AT the last two U20 European Cross-Country Championships, in 2016 and ’17, Darragh McElhinney finished 39th on both occasions.
The Glengarriff teenager (18) will do everything he can to make sure there is no repeat of that final placing at Sunday’s Europeans in Tilburg.
He has loftier ambitions than 39th.
‘There was a sense of underachievement last year,’ he admits.
‘Last year I went there after only finishing sixth in the All-Irelands and I was only after scraping onto the team. Things weren’t going well for me in general and I didn’t do that well out there, but this year I am much more positive.
‘I’ve seen videos of the course in Tilburg, it looks like it will suit me.
‘I want to get in the mix early on. Before, I sat back for the first kilometre but it’s not the type of race where you can afford do that. I want to get myself in the top 20 in the first kilometre and battle for every place from there. I’d be happy with the top 20.
‘If I die, I die, but I don’t want to find myself running in 40th.’
This will be the Bantry AC star’s third U20 European Cross-Country. He is looking forward to this one a lot more than last year. He is running well, feeling fresher, and more confident.
Victory in the recent U18 and U20 men’s 6,000m at the national cross-country championships has Darragh in high spirits ahead of the last big race of the year.
‘The confidence was fairly rock bottom last year. Two years ago I was third in the All-Ireland and then to come back the next year and finish sixth, I wasn’t heading over in great confidence,’ he explains.
‘This year, every day of training since August has been as good as I could have wished for. I’ve only raced twice – the Autumn Open that I won and then the nationals that I won as well. It’s been as close to my best season that I’m going to get.’
After his breakthrough year in 2016, he’ll admit he plateaued slightly from the summer of 2017 through to the past summer – but that’s all part of the learning curve for this talented middle-distance runner. He was still winning All-Irelands but he didn’t feel it was as exciting as what had gone before.
‘I’ve come to the realisation that I won’t break records every time I race, that there are ups and downs,’ he says, adding, ‘This year has been brilliant. I feel back to myself and I’m enjoying it.’
The Coláiste Pobail Bheanntraí Leaving Cert student ran in the 5000m at the World U20 Championships in Finland during the summer, finishing 18th. Before that he had won gold in the U20 men’s 1500m at the U20 and U23 Championships. He also ran a 5000m PB of 14.11 in Belgium in May. And now he has enjoyed two notable cross-country wins, so there have been plenty of highlights.
Sunday’s European Cross-Country Championships also marks his last race under coach Steve Macklin, who Darragh says transformed him. Darragh has raced under Macklin since he was 15-years-old, but the former Athletics Ireland Junior Endurance Coach now works at Apsire Academy in Doha. Darragh will now move to David McCarthy’s coaching set-up, the latter taking over Macklin’s group since he moved to Qatar.
Looking into the distance, next summer, the European juniors in Sweden – it will be his last year as a junior – will be Darragh’s big target, but now it’s all about the European Cross-Country on Sunday and making the most of his form and confidence.