Farewell to Ballycotton

After forty memorable years, the Ballycotton Ten is no more.  Six-times-winner Noel Berkeley recalls his love affair with the Cork Classic

It came as a huge disappointment to many to hear that the famous Ballycotton Ten has been run for the last time; and that, as if to add insult to injury, the organisers have also decided to discontinue their very popular Summer Series of five-mile road races. How could this happen, one might ask?

It was back in 1977 that John Walshe, a Ballycotton native, first had the idea of a ten-mile road race to cater for local runners. Hence, early that March, 36 hardy souls lined up in the small East Cork fishing village and the Ballycotton Ten was born. With John at the helm, joined by the Harnett Brothers, Tommy and Seamus, and some other locals too, a race committee was soon set in place. At the time John was a young man in his mid twenties; the lads merely 19 and 20 years old. Some other committee members were even younger!

International Affair

Slowly but surely, the race grew; not only in numbers but in stature – oftentimes becoming quite an international affair. Of course the involvement of Nike UK helped make this happen. Not to mention a small ad that John Walshe placed in Britain’s Athletics weekly magazine. It wasn’t long before the best distance runners from both Ireland and the UK were regulars at the race. Names like Jim Dingwall, Pete Flatman, Keith Anderson, John Nuttall, Paul Freary, Gary Staines, Andy Coleman, Jerry Kiernan, John Griffin, John Linehan, Liam O’Brien, Dick Hooper, Ray Treacy, Vinny Mulvey, Mick Clohisey, Sergiu Ciobanu and many more. As time passed, top female athletes arrived to test themselves on the roads of Ballycotton; past winners include the likes of Karen McCloud, Marian Sutton, Maria McCambridge and the great Sonia O’Sullivan.  One year I remember meeting the famous Kenyan John Ngugi, five-time World XC Champion. Admittedly, he was well past his best at this stage, but it was something to see the Seoul Olympic 5,000m champion in an East Cork village. So for any young aspiring athlete, Ballycotton was certainly a good place to meet their heroes and seek out a few autographs.

Momentum continued to build, with race numbers growing each year. People travelling from afar started making a weekend out of the event.  The craic was always good in the local pubs the evening before the race. Often, the previous year’s race video was shown, much to the delight of runners and fans alike.  Sometimes too, local families would accommodate runners from overseas. I myself was put up more than once by a Mrs. Phyllis O’Driscoill on the main street, next door to the Schooner Pub.

On Race Day itself, the hospitality, like the organisation, was always top notch. Finishers were offered plentiful refreshments, home baking and hot mugs of tea, I do recall free massages too; a thing I only used to associate with big road races in America. The atmosphere in the village was electric, with runners buzzing like bees before they swarm. Crowds gathered to cheer on the runners – this was particularly helpful over the last few miles when the going got tough. I seem to remember words of encouragement written on the roads too! More often than not the sun shone in a blue sky, all adding to the carnival-like atmosphere.

I first heard about the race while on scholarship in Oklahoma. My loyal friend and team-mate Gerry McGrath wrote lengthy letters relating his expoits in the 10-miler to me. Indeed, some of the 5-mile races featured too.  Local East Cork Legend Liam O’Brien proved very menacing at this time, and John Griffin was a regular winner.

Not forgetting the supreme road warrior Jerry Kiernan, who scorched a 47:04 victory one year, setting a tough record.

Smitten

And so it was in ’95 that I first landed in the scenic village of Ballycotton. Fortunately, Gary Staines, former European 5,000m silver medallist, kept me in check that day as we burnt up the roads; shoulder-to-shoulder for the most part. We were both running for Nike at the time and the winner of the event was to be rewarded with a rather healthy bonus. Determined to win on the day, I surged with all my might at the nine-mile mark, the steepest part of the long finish. Six hundred metres later, outside the Blackbird Pub, my legs buckled! Gary, sensing my demise, put the hammer down and ran 47mins dead to break Jerry Kiernan’s record. I jogged in 17 seconds later, shattered!

Smitten with Ballycotton, I ran the race seven more times. On the last occasion I was beaten by another English athlete by the name of Andy Coleman. Andy was no slouch when it came to the sprint finish. Between those years were sweet victories; but by no means easy, I can assure you. There were memorable and close battles with John Griffin and Gerry Ryan who certainly had me on the ropes. So much so, that race commentator, Michael Joyce was announcing Gerry the victor before the finish! Then there was the great battle with tough Welshman Jamie Lewis in 2000. I had to dig very deep over the final 400m to finally break Jamie; we both ran under 48 minutes.

Until this time, entries were still in the hundreds and it wasn’t until 2000 that they exceeded the 1,000 mark. Top athletes still came every year, as if Ballycotton was a Mecca of sorts. So from an organisational point, the race, with its small but hardworking committee, was able to cope relatively well on the day. This was all made possible with the help of local volunteers . However, as the running boom took off in the mid-to-late noughties, entries skyrocketed – in 2006 there were over 4,000. Needless to say, the workload was now huge and it’s probably safe to say that the Ballycotton Ten had lost some of its charm.

Workload

The organisers continued to put on a great race regardless, but in the end the workload simply became too much after forty-odd years. These days, recreational runners are big business, but that was never the focus of Ballycotton Running Promotions. They stuck to their roots with, amongst other things, very modest entry fees. The Ballycotton Ten, once voted the second-best race in the British Isles after the London Marathon, will leave a huge void in Irish road racing. The Summer Five Mile series likewise will be missed by many.

There is great credit due to John Walshe and all the team at Ballycotton Running Promotions for what they achieved over forty years. Thank you all for some wonderful memories.