Epic cross-country battle sees Nick Griggs collapse into the mud

Cormac Dalton and Fiona Everard survive brutal conditions to win first senior titles at National Cross-Country Championships

In the hour or so that Nick Griggs spent recovering in the medical tent, the race kept spinning over in his head. The virtually certain win. One last uphill corner in the mud. And then a sudden and irredeemable collapse.

Such was the brutally tough nature of the National Cross-Country Championships staged around Gowran Demesne in Kilkenny on Sunday. Reasonably firm underfoot in some parts, an absolute slog in others.

Some might say old school cross-country. Only for the still 18-year-old Griggs, the rising distance running star seeking an unprecedented third successive Under-20 title, it was just a little too tough to handle. The amount of rainfall over the last month played a big part in that.

Once recovered from this cruel ordeal, he recalled in suitably shivering tones what exactly happened with around 500m of the 5km course still to run. He had gone some 50m clear in the already epic battle, after around 4km, of chasing duo Niall Murphy and Jonas Stafford.


“When I went into the mud again, my legs just completely went, and I just collapsed,” said Griggs, the Tyrone teenager who runs with Candour Track Club in Belfast. “It was that bit where it was just mud, mud, mud. I tried [to go on] and you win some and you lose some, but I’ve never experienced a feeling like that.

“I knew I was tired, just collapsed into the mud, and after that, I don’t fully know. Just one of those things, I wasn’t able to cope with the conditions. Cross-country is a brutal sport, it’s unpredictable. It’s a lot different to the track. You go to the track, and most of the time you know what’s going to happen.”

Griggs – who this summer ran Irish Under-20 records over 1,500m (3:36.09), the mile (3:55.75), the 3,000m (7:53.24), and the 5,000m (13:36.47) – had stumbled like this before, at the European Cross-Country December, in sight of winning too; he recovered to finish second, and still hopes to gain selection for the Europeans in Brussels next month, just after which he turns 19.

“But you can’t really prepare for conditions and a course like that,” he added. “It’s just one of those things, and fingers crossed I’ll be okay for European Cross. But fair play to Niall and Jonas, they handled the conditions better.”

Murphy, from Ennis Track AC, took the win in 17:12, just one second ahead of Wicklow’s Stafford, from UCD. Harry Colbert from Waterford also ensured European selection by taking third.

The senior races, both now run over 9km, proved equally unpredictable in their outcome, Cormac Dalton and Fiona Everard winning their first senior titles, both aged 25 too, although in slightly contrasting styles across the battlefield that it was.

The senior men’s team race was also a suitably epic battle, home favourites Kilkenny City Harriers tying with North Belfast Harriers on 72 points, with Kilkenny announced as winners due to the best-placed finisher, with Peter Lynch in eighth.

The senior women’s title was won by Dublin City Harriers with 49 points, ahead of Dundrum South Dublin (62). Kilkenny City Harriers were also best of the Under-20 women’s team, Anna Gardiner from East Down the impressive outright winner there, before Lagan Valley AC were best of the Under-20 men.

For Dalton, with long family ties to Mullingar Harriers, victory came some 12 years after his last All-Ireland win, and since then he’s been trying hard to relive it.

In a properly stacked field, he bided his time, Kevin Mulcaire from Ennis Track AC and Hugh Armstrong from Ballina AC making a break before Dalton kicked past them both into the homestretch, winning in 31:08. Mulcaire nailed that close second spot in 31:10, Armstrong third in 31:14.

“I wanted it to be a big one, I’ve always been dreaming of that for a while now,” said Dalton after his win. “Just really knock it out of the park on a day that mattered like this. And National seniors really matters to me and everyone out here. So couldn’t be happier.”

For Everard, from Bandon AC, her victory by 37 seconds left her shocked, as well it might, given so few rated her chances. After the withdrawal through illness of West Limerick’s Íde Nic Dhómhnaill, it was certainly wide open, and Everard made her bold bid for home shortly after halfway. That paid off.

“I never thought I’d win it, I’m so shocked,” said Everard, who is studying for an MA in Galway. “Going around, I couldn’t even believe I was leading for some of it. But I’ll thank running around Bandon for that, I always preferred cross-country, and we’d do a lot of preparation for that in the mud.”

Mary Mulhare from Portlaoise AC won the battle for silver, one second ahead of Danielle Donegan from Tullamore Harriers, who with that also won the Under-23 title.

All three of the senior men spent time in college in the United States (Dalton at Tulsa, Mulcaire at Oklahoma and New Mexico, Armstrong at Providence) and beat some seasoned cross-country runners too: Keelan Kilrehill was fourth, Brian Fay was fifth, Efrem Gidey was seventh, while defending champion Darragh McElhinney finished back in ninth, the tough underfoot conditions clearly not to his liking either.

It was a brilliant comeback for Mulcaire, now 26, the standout junior who has endured horrendous bad luck with injury over the years. The 29-year-old Armstrong also made a welcome return to cross-country, having also finished third in this event in 2017.

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics