Dermot Donnelly- An athlete of proven ability and integrity

To the athletics fraternity throughout Northern Ireland the instantly recognisable name of Dermot Donnelly commands immediate respect and to the layperson it is almost certainly heard with a sense of familiarity. For the past decade and more Dermot Donnelly has been the single, most dominant, guiding light in Northern Ireland distance athletics. Whether in the green of Ireland/ Northern Ireland, the red, white and blue of Great Britain or the orange of Annadale Striders, Dermot performed with distinction in World, European and National competition. In an age were many athletes talk a 'good race' Dermot was always modest and unassuming, determined to let his running do the talking. The close of the 2004 track season culminated with Dermot retiring from competitive athletics. However, with his vast array of experience he now takes on a fresh, new challenge as coach to the rising stars at Annadale Striders.

My father was a runner and he competed for Casement A.C and West Belfast A.C when I was very young. Although he had a passion for running he never put pressure on me to run, though naturally there was encouragement.
I suppose it all started when at school, La Salle in Belfast. I like all pupils tried all the various sports, basketball, gaelic and so on and although I enjoyed them was never terribly good at them. When I was in my fifth year there was a strong cross-country team with Jim and Andy Campbell at the helm. To help the team in the Senior race in the Ulster Schools' cross country I was encouraged to run despite still being in the intermediate category. Naturally finding it tough I finished an unspectacular 38th.

From then on I became one of the converted and I joined Belfast Olympic. There I started to train and naturally improvements quickly followed. So much so that I won the Ulster Schools' the following year and I travelled to the Irish Schools' in Dungarvan finishing 4th missing the bronze medal by two seconds. An early scalp of my career that day was Cormac Finnerty who in 1995 ran 13:18 for the 5000m. That was an interesting experience competing against so many people that you had never seen before. In my second year of training I was undefeated in cross country and I picked up Northern Ireland and Scottish youth titles to join the Ulster Schools' one.
With everything going well things dramatically changed one idealic evening at the Mary Peter's Track. It was the Pearl Assurance Games, a big meeting with all the top stars present, an impressive crowd and an atmosphere to match. There was a junior 3km race and I was intrigued to know what you had to do to be able to compete. I flicked through a programme and when I arrived at the entry list for the race my name was there, I had been entered but no one from the club had told me! This intense disappointment required immediate action and Jim Campbell's mum quickly crafted our letter of resignation! We joined Annadale in August 1987.

Like anyone involved in sport early successes always have a lasting impression on you and my first Ulster Schools' cross country victory stands out. It was my first major win and what made it that bit special was the presence of my father. Generally early success was over the country with another fine victory in the under 20 race at the prestigious Gateshead cross country races. Also, there was my first senior cross-country title in 1993. After having finished 5th in 1990 and then 2nd in 1991 it was fantastic to accomplish an ambition. This was a defining moment as I managed to defeat such illuminaries as Deon McNeilly, John Ferrin, Davy Wilson and Jim Campbell. Coming from Annadale Striders I was only too well aware of the clubs strong tradition in the 'Senior' and to win it meant a huge personal accomplishment. This was the first year that I was ranked in the Great Britain rankings for 3000m in which I was 4th with a best of 8.17.

In 1989, as a 19 year old I eclipsed the magical 30 minute barrier for 10km with 29.59 which is still ranked 4th on the All-time British rankings for a junior. It is also interesting to note that my two other Annadale team mates Davy Wilson and Jim Campbell are also ranked 7th and 9th respectfully. Another memorable outing was my 8th place amongst the best runners in Ireland in the 1990 Quinlan Cup recording 23.48 for the 5 mile course. It was a great feeling travelling with our strong squad all the way to Dublin to challenge the best runners in Ireland. Tony was a great advocate of promoting the club at every occasion and actually in 1994 in the space of four weeks we raced in Dublin three times and once in Spain in the European clubs' cross country championships! In 1992 having represented Northern Ireland on numerous occasions I reached another level when Gary Lough, Brian Treacy and myself were invited to attend a Great Britain under 23 squad training session, I thought this was big time! With success already secured as a junior at Gateshead it was also satisfying to finish 3rd in the senior race behind two Kenyan athletes.

