Google+ Running in Cork, Ireland: Q&A with Michael Herlihy, race director of the Charleville Half-Marathon

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Q&A with Michael Herlihy, race director of the Charleville Half-Marathon

The Charleville Half-Marathon is coming up on Sunday the 21st of September and the standard entry closes today the 11th. For more information on the race, see this earlier post or to register, go to

The Charleville Half-Marathon at this stage is well established and has earned a reputation as a fast half-marathon course. In this Q&A article, I've asked race director Michael Herlihy about the race itself, how it came about, where the money from it goes and some of the plans for the future.


Q. Ok Michael, most people may know you as the race director of the Charleville Half-Marathon and as a former winner of the Cork City Marathon. Can you tell the readers a bit more about yourself? I think you may have gone to the US on a sports scholarship when you were younger? Your various personal best times for various distances?

MH...I wasn’t in any way a special talent as a juvenile athlete, just basically known for my high mileage training as a juvenile, inspired by some advice by former North Cork AC coach, Fr Liam Kelleher (Coach to numerous Irish International athletes) and by the magazine interviews that he did with top athletes. Under the guidance of my club coach David Doyle I achieved consistent training to get me to a decent level. I went to the North Mon for a year after finishing secondary school in Charleville. I had been developing steadily from a poor juvenile to this point where Br John Dooley helped me for a year. After this year when I finished 3rd in the Irish schools XC, I secured a scholarship through Br Dooley in Loyola University, Chicago. However, I returned home after a semester, not liking the structure and culture of the American System despite the success I had there initially. I was determined to try to make it in Ireland as a runner but was possibly a bit naive about the impact that the lack of support available in Ireland and in the Irish University system would have on my running career. I went through a period of prolonged injury in my early 20’s while in UL but eventually began to find my form again when I spent almost 3 full years in Australia working as a sports science scholar at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra between 2004 and 2008. There was a very good group of distance runners there despite the fact that the distance running programme had been cut from the very medals-orientated AIS. When I came home in 2008/9 I ran some personal bests of 68:21 at the Bantry Half and 50:57 in the Mallow 10 but have struggled to maintain that standard of performance since returning. However training is going well again with the help of the group training sessions of Donie Walsh of Leevale so I am hoping to hit some good times before the end of the year on the road and progress from there. After 23 years in the sport I still just love training hard and racing in good events.

Q. Where did the idea for the Charleville International Half-Marathon come from? What was the inspiration for it and what was it set out to achieve?

MH...The idea for the Charleville Half came from the fact that when I came back from Australia, I was finding it very difficult to get a decent competitive flat long distance road race in Ireland. I was running and winning races like Bantry, Dingle, Blarney half-marathons and Cork Marathon but all of them were not races designed for neither fast, nor competitive running. I ended up flying to Milan and Berlin for half-marathons to run against athletes I didn’t know in fields that were dominated by Kenyans just to try to run fast times.

Therefore, with the support of the rest of North Cork AC, we went ahead and put the Charleville Half on to the end of the Ballyhoura Series which I was co-ordinating at the time and made it the grand finale event of the series, in the same way that the old Charleville 10 mile road race used to be the grand finale of the old Ballyhoura 5 mile series. Our club, needed a fundraiser for the growing membership it had also, especially with the growing size of our juvenile membership. It also responded to the need for a race which would be flat and allow all runners of all ability levels set a personal best which was true to their current level of fitness (especially those preparing for Autumn Marathons). So we saw a niche and capitalised on it. It wasn’t a massive success at the start but it is beginning to show benefit for our clubs hard work now as we have learned about organising an event over the past number of years.

The other inspiration for me personally as a race organiser for this race was that there was and still is a lot of people bemoaning the fact that standards in distance running are falling but very few race organisers seem to want to adapt to the current social and sporting environment in which our top distance runners have to operate. Obviously prize money is a factor but the most obvious factor for me is that there is very few if any race organisers trying to put together a race for the top runners which can be done with a few emails and phone calls to athletes and their coaches just to highlight their race. There are a lot of races being put on for participation which is great and it is a large goal of the Ballyhoura series since I first set it up overall. However a lot of people forget that the top runners don’t ring each other up and organise to race each other at a specific event on a specific date. Therefore because there are so many events these days, there is a big need for race organisers, especially those from athletics clubs to put together a decent field of athletes and help them to race each other.

