The article below was written by John Walshe and appeared in the Irish Runner magazine back in 2005. It is republished here with their kind permission. Even though the article is some seven years old, I believe that it is still as relevant today as it was back then. At present, there are a number of evening winter leagues taking place mainly in east Munster. I have details of these up on the Running in Munster website...just look for the series adverts on the right hand side of the page. These could be replicated in any large town or city in the country with a bit of planning. Evening leagues are suitable for new and experienced runners alike. If you are in a position to help start one in your area next winter, you might give it some thought...
West Waterford's Allrounder League is a proven winner and a template could be copied countrywide.
"We must tell the whole country about this, why can't every town have one?" The enthusiasm of West Waterford AC Chairman James Veale, is palpable as he talks about the sight of 340 runners heading off on a dreary November night around the streets of Dungarvan, reflective bibs shining in the darkness.
The Allrounder Winter League takes place every Wednesday night from early November to the end of February, with just a short break at Christmas, making it 15 weeks in total., Started ten years ago with just seven runners, its phenomenal growth has mirrored that of the West Waterford club itself, playing a significant role in their rise to become one of the most vibrant athletic clubs in the country.
"I suppose a whole combination of things has contributed to making it so successful," muses Veale as he tries to come to terms with the huge organisational input the League now requires. "The coverage in the local newspapers has a lot to do with it. Our two papers here in Dungarvan - The Leader and The Observer - give two or three pages a week to the club and we also advertise it in many of the local factories."
There is a choice of two distances each week, a 2.7-mile catering for beginners and a 6-mile for the established runners. After the first night, a handicap system comes into operation, with the slowest person each week going off first the following week. First across the line is awarded one point, and so on down the line. The person with the lowest number of points at the end of the league is the winner. After Christmas, both leagues are divided into several divisions to sustain everyone's interest.
Dungarvan Sports Centre serves as the league headquarters. Out on the road, up to 20 stewards are required, with another 12 to 15 at the finish looking after car parking and entries and recording numbers and times.
"A lot of the helpers wouldn't be members of the club; some of them having been roped in over the years. They give great commitment - even my own father has been there since day one," says Veale. This year, in the interest of safety, a new long route was devised consisting of a two-mile out and back with a loop around St.Augustine's College in the middle.
It was back in 1994 that Tony Ryan first established the Allrounder Winter League. "I remember we used to meet at the Dungarvan Crystal Centre and had seven runners the first night, increasing to around 23 by the end of the winter. The format was the same as today, culminating in the Mystery Tour and prize-giving night."
The famous Mystery Tour was another of Ryan's innovative ideas. "On the last Friday in February we head off on a bus tour to a pub, the destination of which is known to only two people. Here we present all the various prizes for the league, including the leading people in each of the divisions.
"The key to the success of the Winter Leagues is that people realise you don't have to be a good runner to take part. Also, the handicap system gives everyone a chance of actually finishing first."
"If some body like the Irish Sports Council started one of these in every county in Ireland, in ten years time you could imagine the impact it would have," concludes Ryan.
It's certainly a suggestion that maybe John Treacy, Chairman of the Irish Sports Council and one of Tony Ryan's contemporaries from his own juvenile athletic days, should consider.