Although I wouldn't class them as memorable races I have had many stepping stone type races along the way. Winning the Northern Ireland junior title in 1990 and then in 1994 my 18.33 for the Dundonald 4 mile road race and my 29.33 for 3rd in the Laganside 10km in very windy conditions beating Spencer Duval and Carl Thackery spring to mind. Also there was my 16th place in the European clubs' cross country in which I led Annadale to a fantastic 6th place in the team stakes. Incidentally in 1997 I surpassed that with a 10th place finish. My 36th place finish in the European Cross Country Championships in 1997 was notable as I was the 3rd finisher in the Great Britain team.

Off course, there has to be my record breaking run in Hechtel when I ran 13.27 which is the Northern Ireland record. There was also my run at Battersea Park when I had a great battle with the world class Hendrick Ramaala. I clocked 13.35 behind his 13.33 for 2nd on that occasion. My time is 11th on the All-time British Milers Club rankings. As a distance runner I am proud of having the distinction of being the AAA champion over both the 5000m and 10,000m.

I have always felt honoured and privileged to have worn each and every one of my international vests and being able to do yourself justice on the day certainly cements the occasion. As such, although my time of 29.05 was slow due to the 300C heat and 90% humidity a 5th place in the 1998 Kuala Lumpur Commonwealth Games is something which I greatly respect. Furthermore, I was only 3 seconds outside a medal! For months afterwards the blisters on my feet were testament to 29.05 minutes of effort on a burning track!

As for disappointments, I was totally gutted on being controversially left off the Great Britain Team for the 1998 World Cross Country Championships. It was made perfectly clear prior to the trial race that the first six would make up the team. I was the sixth finisher but I was neglected in place of John Nuttall who was seventh. I was also ignored for the European Track and Field team in which there were three places available. I had achieved the qualifying time and defeated Rod Finch but yet he and Karl Keska were both selected. I felt that this was basic discrimination and understandably was very agitated and upset. I was told that it wasn't malicious, but I have my doubts. I just feel that it was so blatant. After the Commonwealth Games of 1998 I then made the decision to represent Ireland.

Having made my debut for Ireland in the Coca Cola International Cross Country meet at Barnett's Demesne finishing a pleasing 5th it was extra special to return there a few months later for the 1999 World Cross Country Championships. It had always been an ambition of mine to compete with the best in the world and to do so in Belfast was special. Another disappointment not only for me but also for Tony were our near misses in the National 6-stage relays. With Tony striving as always, "we have to look for new horizons to conquer" on each of our few challenges it was a case of it just not happening. On a few occasions with one thing or another we failed to travel with our top team but yet faired admirably 6th or so. However, the year we travelled with our best team and with ambitions high, on the day some of us just did not perform. I suppose that's the way it goes sometimes.

My unsuccessful attempt to qualify for the 2000 Olympics has to be my abiding disappointment. I had a successful venture training at altitude and recorded 7.58 for the 3km at the start of the season and then my hip went. Training had been going very well with memorable sessions such as 6x800m in 2.10 mins with 1 min recovery being run. After the Commonwealths I should have sorted it out but the problem was that it wasn't that bad, and interestingly there wasn't a major problem when running. However, that all changed somewhat and there became a time when I had to take anti-amflammatories prior to training, and that isn't the way forward! I sought the help of the man with the magic hands, Gerard Hartman in Limerick. He helped a lot but in the end the only real solution was rest. This meant that I eventually ran out of time to achieve the qualifying mark for the Games, disappointing, as it certainly was a target that was well within my capabilities. After making the arduous road back to fitness I never felt 100% and even though I recorded 13:49 in 2003 I clearly knew that I wasn't getting the return in times from the effort that I was putting in.

Over the years I have been fortunate to have many rivals because without them the pressure would not be there to extend yourself. In the early days especially it was Andy and Jim Campbell, Philip Healy and Philip Pollard. Then as I got older and faster new additions entered the fray with Bobby Farren, Brian Treacy and Davy Wilson. On the mainland athletes such as: Steve Green, Malcolm Campbell, Spencer Barden, Spencer Duval, Glynn Tromans, Keith Cullen, Dominic Bannister and Christian Stevenson were never too far in front or in arrears. Irish athletes that I had many a battle with included: Seamus Power, Cormac Finnerty, yes, right through my career, Noel Cullen, and Noel Berkeley.

