FOR many years it has seemed a matter of when, not if, Sarah Healy and Bantry's Darragh McElhinney would take over the Irish cross country scene.
And the young pair duly came of age in Rosapenna, Co Donegal on Sunday, claiming their first national senior titles with a pair of explosive and utterly irresistible finishes.
Both had been runner-up in their respective races last year, but both Healy (21) and McElhinney (22) carried into their senior careers the kind of underage credentials that made success in this realm seem inevitable.
Sunday, on a stunning, scenic course at the Rosapenna Golf Resort, was the day their vast talents rose above their domestic rivals.
The women’s 8000m race boiled down to a duel between two 1500m specialists in Healy and Ciara Mageean. With gusting winds on the course, there was caution through the opening half, with little splintering among the main contenders through the opening 5000m.
But soon after Healy and Mageean cranked up the pressure, drawing clear of last year’s champion Michelle Finn.
Healy looked the more comfortable through the closing kilometres, and waited until the final uphill climb before making her decisive move over the three-time European 1500m medallist, surging clear on the downhill run to the finish and coming home 15 seconds ahead to take her first Irish senior cross country title in 27:05, with Dublin City Harriers taking the team title.
Mageean took silver with Finn taking bronze, while Ann-Marie McGlynn outsprinted Mary Mulhare for fourth, likely also securing her place on the Irish team for the Europeans in Italy next month.
The men’s race proved to be an even cagier affair, with none of the main contenders injecting any meaningful surges through the opening kilometres.
Efrem Gidey of Clonliffe moved to the front just before halfway, pulling McElhinney clear along with Peter Lynch and last year’s champion, Hiko Tonosa.
But the pace slowed again on the penultimate 1500m lap, with Keelan Kilrehill closing down on the leaders and making it a group of five.
At last year’s nationals in Santry, McElhinney had moved early, with Tonosa striking back and out-kicking him for gold, but this time the opposite occurred.
On the uphill stretch of the final lap, with about 600 metres to run, Tonosa launched a vicious attack, and only McElhinney went with him.
The UCD student tracked Tonosa over the crest of the hill and then surged past, pulling clear on the downhill run to the finish, enjoying the luxury of an early celebration as he powered up the home straight to his first senior cross country title.
He hit the line in 29:59, with Tonosa four seconds behind and Lynch taking bronze a further three seconds back. Gidey took fourth and helped Clonliffe to the team title.
“After winning the indoor (3000m) and outdoor (5000m), I wanted to make it three and win the cross country, and it was probably the most challenging as I’m more comfortable on the track,” said McElhinney.
“It took me a while to get going, but I felt comfortable the whole way. Being at the course yesterday, I knew if I wanted to win I had to be the strongest going up the last hill and I did that.”
For the Glengarriff native, the win erased much of the pain of his 2021 defeat.
“Last year was my first year running it and I was disappointed with the way I ran it, I didn’t make good decisions during the race but today, I executed it the way I wanted to,” he said.
McElhinney won U-23 individual silver and team gold at last year’s Europeans in Dublin and he’s hoping for similar in Italy.
“That’s the main goal,” he said. “We have such a strong team we can have very realistic aims of trying to win it, and from my own point of view, having been second last year I want to be on the podium again, and I’d love to try and win it.”
Leevale’s Anika Thompson was a decisive winner of the women’s U-20 title after making the long journey from the west coast of the United States for the event.
The 19-year-old Oregon native, who has dual citizenship, stamped her class on the field from the gun, coming home in 14:10 with four seconds to spare over runner-up Anna Gardiner.
“It was tough out there but I had a lot of fun,” said Thompson, a student at the University of Oregon.
“Whenever I commit to taking it early, there’s no going back. I look forward to continue competing in Ireland because this is my second home country, for sure.” Looking ahead to her first Irish vest at the Europeans next month, Thompson said it was “a dream come true”.