McElhinney: It does show me that I can take it up another level

December 27th, 2021 3:30 PM

By Kieran McCarthy

Darragh McElhinney with his gold (U23 men's team event) and silver medals (U23 men's) from the European Cross-Country Championships.

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DARRAGH McElhinney is viewing himself in a different light following his latest breakthrough run.

His brilliant performance when winning silver in the U23 men’s race at the recent European Cross Country Championships in Dublin was so good that he feels he has what it takes to move to the next level in 2022.

Even by McElhinney’s high standards, his silver medal success at Abbotstown was sensational.

The Glengarriff athlete, who only turned 21 years old in November, finished just four seconds behind the winner, Great Britain’s Charlie Hicks, while the hometown hero also picked off Ruben Querinjean of Luxembourg for silver in a dramatic finish.

McElhinney also led the Irish U23 team to glorious gold, ahead of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

He has already packed a lot of magical moments, record runs and national titles into his career, but this tops the lot.

‘It would have to leapfrog everything else into pole position,’ McElhinney told The Southern Star.

‘It was up there as one of my best performances. Quite a few people said it to me after the race, people who have been involved in the sport for a long time and people who have seen me race, that it was the best they’ve seen me. From a pure physical performance, it was probably the best I have produced.

‘Then you add in all the external factors: the team gold, that it was on home soil and the atmosphere. Put all that together and it is well clear of what I have already achieved.

‘Without putting a negative spin on it, but it could be as good as it gets. It was a surreal, surreal day. It was just unbelievable.’


UCD student McElhinney knew he was in medal-winning shape ahead of the European Cross Country Championships. Not only was training going well, but he was snaffling up the medals in his cross-country season. There was gold in the Irish Universities Athletics Association Cross-Country Championships, followed by gold at the Autumn Open in October, on the same course as the Europeans were hosted. At the national championships, he won gold in the men’s U23 race and silver in senior, just seconds behind the winner. Now he has added European individual silver and team gold. It’s a staggering medal haul, but he saw the signs that something special was going to happen.

‘I’ve known, and my coach Emmett (Dunleavy) has known, the training block I’ve put in since August has been by far and away my best ever. It’s good to do that, but if you don’t back it up with performances then it doesn't mean anything,’ he says.

‘Because cross-country is the type of event where it’s not as measurable as the track, some of my runs this year have been really strong but in the most low-key races. At the intervarsity cross-country championships, and it was the delayed 2020 event, the physical performance I pulled out on the day was unbelievably good.

‘Then with UCD we won the intervarsity road relays, one week before the national cross-country championships. I ran the 5k leg in the middle. I had run the same leg two years ago, and at the same time of the year and three weeks before the 2019 European Cross-Country in Lisbon, and ran 14:40. On the exact same course a few weeks ago I ran 41 seconds quicker, in 13.59.

‘All my work in this training block came down to the Europeans and I had a really deep inner confidence in the work that I had done and I’m happy that it paid off.’

Darragh McElhinney in action in the U23 men's 8000m during the SPAR European Cross Country Championships in Dublin.


This is a result that raises McElhinney’s profile even further. He is a young man accustomed to the headlines. When he won a 5000m bronze at the 2019 U20 European Championships in Sweden, he became only the third Irishman ever to win a medal at these championships, joining John Treacy’s silver medal in 1975 and Mark Carroll’s gold in 1991. McElhinney, then only 17, also smashed Treacy’s long-standing Irish youth 3,000m record of 8:20.40 in 2017 when he ran 8:18.88. In May 2018 he became the first Irish junior to ever break 14 minutes for 5,000m, as his 13:54.10 smashed the Irish U20 record. Earlier this year, in July, he became the first West Cork athlete to run a sub four-minute mile with a 3:58.20 in London. And now he has starred, and won a medal, at a European Cross-Country Championships on home soil.

‘I think it’s one of those breakthrough runs that you get every now and again. It puts me in the wider view of people and the way I will view myself in a different bracket of athlete now,’ McElhinney explains.

‘When you talk about the transition from junior to senior, really the guys who are winning Euro U23 cross-country medals, within a couple of years they are running world-class times for the 5k. You have the likes of Jimmy Gressier, guys like that who are 13:10 5k guys, who are there getting gold, silver, bronze medals.

‘I have been thinking for the last while that I need to do this and do that on the track next year, but with the performance behind me and beating some of the guys that I beat and being as close to Charlie Hicks as I was, it does show me that I can take it up another level.

‘In the 5k, I was thinking that I could get as close to 13:30 as I can, but after a run like the Europeans you would be thinking that maybe I can get closer to 13:20. Then you are working towards 2024 and the automatic time to qualify in the 5k is 13:13, and while that seems so far away because I’m at 13:54, judging off the potential I am showing now it could be the case that come May or June I am only nine, ten, 11 seconds off an Olympic qualifying time.’

The sky's the limit for McElhinney. In 2016, his former coach, Steven Macklin, told the Star that, ‘Darragh is one of those special talents that you only come across, perhaps, once or twice in a coaching career.’ He is realising that potential now, and it’s making people sit up and take notice, including himself.

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