Over the last 18 months, Ronan and his wife Sarah have been plotting a new style of running club. They have been meticulously planning, developing and putting the groundwork in place to bring their ‘experiment’ into fruition.
While Ronan doesn’t sound like Doctor Frankenstein and their plan doesn’t seem too wacky on the face of it, the scheme promises to make waves in the distance running community.
Ronan and Sarah’s new athletics club goes by the name of Wirral Vikings and Mersey Racing Team.
In order to understand what this new England Athletics-authorised club is about, it’s essential to know first why it came about.
Ronan and Sarah have been involved in athletics for a very long time.
Ronan, founder of the Liverpool-based venture capital company Osprey Capital, is also a former British Masters Indoor 800m champion. Both he and Sarah have run since they were young and now their six kids run too – some to a decent club standard and others verging on international level.
Ronan and Sarah – who won the V40 Welsh Cross Country Championships earlier this year – are also England Athletics-accredited and Lydiard-qualified youth distance coaches at Wirral AC. Their genuine passion for the sport is without question.
As coaches to young athletes, there were two problems that they felt really needed addressing for the future of our sport.
The first problem is the number of athletes under the age of 20 who simply drop out of the sport, particularly women.
There have been numerous articles written on the dropout rate among teenagers in athletics. The reasons attributed invariably relate to academic pressures, body confidence and busy social lives. Peer pressure and less direct parental involvement and support are other reasons cited.
We know that this is nothing new.
The persisting problem, though, was hammered home at the North of England Cross Country Championships in 2016.
While there were over 100 clubs who entered one event or other that day, there were only two complete teams of 3 counters in the junior women’s race.
‘The reason why there are so few girls and boys isn’t that they don’t want to continue with athletics, but because they have other pressures at that age, including exams and social lives,’ says Ronan.
‘Even when kids who are very fit stop for a while, they lose their fitness very quickly, so when they try and come back, it is a struggle. It knocks their confidence and they stop enjoying it. Of course, after a while, they drop out.’
The second problem affecting young athletes in England occurs at the end of school life, according to Ronan.
‘A lot of young people aspire to go to university,’ he says.
‘They want to keep up their running while they’re there, but unless they are very, very good, approaching international standard, then there is no money involved.’
The money swilling around the running industry is significant. The sports events industry is worth as much as £2.3 billion – with running making up as much as 77% of it.
More than 6 million adults run at least twice a week, while some estimates that include children move this figure up to as many as 10.5 million people.
Consumers spent more than £600 million on running footwear and apparel in 2015 – an increase of 50% compared to 2010. The running industry shows little sign of slowing down.
The fact relatively little is reinvested back into the athletes is another of the challenges the sport faces to remain relevant to newcomers and talented athletes alike.
For most students juggling a job, quality training, university work and a social life, it’s hardly surprising the dropout rate is so high. The conditions just aren’t in place to make the most of the talent available.
The question Ronan and Sarah have asked is: why can’t the running itself be something that sustains you? In these times of students leaving university with massive debt, why can’t your running talent pave the way to a free degree and future career?
The set-up for a minority of the very best athletes in the country at St Mary’s, Birmingham and Loughborough is the equivalent of an NCAA division two, or even three, university across the Pond. The opportunities in this country are at a premium.
‘In the US they don’t have these problems,’ explains Ronan.
‘All the colleges have teams of at least 15 boys and 15 girls from the ages of 18-22. What’s more, these kids are rewarded to run, with some or all of their college expenses paid, including fees, accommodation and meal plans, in addition to free physio and training.’
And that’s where the solution came from.
Ronan and Sarah have created a club that doesn’t necessarily rely on traditional methods of membership fees for its income.
The project uses a combination of community partnerships with local athletics clubs like Wirral AC and National League football club, Tranmere Rovers, plus income generated from athletics camps, road running races and other events to help support talented athletes from the local area.
Far from a commercial venture, the Wirral Vikings and Mersey Racing Team is a social enterprise that has been completely self-funded by Ronan and Sarah so far. All the money generated goes straight back into the running and development of the project – and the future of talented young athletes.
Ronan and Sarah’s vision is to create an infrastructure on Merseyside that takes kids from U11 level all the way through to U23 via in-school athletics, partnerships with universities at home and abroad, and paid-for scholarships.
‘The idea is that kids will be introduced to and take part in athletics in their community through the Wirral Vikings, and then once they leave school, their running ability will effectively pay for their university degree,’ says Ronan.
‘Once they return from university, the Mersey Racing Team structure will give the athletes space to train and race to the highest level for another three or four years while being in flexible employment.’
It sounds like a dream – but Ronan is clear just how that dream will be made into a concrete reality.
Words by Hannah Viner
Image from Ronan Kearney
Read more about Ronan and Sarah’s progress with Wirral Vikings/Mersey Racing Team in the next print edition of Left Spike Fanzine out soon.