Glengarriff teenager tops European 5000m rankings as he bids for the medal he wants
DARRAGH McElhinney has moulded himself into an athlete who reacts to whatever happens in a race.
He’s not overly reliant on a certain type of race either because he feels he has the answers to the questions he’ll be asked. If it’s a quick 5000m, he is comfortable with that. If it’s a slow burner that winds up to a fast finish, that works for him too.
The Glengarriff teenager is ready for whatever is thrown at him in this Saturday’s 5000m at the European Athletics U20 Championships in Sweden.
This is the race and the championships he has had in his crosshairs for a long time.
Darragh is a realistic medal contender this weekend. He currently tops the European 3000m and 5000m rankings, after running 8:01.48 for the 3000m and a historic 13:54.10 for the 5000m.
They are two PBs (personal bests) and his 5000m time in May at the IFAM meet in Oordegem, Belgium saw him become the first Irish teenager ever to run under 14 minutes for this distance, as he smashed another national record.
He’s in top form at the right time.
‘What I have tried to do is not be too reliant on a certain type of race. I’d hate to go into a race and wanting a slow race but the first two kilometres are fast; you can imagine what that would do to your head,’ the Bantry AC athlete explains.
‘I have tried to develop my 1500m and my 3000m as much as I can which means if it is slow and it is a one-kilometre burn-up at the end then I would be confident in that, but at the same time I have the fastest 5000m PB too so I don’t feel like anyone is going to run away from me at any stage either.
‘I will try to react to what happens. Typically it will go slow enough through three kilometres, it will get faster and faster, and by the last lap there might only be two or three people left and then it’s just a burn-up to the line.
‘I’ll be happy enough to react to whatever type of race comes up at the Europeans.’
Darragh adds: ‘One thing I have concentrated on this year is to make sure I am ready on all bases. In Saturday’s race I have the fastest 1500m, 3000m and 5000m so I’d like to think that no matter what way the race goes I will be somewhat ready for it and that there won’t be any curveballs and things I am not prepared for.’
Tactically, he’s ready. The body and legs are in good shape too – his recent record-breaking form shows that. Mentally, Darragh’s confident as well.
‘The one thing I found about confidence is that I can’t control it,’ he explains.
‘It comes from your racing and your training. For me last year I would have felt confident enough going into a race from training but then I would have a stinker of a race, and I found it hard to get my confidence back for the next race.
‘This year I wouldn’t say I’ve had a bad race since last summer. Generally, I’m happy, so it would be impossible not to have good confidence right now.
‘Besides rest days I haven’t missed a day of training this year. If you’re looking for confidence, that comes from raining and racing. Confidence allows you attack the bigger times and not be afraid of them.’
There’s an impressive maturity to this 18-year-old who sat his Leaving Cert exams in June and who is tipped as a future star of Irish middle distance running. Last week Olympian Rob Heffernan said Darragh is ‘going all the way to the top’.
High praise for the West Cork teenager but his talent means expectations are being raised. Even his own coach, Dave McCarthy, challenges Darragh.
‘I remember before Belgium when I ran 13.54 in the 5000m, Dave told me he would be disgusted if I was only going in there to break 14 minutes,’ Darragh says.
‘At the time breaking 14 minutes was the absolute dream for me because no Irish teenager had ever done it before. It would be unbelievable, the pinnacle of my career. But he said he’d be disgusted if I had tried to go out there and only ran 13.59. That took me by surprise.
‘You’d be in training, something might click and you’d go, “Jesus, maybe I am in 13.50 shape”, but when you hear it from your coach, it does give you the belief to go and get it.’
Darragh did go and get it, with his record time racing into the history books and leading to more national headlines.
It’s the belief that the likes of his coach have shown in him that has seen Darragh take the next step.
He wasn’t happy with his 2018 form but has worked exceptionally hard on and off the track, and what we are seeing now is a more confident and relaxed Darragh.
‘I feel last year that I didn’t do myself justice at all,’ he says.
‘What a lot of it comes down to is that I have not missed a day of scheduled training in three years. I have been healthy and that does make a big difference. When you do layer the training on block after block it does make a difference and you do get rewarded for your consistency.’
In previous years he’d know the PB of every athlete in a race and where he should come.
‘I never would have had the belief and the confidence to break through that whereas with the recent 3000m race in Watford, where I was ranked fifth, I went in to try and win it and I wanted to break eight minutes and get as close to it as I could to it.’
In that race, at the British Milers Club meeting in Watford, Darragh broke the Irish junior 3000m record with a stunning run of 8:01.48.
‘I have learned that every race is a different day and if you put yourself in the position early on you might get rewarded in the last kilometre if you feel good, or you might pay for it; either way you’ll have no regrets,’ he says.
‘I have been more relaxed too in my races and my training. I try to take the pressure off myself a bit and go in and enjoy the races. That’s been evident in the way I’ve ran, they’ve been good races, entertaining to watch back afterwards.’
He has had his sights set on these European Athletics U20 Championships for a long time. This is his last year as a junior and he feels he is at the right stage in his development to make an impact.
‘The main reason they have been a target for so long is that I would have identified when I would be in the shape to actually put a stamp on a championships,’ he says.
‘Two years ago when I was U18 my championships were the European U20s and last year as an U19 my championships were the World U20s so I always feel I was reaching a bit.
‘I was only 16 when I was at the European U20s two years ago and then last year I was 17 and taking on the world’s best U20s, whereas this year I am going in ready.
‘I have been to two major championships on the track and three major championships in cross-country so I feel I have a lot of experience built up.
‘My first few championships would have taken my by surprise a bit and I look back on all them now and there is a certain thing I learned from all of them.
‘I’m hoping now I can take everything I have learned and mesh it altogether for this one and come out with a positive result.
‘Obviously this being my last year at junior, and I’ve had a good year so far, but to put a real stamp on my junior career I need a medal and I want a medal, just to solidify my place as one of the top juniors.’
Darragh’s primed to go out of his junior days with a bang – and the medal he wants.