Like most athletes of my generation Seb Coe or Steve Ovett figure prominently in ones favourite athlete considerations. For me it was Seb, and it was basically the sheer fluency of the man that captured my imagination. As for athletes of the modern era it has to be both Haile Gebrselassie and Paul Tergat. You can't argue with these two choices! Haile because of his style and he was making a distinct breakthrough at a time when I was also progressing. As for Paul Tergat well what elegance, incidentally at home I have a framed picture of him and I momentarily beside each other from the cross-country race at Stormont.

Athletics has afforded me the opportunity to travel to many a distant place that I undoubtedly would never have ventured to otherwise, pretty much due to the sheer expense. I raced many times throughout Europe but have fond memories of spending time in Australia, Kuala Lumpur, (Commonwealth Games, 1998) Canada, (Commonwealth Games, 1994) South Africa and off course extensively throughout the U.K.

On joining Annadale Striders the training became more focused and serious. With the club being steeped in a successful tradition with John McLaughlin, Paul Lawther and John Doherty amongst others achieving recognised successes it was now a case of getting down to business. With the effervescent Tony McKnight religiously on hand with the training sessions it was Tuesday and Thursday on the track and a fartlek on the Saturday. Davy Wilson was the club's main asset then and with the likes of Gary Lough around it was a case of slotting in with what they were doing. There were occasions in the beginning when I would be given a 100m lead over 600m and Davy had the job to catch me, however over time things eventually were revised!

Track sessions were pretty stable with one-week 6x1 mile, the next 5x5 laps and then 4 x6 laps normally with a one-lap recovery. On the Thursday it would be a 6x2 min, 6x4 min and then 6x2. The Saturday session would be fun, always with an unknown dimension with it as it was a fartlek to call session. Each runner in turn would call out the next rep, so depending on who was present this would dictate the length and intensity of the reps. This was a session when there was always great craic. There was a very good bunch of lads training; Brian Treacy, Jim and Andy Campbell, Richard Blakely, Eoin O'Neill along with Davy and Gary amongst others. Naturally the training was hard but certainly enjoyable, but more importantly essential if I was to develop and make serious progress. After a while training became an everyday activity with it peaking at twice a day for 5 days of the week, culminating with a weekly mileage of 90 miles.

Well I was never known as a speedster and so the quickest I ever ran for 400m was 55 sec, and this believe it or not was during the last rep of a session. My other times are as follows:

800m- 1.55
1500m- 3.44
3000km- 7.58
5000km- 13.27 Northern Ireland record
10,000m- 28.32- Northern Ireland record
10 mile- 48.26 - ( Just ran the one)

Although I achieved a lot of success over the country and certainly domestically on the roads I really enjoyed the track. I felt that it suited me and I just loved the feeling of running well on it. As for my times I feel that they are a fair reflection of my ability although I feel that the 10,000m is rather soft. Like many runners although you feel that the time doesn't reflect your ability in the end it was a case of not getting the right race at the right time.


For anyone involved in sport at an 'elite' level the loyalty to and the bond between the coach and athlete is fundamental to performance. Although I will always have the utmost respect for my mentor and friend Tony McKnight who equipped me with the basis for my future success, in the end there was no real focus in the training. The major targets were the Seeley and then the Senior and so on. With the sudden death of Tony, Malcolm Brown approached me and then became my advisor. There was a distinct difference in the training approach. We sat down and developed a very structured and logical system of training. The focus of the training had a broader outlook and instead of prioritising the Seeley it was now the Commonwealths, the Europeans, the World Cross and the AAAs. Often in coaching even the slightest bit of readjusting can make the crucial differences. Some may say that Tony did all the important groundwork and all that Malcolm did was to add the finishing touches. This assertion can never really be fully quantified but I certainly acknowledge the different and valuable contribution made by both men.

Had I moved to Malcolm earlier who knows what the ultimate difference may have been, but saying and doing are two distinct pathways.
Aside from missing out on my Olympic ambitions I have no other regrets, I did enough and I am pleased with what I achieved. In 1989 after my 6th place in the Miskimmon Cup at Ballyclare Tony remarked, "His potential is certainly bright" and I accept this opinion as an abiding compliment. I'm fortunate Tony was rarely wrong!

After all, had I never got into running I would have missed out on the fantastic prize of 'half a ton of peat briquettes' I once received for finishing 7th in the Simon Community 5 mile road race!

I wish to thank Dermot for giving of his time for the interview as I know that much of it is now spent religiously at the golf practice ground, correcting that; snap hook, wicked slice, air shot, pull………….

© Annadale Striders /Keith McClure.