in”.
He remembers his debut against Englishman Gary Staines in 1995 — whom he refers to playfully as an “arrogant sod” — and how despite Staines’ belief that he would be running alone by halfway, Berkeley was still there entering the last mile, though a premature sprint for the finish saw him dawdle home a distant second to Staines.
Then there was his battle against Jamie Lewis in 2000, the pair passing eight miles locked together, where three-time Dublin marathon champion Dick Hooper accidentally lit a fire under Berkeley.
“He was at the side of the road saying, ‘go on Jamie, Berkeley is finished,’ so I gritted my teeth and said: I’ll show you who’s finished,” recalls Berkeley. “I had to go for home and sprint about three times to win that year – I was really suffering.”
Good memories, though, all of them, and in a decorated career they rank up there with Berkeley’s fondest.
What he and many other runners will now mourn is the passing of a race that served its patrons as best it could for so long.
“It was iconic, the best race in Ireland and Britain after the London Marathon for a long time,” he says.
“It’s a sad old day for the road scene, but they went out on their own terms.”
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