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THE LAST WORD: Darragh's shift in mindset as he is ready to compete on the big stage

August 15th, 2022 5:15 PM

By Kieran McCarthy

Darragh McElhinney has been in record-breaking form this year.

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IN a season packed full of Darragh McElhinney record runs, his coach Emmett Dunleavy has a clear favourite.

It was Darragh’s very own Italian job, when he smashed his own Irish U23 3000m record while winning at the recent Meeting Internazionale Citta' di Nembro.

The winning time of 7:42.86 was impressive, another national record, but Dunleavy was excited by Darragh’s last lap.

‘He closed the last 400 metres in 53 and a half seconds,’ his coach explains.

‘To be a contender at a global level, it's not just about running quick times, you have got to be able to close out the last 400 very quickly. The benchmark for world-class athletes over the last 400 metres – for 3k, 5k and 10k – is somewhere around 52 and 53 seconds. 

‘For Darragh to run a PB and close it out in 53 seconds suggests he is coming towards the top table. That’s a pretty exciting prospect.’

The Glengarriff athlete’s 7:42.86 time also marks him out as the fastest runner in Europe over 3000m outdoors this year. 

That’s the form he is in ahead of the European Athletics Championships in Munich next week. On Tuesday night Darragh will line up in the men’s 5000m final, but there is a noticeable shift in mindset this time. He’s not there for the experience, he’s there to do a job. It’s the next step in his development.

‘There has even been a change from the World Indoors in Belgrade earlier in the year to now,’ Dunleavy says.

Darragh McElhinney celebrates winning the men's 5000m title at the national championships. (Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile)

 

‘That was his first senior international championship. He wanted to get experience. But this time it’s different. It’s not about soaking in the atmosphere, he is there to race and he wants to perform.’

This will be a test for the talented West Cork man. He admits the World Indoors was ‘a fairly rude awakening’, as he didn’t qualify out of his men’s 3000m heat. It showed him he has a lot of work to do, but since March he has stepped it up again. He now has a chance to put the pieces of the jigsaw together on a big stage in a European final, and see what happens. There is no pressure on Darragh to medal. He’s still 21 years old and the glory years are around the corner, but it’s a chance for him to hold his own with Europe’s best.

‘You would expect that with two or three laps to go next Tuesday night that he will be in the mix. This is the first time he is going as a contender. That is a mentality shift. How he gets on will feed into next year and ambitions for that,’ explains Dunleavy who has worked as Darragh’s coach for the past three years. 

Before their paths crossed at UCD, Dunleavy was well aware of Darragh McElhinney, the prodigious talent who has been a class apart all the way up. Even then, he was a record-breaker, taking out significant records one by one. When he was 16 years old he smashed John Treacy’s long-standing Irish outdoor youth 3000m record that was set in 1974; a performance his then coach Steve Macklin labelled as ‘outrageous’.

Darragh has coped with pressure all the way up. He was always the favourite, but he carried that tag well. Expectations are not alien to him. At the 2021 European Cross-Country Championships in Dublin, he was tipped to do well. In front of a home crowd Darragh raced to silver in the U23 men’s 8000m and led Ireland to team gold. 

It’s a different pressure at these European championships as he rubs shoulders with the best in the world, but his continuing improvement shows he can share the stage with the superstars like Jakob Ingebrigtsen.

‘He is not a million miles behind the likes of Ingebrigtsen,’ Dunleavy points out, ‘And these are his opposition now.’

Glengarriff's Darragh McElhinney with his bronze medal after he finished third in the Men's 5000m final at the 2019 European Athletics U20 Championships.

 

Darragh won’t shirk the challenge. He is ruthless and competitive. Dunleavy has seen that up close. He knows the Beara native ticks all the boxes.

Genetically gifted? Yes, Darragh is, but he is not the only one. What separates the Irish men’s 5000m outdoor champion from the chasing pack is his ability to do the ‘one percenters’ day in and day out, week after week after week. Those ‘one percenters’ add up. Diet. Sleep. Strength and conditioning. And so on. Dunleavy shares an example.

‘Three years ago when I started coaching him first he had a pretty significant hip impingement issue. It took a lot of time, a good four to six months of very specific and diligent strength and conditioning to get that right. It was a real test,’ he says.

‘He had to go and do these very tedious exercises for hours each week, and he did that. It was a great reflection of his mentality. He is willing to put in the hard yards, not only when he has runners on his feet, but even more importantly when he is not running.’

That hard work will pay off. Hopefully we see it in Munich on Tuesday when he competes in a European final. It’s another stepping stone in his journey.

‘... then when I am in my prime – 25, 26 years of age – hopefully I can win medals,’ Darragh told The Southern Star recently. 

He’s moving in the right direction. All those one percenters are adding up.

 

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