Our elite field this year is a testament to the kind of race which can be put together with a bit of effort. The extra accommodation and meals are sponsored by the local Charleville Park Hotel so the cost of these does not come from race funds. I believe that it is the responsibility of athletics clubs who organise road races, to try to promote the sport through organising a competitive event rather than just expecting a competitive race to happen when they organise an event. That isn’t a specific dig at any particular club or event but rather it is just pointing out an opportunity for clubs to promote their race in another way and help the sport at the same time. Not all races can offer fast courses or have the revenue or sponsorship for good prize money but where possible, I think there is some responsibility to promote the sport in this way where an event is generating a lot of revenue from the sport. It is the basic principle of giving back something to the sport that you receive from.

Commercial events obviously are in it to make money primarily but athletics clubs with profitable events need to reflect on what they are about when organising a road race event. If clubs don’t attempt to promote and organise competitive events for athletes then who will??? It’s debatable whether most runners in an event notice the runners at the front end of the race and add value in other ways in terms of prestige but I would hope that some enjoy being able to be part of the same race as some top athletes like we have in our event. Some don’t like the idea of big prize money being given to the winning athletes but usually these people are unaware of the link between the inspiration that our top runners provide to young athletes in clubs around the country and the need to provide this inspiration to ensure that young athletes stay in the sport. One of the main reasons for falling standards is because there is less excitement among young athletes about achieving as a senior athlete, so often the most talented athletes are drawn away from our sport or struggle to justify the sacrifices relative to the kind of lifestyle that they could have outside it. Every runner can give back to the sport they participate in by supporting our event and events like it which help all levels of participation and not just the ones that make them money.

Q. Can you tell us a bit more about St.Josephs Foundation? What do they do and how much has the Charleville Half-Marathon contributed to them? What difference does that money make?

MH...St Josephs Foundation provides services for people with special needs and disabilities. They help people from a large geographical area in North Cork and South Limerick. There have been significant cuts in their funding and staff due to the recession. This has put a lot of pressure on the families of the children and adults who use the daily services of the centre. Many of our athletics club members have close or distant family members or neighbours who use the services provided by the charity. Their services are wide ranging for the hundreds of clients that they service. Their mission statement is to provide people with disabilities the opportunity to live the life of their choice to their fullest potential. They are in the finishing stages of developing a horse-riding centre which has been shown to be very beneficial for therapeutic purposes for many of their clients. Our donation of 2000 euro per year is relatively small compared to their overall operating costs but it all adds up for charities like this. They rely on community support and charitable donations like ours. They have their own non-competitive Cycle-Walk-Run event this Sunday 14th September. There is a 10k run/walk event which all runners can participate in.

Q. Can you tell us a little bit about North Cork AC and your role in it? I know they were a very small club in the past but seem to have a much higher profile in the last few years. 

MH...North Cork AC at one stage was the third largest club in the country and produced a number of international athletes in the 1980’s under the guidance of Fr. Liam Kelleher. They even had their own track in Tullylease near Dromina. However it has gone through the doldrums at various stages like many clubs do. I resurrected the club with the help of a number of other members in 2009 and we now have 220 members which are half adults and half juveniles. We are getting some good success at juvenile and junior level at the moment, especially in the distance running and throws events. The aim was to set up a club which was inclusive and provided for athletics activities for a wide a range of abilities and age groups. Obviously you can only provide programmes such as Little Athletics, Couch to 5k, Fit4Life and competitive athletics where you have both the human and financial resources as well as appropriate facilities to support these. I coach juveniles and adults along with 5 or 6 other coaches. About a quarter of our members are competitive athletes, while others participate in the programmes we run and in participation orientated events like the Doneraile 5k series.

Q. What difference does the proceeds from the Charleville Half make to the club? 

MH...Due to the fact that we are in a rural area where there is currently a lot of unemployment, we have tried to keep the cost of membership of the club as low as possible so that there is not a large cost to low-income families when they join our club and so that athletics at all levels is easily accessible. The Charleville Half helps us to subsidise training trips and travel to All-Ireland championships around the country. We subsidise entry fee’s and other competition costs which all add up over a year in athletics. Obviously, the more successful the athlete is, the more expensive it is to subsidise their activities. This is the case for many clubs in Cork who have competitive athletics programmes and also at the same time try to be inclusive. We also have aspirations of contributing to the development of an athletics track in the North Cork region in collaboration with other clubs in the area so we aim to set aside a certain amount each year so that we can apply for grants in the future to subsidise such a project. The aim is to make our club more sustainable in the long term with more coaches and a wide range of members involved. This can only be done with good financial strength and cohesiveness in the club.

