HALF five on the morning of Darragh McElhinney’s semi-final at the European U20 Athletics Championships in Grosseto, Italy, he was awoken by a loud knock on his hotel room door.
He ignored it at first, thinking it was someone messing.
He tried to go back to sleep.
The knock came again, louder.
‘Anti-doping,’ the voice outsider the door shouted in.
The next thing Darragh knew he was on a bus for half an hour heading towards the anti-doping centre. This was a new experience for the Glengarriff teenager, 16 at the time, but since turned 17 in November.
‘I had my timetable set out, to get up at a certain time, eat at a certain time and so on,’ he explained, ‘so it threw my schedule out on the morning of the race.
‘To be honest, it didn’t make a difference when the race came about but it was a good experience to have, so now I know how to react when something like that happens again.’
These past 12 months made up another year of progression for the talented teen and it was also another year where he learned from his experiences, good and bad.
It’s all about building that experience because for all he has achieved in his short athletics career, we can’t forget how young he is – but his talent is unquestionable.
The European U20s didn’t go to plan. He finished 11th in his semi-final of the 1500m later that Thursday evening after his early morning wake-up call, running five seconds outside his PB of 3.48.05 he set earlier in the year. But, again, it’s an experience Darragh is keen to learn from.
‘You don’t learn when you are running well,’ the Coláiste Pobail Bheanntraí fifth year student explained.
‘It was a disappointing end to the track season, to be honest. But even when I was preparing for the European Cross-Country Championships at the start of December, it helped to have the experience from the European Juniors behind me.
‘It was another learning experience.’
It’s worth remembering too that Darragh was 16 racing at the European U20s so when it rolls around again in two years’ time he will be 18 and a more improved, faster and experienced runner.
Take the 1500m in the past 12 months. In 2016 he improved his PB from 2015 by 17 seconds and he was wondering how far he could take it this past year. He ran 3.48.05 in May, shaving another six seconds off his old PB.
‘If I keep doing that, taking a few seconds off every year, I’ll be in a good place in a few years,’ Darragh said, pointing out he also set a new PB in the 3000m (8.18.88), and that sensational run in February was the highlight of an action-packed year that included schools’ international success and being selected on the Ireland men’s U20 team for the European Cross-Country Championships in Slovakia in December.
Back to February and the AAI Games in Abbotstown when Darragh finished second in the men’s indoor 3000m but his time of 8.18.88 smashed John Treacy’s long-standing, 43-year-old Irish outdoor youth record that was set in 1974. At the time it moved Darragh to the top of the world and European U18 3000m rankings.
Even more incredible it was Darragh’s first competitive 3000m since the summer of 2015 and he knocked a mammoth 58 seconds off his previous PB at that distance (9.16).
‘I went in with no real target or goal, it was my first indoor race and I just wanted to go out and get a feel for it. To break the national record held by John Treacy was fairly special,’ he said.
‘The coverage it got, it sparked a few things, it got me involved with Under Armour, it was a real turning point for me.
‘It’s a race where I went in with no expectation other than getting the best out of myself. I latched onto the pace and when I heard with about a kilometre to go that the record was in reach, I just went for it.
‘It inspired me then for the rest of the year.’
What’s exciting is that Darragh feels there is more to come in 2018 and beyond, with the World U20 Championships in Finland a target, while he might also step up distance to 5000m.
Exciting times for the current West Cork Youth Sports Star.