Rising star Darragh McElhinney on what he needs to do to take the next step
FROM dreamland to disappointment, Darragh McElhinney admits his last lap in the 5000m final at the European Athletics Championships is hard to analyse.
At the bell for the last lap he was in eighth place in a world-class field, and holding his own. This is exactly where the 21-year-old wanted to be: competitive on the big stage. With 300 metres to go, Darragh had moved up to seventh. This was dreamland for his first senior Europeans.
Then he hit the wall.
‘I was happy with everything … until the last 250 metres,’ he says.
Those last 250 metres hurt. Really hurt. His tank was empty, but he fought to the line. He lost nine places in the final half lap. His legs were stuck to the track. It felt like running uphill in quicksand, into a vicious headwind.
Darragh crossed the line in 16th place, in 13:39.11. He’s not at all happy with the final result, but his performance has gone under the radar somewhat at a European championships where Irish athletes won medals and ran personal bests.
He gave it everything, put himself in the position to compete and emptied the tank. It didn’t work out this time, but he’ll be back, wiser for the experience. He already took learnings from the World Indoor Championships in March that he put into practice in Munich – make the early parts of the race feel as easy as you can, don’t make a ‘stupid move’ and don’t get involved in the pushing and shoving that goes on. Darragh stuck to his game plan.
‘I think I did that fairly well. I sat back early on, partly because a lot of the big hitters stayed in the pack. The likes of Jacob Ingebrigtsen and Isaac Kimeli were in and around me. It hadn’t heated up. I stayed out of trouble until about 3k, and that was the aim,’ he explains.
‘When Hugo Hay fell with about five laps to go, which is 3k, it was notable that it started picking up a small bit. I was on the outside when he fell and in order to avoid it I pushed up, made a little burst and got into the top ten. That’s where I wanted to be when it started to wind up.’
At 3500m Darragh was up to sixth. He was in the top ten from here to the last 250 metres. He felt good – or at least thought he did.
Darragh was the second youngest athlete in the men’s 5000m final at Munich. He doesn’t turn 22 until November. Only one athlete was younger, Denmark’s Joel Ibler Lillesø, who is 18 and finished 22nd. There was only one other athlete the same age as Darragh. That’s the incredible Jacob Ingebrigtsen, who won gold. The Norwegian superstar won double European gold (1500m and 5000m) in Munich. He won Olympic gold last summer, and is a world champion too.
Of the 15 athletes who finished in front of Darragh, the majority were mid to late-20s, with years of experience built up. The ages of the top ten were 21, 24, 25, 27, 25, 28, 30, 23, 29 and 31. The big stage like this is still new to the West Cork man.
At the bell in Munich Darragh had passed out Spain’s Adel Mechaal, who is 31 years old. He’s a runner Darragh has looked up to for years.
‘He has been to numerous Olympic and World finals. You go by him with 450 to go and you are thinking “what's going on here?”, but the more exposure you have to that, the more normal it becomes. It then becomes the norm,’ Darragh explains.
To normalise running against Mechaal and Ingebrigtsen, he needs regular competition against them. That’s a learning Darragh is taking from this year, along with what went wrong in those final 250 metres.
When he hit the back straight after coming around the bend on the last lap the red warning lights were flashing. The reality is they were probably flashing too in previous laps, but Darragh never realised.
‘My legs got so heavy on the back straight. I could hardly get myself around the track,’ he explains. ‘When I got to the bell I had moved up into seventh, had passed out a few good lads, and I felt I had a bit left for the last lap.’
This is when the wheels came off. Darragh has two theories on what went wrong.
One: The noise in the Munich Olympic Stadium was so loud – and remember this is a stage he is not used to just yet – he couldn’t hear himself breathe. He thinks there was a warning here that he missed.
‘Considering I spend hours every week listening to myself breathing when I’m running, you have a good gauge of how you are feeling depending on how heavy you are breathing and how regulated it is. I actually don’t think I was aware of that throughout the whole race. It’s probable that with 800 metres to go I was blowing fairly hard, but I didn't notice it,’ he says.
Two: Darragh was competing against the best athletes in the world and he wasn’t calling the shots. He has to be reactive in that company. He’s not managing the race or his energy. When he won gold in the men’s 5000m at the national championships in June he was in charge, to such an extent that he could enjoy the final 50 metres. But the European stage is levels above that.
‘When you are responding to athletes who are just as good as you, if not better, you don't have that same control,’ he says.
‘What happened is when I got to the back straight, I basically had my race run. A lot of it was being too aggressive but at the same time that is what I set out to do. I was aggressive in how I went after everything. Every time there was a break I covered it. Eventually I paid for it.
‘I was in dreamland at the bell, I had done everything I wanted to do, I was sitting in seventh with top-class athletes and the only shame was I couldn’t hold it.
‘When the wheels came off, they came off badly. The other side is you have all the guys with similar PBs to you coming up behind and you end up losing nine places in the space of 30 seconds. That put a real dampener because the result was poor in the end. I was not happy with 16th at all.’
His brave, gutsy performance, for 4750 metres, deserved more than a 16th-place finish, but he will learn from this. There are a lot of positives to take forward.
The cross-country season is Darragh’s focus for the rest of the year, but he has big plans for the track in 2023. The next European championships are in Rome in 2024.
‘Hopefully my times will progress and my rankings within Europe will progress. Ultimately that’s what makes the difference,’ he explains.
‘What’s the next step? The simple answer is I have to get better.
‘Those last 250 metres, the only way that can be rectified is that by the next Europeans I am two years stronger, two years fitter, have two years free of injury and end up getting my PB down. Even the lads who came in the top six in Munich, a lot of their times are comparable with mine, but a lot of the time they are older and more experienced.’
Experience is key, as is exposure to the Ingebrigtsens and Mechaals on a more regular basis. That’s the company he needs to become comfortable in.
‘I raced quite a bit in Europe this year. The majority of races were Continental Tour Bronze and Challenger meets, which are fourth and fifth level meets,’ he says.
‘With my PBs this year, going into next year I should be able to get entry into a couple of Diamond Leagues and Continental Tour Gold meets. As a result then you are racing the top guys more often and you are getting more experience racing them.
‘If I can go into a championship next year or the year after, and if I have raced a lot of these guys six, seven or eight times, that would make it easier.’
It’s been another season of progression for the rising star of Irish middle distance running. National indoor and outdoor champion. PB after PB. He’s right on track. It’s time to step it up a notch at international level – and he’s ready for that challenge.