WHENEVER Darragh McElhinney has told people that he gets nervous before a race, they are always surprised.
On race day, he has his game-face on. It exudes an air of confidence, that I’m-here-to-work-and-everything-is-going-to-go-well vibe, but he says there are times when he is burning up inside.
The Glengarriff athlete (20), who left his teens behind him in November, finds the nerves are heightened when he hasn’t raced in a while.
They were there in August when he lined up at the start-line for the senior men’s 5000m at the national championships in Dublin. He hadn’t raced competitively since the Irish indoors earlier in the year when he finished third in the men’s 3000m.
‘When I arrived at Morton Stadium I was so nervous because I hadn’t been in that race environment since February,’ McElhinney admits.
‘A lot of the time the things that make me nervous aren’t even the race, it could be the warm-up or seeing competitors beforehand, something like that.
‘The older you get and the more exposure you get to events like that, the better you can handle them.’
To his credit, McElhinney handles expectation better than most. He was a teen prodigy who dominated his age groups all the way up – and that leads to increased expectation.
When he was 16 years old, he broke John Treacy’s long-standing Irish outdoor youth 3000m record that had stood since 1974. In 2019, in the months before his Leaving Cert exams, he became the first Irish teenager to ever run under 14 minutes for the 5000m (and that was also an Irish junior record). The Irish junior 3000m record also fell to McElhinney in the summer of 2019. Not to mention his absolute stranglehold of the schools’ scene during his days pacing the corridors at Coláiste Pobail Bheanntraí.
His former coach Steven Macklin said before that Darragh is ‘the only athlete in Irish schools’ history to win the junior 1500m, U16 mile, intermediate 1500m and senior 1500m titles.’
With talent like that, McElhinney doesn’t want to get tripped up by nerves that could threaten to spoil all the hard work that goes on in the background.
‘You need to have the balls to say to someone that “I’m getting really nervous at the moment and I need to do something about it”,’ he says, ‘and a lot of it boils down to if I am going to train really hard for 11, 12 months of the year for one race, I don’t want nerves or mental weakness to ruin it all.
‘I think I have some natural element of mental strength but a lot of it has been worked on and it will continued to be worked on as well.’
He points to the 2018 British Milers Club event in Loughborough as an example of a race he has learned from. The cost of the flights and accommodation came out of his parents’ pockets, he travelled from home in Beara to Dublin for the flight and he was ready to rock.
‘Somebody pushed me in the first 300 metres of the race and for some reason my head completely went. I ended up having a stinker. It ruined everything, the whole weekend. Through those bad experiences, you say it happened to me once it better not happen again. You have to learn from mistakes,’ he says, and he has, leaning on the experience and wise words from the team he surrounds himself with. That includes seeking advice from Olympic pentathlete Arthur Lanigan O’Keeffe, who brought 15-year-old Darragh to Rio for a training camp ahead of the 2016 Olympic Games – he’s another who spotted the West Cork teen’s talent very early.
‘In 2018 before all my races I used to get really nervous. The night before a couple of big races I set up a Skype call with Arthur Lanigan O’Keeffe and he would talk about how he felt before Olympic races,’ McElhinney says.
‘A lot of it, you do have to work on. I’m sure it comes naturally for some people, but I think you have to be proactive. It’s not good enough to accept that ‘I’m a nervous person’ or ‘I don’t react well to things during a race’, because if that is your attitude you’re never going to perform to your capability. It’s about being proactive, ironing out those flaws, mentally and physically, that you have.’
For a 20 year old to have achieved so much already tells you there is something special about the former Bantry AC runner who now runs in the colours of his college, UCD.
‘I think back to certain races when the going got tough and I just found something inside me that kept me going,’ he explains.
‘It’s as important in training. Because this is a lonely sport it’s about having the mental strength to constantly remind yourself why you’re doing this and what the end goal is. Often, it’s how you manage your efforts and process the different thoughts. Essentially, it’s how you deal with challenges during the race.’
That brings us back to the men’s 5000m final at the national championships last August. McElhinney overcame his pre-race nerves to produce one of his greatest performances, and one that highlights how far he has already come. He sat in behind race favourite John Travers for lap after lap, and with 400 metres to go McElhinney was tempted to make his move – but he didn’t. His mind flickered back to the indoor 3000m final last February when he, in the same position, got a rush of blood to the head, hit the front and went for home, but it didn’t work out that day and he had to settle for bronze.
Now, six months on, still 19 years old and up against the hugely experienced Travers, McElhinney waited and waited, showing maturity and discipline that defied his age. When he kicked for the front, he wanted it to count – and it did.
‘With 400 metres to go (in the 5000m) there was a little voice in my head saying to just go for it, but I knew it wasn’t the right thing to do so I stayed in for as long as I could. Even with 200 metres to go I was prepared to sit in until the last straight and try to pip him there,’ he recalls.
‘I had been watching John’s body, I thought he was beginning to tire so I felt with 200 metres to go that one big effort and I might be able to pull away from him. That’s how it went. I was able to turn around with 20, 30 metres to go and relax until the finish line.’
McElhinney’s brilliant finish saw him win his first senior gold medal and announce his arrival on the main stage. It was a breakthrough moment as he stretches his legs at senior level with the big-hitters.
He’s not going to rest on his laurels, though. It’s time to kick on.
‘It was a fairly pivotal moment, but as with the nature of athletics, you can’t stay with a result, good or bad, for too long. As soon as you finish one season, you take a week off and then you’re back, chasing fitness again,’ he says.
‘It was as good a result and performance as I could have hoped for, but once the season finished and then when I got back, it was all about when will I be racing next and what can I do to step up another level.
‘It was great but it’s important now to back it up with more performances in the next 12 months.’
In July 2021, McElhinney hopes to compete in the 5000m at the European U23 Championships in Norway, and this is the stage he wants to be on. He has bossed the national scene at home and now wants to make an impact internationally.
‘Looking at the European U23s next summer, you have lads there running in the 13.0s, the 13.10s and the 13.20s so that’s where I need to be, to be competitive in the summer, and it doesn’t leave too much time to be patting yourself on the back because there’s work to be done,’ explains McElhinney whose 5000m PB is 13:54.10 – the Irish U20 record he set in 2019.
‘On paper I am a 13.54 guy at the moment but if I was racing in the morning and was up against a guy who recently ran in the low 13.30s, I wouldn’t feel like he is that much ahead of me.
‘My PB is from 18 months ago, I have had some good performances since then and I have trained really well, but I just haven’t got into a 5km race to allow me show how fast I could have gone.
‘I don’t think the 13.30s are that far away but a lot of miles have to be run to get there, and a lot of discipline is needed too.’
McElhinney has the natural talent and the mental strength to kick on in 2021. He proved in 2020 that he’s maturing and learning, and he’s firmly on track for more success in the years ahead.