University College Dublin counts among its former students James Joyce, Flann O’Brien, several Irish prime ministers, and me.
Back in Dublin for a few days recently, I went for a sunny morning run that took in Clonskeagh and Roebuck (the Heartbreak Hill of the Dublin Marathon route), Stillorgan, Blackrock and the UCD campus in familiar old Belfield.
I wasn’t very active in sport during my student days. A few games of football as part of my class team, plus one rugby training session – that was the extent of my college sports career. But I was a sports reporter for The College Tribune, one of the two college newspapers, covering the student football league and the university boxing team. However, it never occured to me to check out the college athletics.
UCD has always had a successful athletics club, featuring Olympians like Noel Carroll in the 1960s, James Nolan and David Matthews in the 1990s, and Derval O’Rourke and Joanne Cuddihy in recent years. Up-and-coming stars like Ciara Everard and Mark English look set to emulate those celebrated figures.
And the Belfield running track became one of the landmarks of Irish athletics. It featured regularly on Irish television, whose studios are just across the road from the UCD campus. The popular and high-profile GOAL charity mile took place there every Christmas morning, and schools and varsity competitions were held there regularly. Elite runners – even those who weren’t already UCD alumni – would train at Belfield before heading off to major championships.
In August 1985 four of those top Irish athletes – Eamonn Coghlan, Marcus O’Sullivan, Frank O’Mara and Ray Flynn – came to Belfield and set a world record for the 4 x 1 mile relay. Such was the depth of talent in Ireland’s men’s running in those days that Olympic medallist and former world cross country champion John Treacy was only on the ‘B’ team that pushed the first four to their record.
That world record still stands, but the track doesn’t. In November 2011 the Belfield track was closed suddenly by college authorities.
Health and safety concerns were the reason given for the closure – an old, worn track was apparently slippery in wet conditions. But a cynic might wonder if the lack of investment in maintaining the facility allowed it to be literally run down until it inevitably became unfit for purpose.
This cynicism was fuelled when, on the day after the closure, diggers appeared on the track and tore out strategically-placed strips to render it unuseable. Ironically, during my student days I remember seeing barriers across it at certain hours, probably to deter non-authorised runners.
Since I started running eight years ago, I had always hoped to run on the Belfield track one day. Its closure seemed to have put paid to that idea.
But while passing the track during my Belfield run last Saturday, I saw that those diggers had left a section of fence missing. The track was open to access – here was my chance.
There wasn’t much track left to run on. Lanes 5 to 8 down the home straight and around the bend were now storing pallets of window panes. The inside lanes were mostly covered with large patches of gravel and sand. The trenches dug across the track were now filled in, but probably just to facilitate the diggers parked in the infield.
But there was still enough of the familiar red surface, though worn and faded, to set the athlete’s heart and feet racing. So I finally did it – two laps around what’s left of the Belfield track.
A new world-class indoor athletics facility has just opened in Athlone, in the centre of Ireland. It’s sure to host record-breaking performances of its own, and inspire new generations of runners to pass from dreams to achievements to nostalgia. Such is the way of things.
Here’s the finest moment from the Belfield track – a sunny afternoon, a heaving crowd, and a 4 x 1 mile world record that has outlived the stage of its performance: