Some of the quickest in the country will descend on the tiny Northern Ireland town of Armagh to pit their wits against each other in an event not short on rapid times and excitement.
Next week’s races will be part of the 27th edition of the event that was first organised by Armagh Athletic Club in 1990. The growth of the event in depth and talent since has been phenomenal.
Limited fields in which runners are required to hit qualifying times are a rarity on the roads these days. Outside the British Milers Club track meets during the summer, where the emphasis is very much on fast times and personal bests, races backed and designed specifically for the faster runner have become something of a dirty concept.
But this is where Armagh is different.
Last year’s International 5k saw 28 men dip under 14.30 and 66 of the field go inside 15 minutes.
The 2015 National XC champion, Sale Harriers’ Charlie Hulson, took the plaudits in 14.02.83 after a photo finish with Yannick Michiels of Belgium and Highgate’s Andy Maud under the fairy lights that lined the historic 18th Century City Centre Mall.
The slightly undulating course also played host to more than one hundred women in the women’s 3k, including Olympians Eilish McColgan and Beth Potter. Led home by Ireland’s Sarah Tracey in 9.18, fourteen women made it past the post in under 9.30, and a further 15 went under the magic 10-minute marker.
The approach of race organiser, Brian Vallely, is meticulous. 4am starts are not out of the ordinary leading up to race day. Competing athletes are treated with respect beyond their ability, with paid-for accommodation, meals and transport adding a positive pressure to perform.
Brian has led the way in driving up standards over the last 26 years through the simple, yet effective, concept of closed fields and financial backing.
Sponsorship by Brooks and Intersport, closed roads, excitable commentary and Christmas lights switched on especially for the occasion add to the sense of a great happening. The near-kilometre loop in the centre of town that passes by Sainsbury’s and Mr Chips in a blur is inspired if hardly exciting, designed solely for speed.
Add in the buzz of competitiveness fed back by the juniors and an inspired community turning out in support – and fast times and a booming event are inevitable.
This year’s edition promises to be better than ever.
Records could well tumble in both the women’s 3k (9.07.9 set by Mary Cullen in 2013) and the men’s 5k (13.54 set by US athlete David Nightingale in 2009). But one thing is certain – racing will be fast and furious.
The addition of the World Sprint Orienteering 3 Day event, will likely add to the atmosphere, with some of the world’s top orienteers toeing the line alongside running’s best.
Olympian and 1500m specialist Laura Weightman tops this year’s 3k with a bucket-load of experience and a best time on the track of 8.43.46.
Jess Judd, hoping to continue her good form and get close to her best mark of 9.00.06, will head the England team – backed up by Charlotte Arter and Rachael Burns. Last year’s second and third place finishers, Sarah Inglis and Laura Whittle, are also set to return.
ONES TO WATCH
The men’s 5k will feature at least 18 sub-14 minute runners and well over 100 sub-15 runners doing battle around the 19 hairpin bends that make up the course.
Defending champion, Charlie Hulson, with a 13.43 best, returns as does last year’s runner-up, Yannick Michelis of Belgium. U23 starlet Jonny Davies (13.23) leads the field in terms of personal best time – and he’ll no doubt be looking to banish BUCS woes with a win on firmer footing.
ONES TO WATCH
Words by Hannah Viner
Image from Armagh 5k