Q. I understand North Cork AC use the current tartan track in St.Josephs. Looking at photos of it, I presume that it is a 200m track? It does look a little non-standard in that it seems to be very elongated? Longer straight sections with very sharp corners? I presume this was likely because of the size of the space available? What impact does this have in terms of training?...for adults? Any issues with running bends? 

MH...Yes, the idea behind developing the 400m track came from the fact that our fastest junior and senior runners were finding it very difficult to train effectively on the 206m track due to the tight bends. However, it’s a great facility for coaching our younger juveniles, the little athletics group and beginner runners because it’s easier to monitor them when they are close by. Without this track, we probably wouldn’t have been able to set the club up again. However if we are to continue to make athletics attractive and sustainable for the new generation of athletes, I believe we have to provide good facilities where they can enjoy training and competing to their full potential. At the moment we are hitting a glass ceiling which isn’t obvious to most. Our junior and senior athletes could achieve a lot more with better facilities and our club could grow significantly. Traveling almost an hour and back to Cork or Limerick athletics tracks to train isn’t sustainable in the long term for our club members. We as a club and the collection of clubs in North Cork, have to be able to grow and develop enough to provide a better standard of facilities.

Q. You mentioned recently that the club would like to see a proper 400m track in the North Cork area with a tartan surface. Can you tell us more?

MH...The membership levels in athletics clubs around Cork county and Ireland are soaring, however, there appears to be stagnation in the reaction to this growth. Some clubs and county boards have been very enterprising in providing for this growth with good facilities. However there seems to be a lack of recognition in general among clubs in Cork/Munster that if we fail to respond to the growth in popularity of our sport in the short term, then our sport will fail to make the most of our potential for growth in the long term.

One of the ways that we as a club are trying to respond to the growth in popularity in our sport is by using whatever income we get from the Half-Marathon to re-invest in the sport and facilities locally. Obviously our entry fee for our event is going to be more than other similar events if we are;
1.    Trying to give something back to the sport by investing in a competitive athletics race.
2.    Trying to fundraise for facilities for current and future generations of athletes.
3.    Fundraise for a charity in the local community.

We have suffered a lot of criticism from people for our entry fee being slightly more than other similar events but usually it is because individuals don’t have the awareness or take the time to see what we are trying to do. It is a very difficult thing to try to work towards developing an athletics track. However, in our initial stages of development there seems to be a lot of promise in that many recognise the benefit that an athletics track would have for all clubs in the area and all members, no matter what level of ability. When I train on the track in Cork I see lots of groups of runners of various different levels of ability training there. The main hurdle that we face is generating the resources needed to overcome the initial difficulty of securing a site for a facility, but we along with the other clubs in North Cork are working towards overcoming this.

Q. What are the plans for the future of the Charleville Half-Marathon? 

MH...There are a lot of opportunities to develop the race even further but there are also a lot of challenges in doing this. For now we are going through a good phase of steady growth and trying to achieve the right balance in saving for the future and at the same time trying to invest in the race now. A lot depends on whether runners decide to continue to participate in our event. Maybe we can make it an event with the same level of reputation as the Ballycotton 10 or maybe it will fall by the side like the Dromina 10 mile road race did back in the 1980’s. Some people have suggested developing a marathon event on top of the half-marathon with a similar flat course. However the reality is that club races like ours depend on the good will of our members to organise it and the community around us to support it so for now we will concentrate on doing a good job with the event we have.
It also depends on runners, whether they are club runners or not, to support our event not just because we provide as good a quality event as the commercially organised events, but because when they participate in a club event like ours, the money all goes back into the sport.

As a club we try to provide as high a quality a standard event as possible and provide good value for money but it should also be recognised that our event stands for other things that not all other events stand for. I hope that runners will recognise the need to support events that are both participation and competitively orientated. I also hope that they will see that by supporting club events that it is like supporting your local shop and businesses. It will eventually benefit you as a runner to do so. People have the freedom of choice but I believe they should also recognise a certain level of responsibility to put something back into their sport which provides them with such enjoyment. That probably sums up what I as a race-director, athletics coach, administrator and athlete am all about. Thanks for asking the questions and providing the opportunity to demonstrate this through your blog. I don’t pretend to be any expert in this area but my intentions I believe are right in trying to innovate and develop the sport to be inclusive of all people who can both participate and compete. Our sport provides a very good template for the development of young and older people but we as a sport need to be proactive in developing it and putting it out there.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very good interview.mike may upset the apple cart at times but he is a genuine guy.looking forward to the half marathon.