57 runners took to the start line for the 32nd running of the annual Annalong Horseshoe fell race, this year featuring as a long race in the NIMRA championship. The weather was bright and clear, with cool temperatures and strong winds expected on the summits. Three previous winners of this race lined up on the starting line, any one of them favourite for this years honours. Last years winner, Deon McNeilly of Newcastle AC, recently becoming a V50, was aiming to become the first person to record a win in this race in the Open category, as a V40 and as a V50.
McNeilly started off very strongly, leading the pack in the climb to the first checkpoint on Chimney Rock, with past winner Stephen Cunningham of Mourne Runners close behind. Cunningham had pulled out a lead on the runnable section on the way to the next checkpoint on the summit of Commedagh, with McNeilly second and Neil Carty of North Belfast tucked into third place. Diane Wilson of Dromore AC was the leading lady, ahead of current NIMRA ladies champion Sileen O’Kane of Lagan Valley.
With good visibility over all the summits, Cunningham was determined not to make any navigational mistakes that might cost him victory and over the next three checkpoints, Cove, Lamigan and Binnian, he gradually eased further ahead of McNeilly. Behind him, the race became quite processional, with positions rarely changing.
Past winner Clive Bailey of Mourne Runners undertook a spirited chase of Carty on the climb up to the last checkpoint on Binnian, actually overtaking the North Belfast Harrier on the rough descent to temporarily take third place. Carty was not to be denied on the final road section though, using his well rehearsed road speed to overtake Bailey on the way to the finish.
Stephen Cunningham crossed the finish line first in a time of 2:04, eight minutes outside Robbie Bryson’s course record that he came so close to claiming a few years ago. McNeilly was second (and first V50), Carty third and Bailey (V40) having to settle for fourth place. Diane Wilson was a worthy winner of the ladies class, recording a time of 2:31, third fastest ladies time ever on this course, O’Kane and Anne Sandford completing the ladies top three places. Male V60 winner, Stewart Cunningham of Mourne Runners recorded a sub-three hour run, always a good benchmark for this course.
Only one non-finisher, a runner who retired at the Marshaling checkpoint at the base of the last climb and who gratefully accepted a lift from the marshals back to the finishing line. Plenty of grazes and bruises as tired legs were found wanting on he final descent off Binnian on rough ground. One runner with a day job as an equine vet, was kept busy after the race and went home a few bandages lighter.
This race was the tenth anniversary of the B.A.R.F. club taking over the organising duties from Denis Rankin, who organised this race for a great many years previously. It was therefore fitting that at the prize giving ceremony, B.A.R.F. member Ian Taylor was presented with a special award by the club in recognition of having successfully completed his 30th Annalong Horse fell race.
A special thank you to Podium 4 Sport, Belfast, who supplied sports vouchers as prizes for the leading male and female positions. Also thanks to Northern Ireland Water, without whose permission to use their lands for parking and access would make organising the race more onerous. Thanks to LVO for hiring us their S.I. timing kit. And as always, many thanks to the marshals and volunteers who helped out on the day, either on the hill or in providing the post-race refreshments and technical support, without whom the race would not take place.