Buoyed by World Athletics Label Road Race status, Antrim Coast Half Marathon organiser James McIlroy hopes to see one-hour barrier broken in August
Five months ago the Antrim Coast Half Marathon proved one of the road racing highlights of the pandemic-hit year when Mo Farah and Lily Partridge triumphed on a picturesque and fast 13.1-mile course in Northern Ireland.
Now, in 2021, the event is set to be bigger, better and even quicker with race organiser James McIlroy hoping for a field of 10,000, plus thousands more spectators as the elite runners try to break the one-hour barrier for men and 70-minute barrier for women.
“The plan is to get the first sub-60 and hopefully well inside 70 minutes for women in Northern Ireland,” says McIlroy.
The event enjoyed a timely boost recently when it became one of only three events in the UK to be currently included in the series of World Athletics Label Road Races, the other two being the London Marathon and Cardiff Half Marathon.
The Antrim Coast Half, which is sponsored by P&O, now hopes to follow this success when it is held on August 29 – slightly earlier than last year in order to avoid a clash with the Great North Run and, of course, the Olympics.
“It’ll probably be the first elite road race after the Olympics,” says McIlroy, “and it’s not often you get major athletics events in Northern Ireland.”
He adds: “We have the World Athletics Label status, which is brilliant, and we hope to build on the 60:27 (by Farah) and 71:36 (from Partridge) from last year.
“The course is very fast and it goes through an UNESCO World Heritage site. And hopefully it will be much better this year with the masses back.”
McIlroy reveals Farah fancied attacking his British record of 59:07 at the event last September and the organiser was lobbying for runners to attack the mark in the pre-race build up.
“I know Mo wanted to have a crack at the British record but it just turned into a race because Marc (Scott, the runner-up) is running very, very well. With Stephen Scullion taking it out and Ben Connor there too it was a class men’s race while Lily Partridge broke away to win the women’s race well.
“It turned out very well and it’s not often you get an out-and-out race at the head of the men’s event. In total 35 out of 62 runners ran PBs as well.”
What’s more, the masters sensation Tommy Hughes broke Martin Rees’ world half-marathon record for an M60 with 71:09.
McIlroy adds the pandemic thwarted plans to bring international runners into the field last year but he is confident it will happen this year with Edward Cheserek, the multiple NCAA champion, being on his wish list. Cheserek was poised to run last year but could not make it due to travel problems.
“Last year we had buses from Scotland and all parts of Ireland ready to come and watch the race and we had to turn them away but we won’t be doing that this year,” says McIlroy. “There will be included a kids race, there’ll be a festival in the finish area and an after party. It’ll mean a lot more people around this year which will definitely help the times.”
As an 800m runner, McIlroy ran 1:44.65 in 2005 and among other things featured on the cover of AW. He was at St Mary’s University in Twickenham with Farah and his friendship with the multiple Olympic and world champion has clearly helped when it comes to enticing him to Northern Ireland.
McIlroy will hope Farah races at the Antrim Coast Half after the Tokyo Games, too, whereas he is also hoping Scott, Scullion, Partridge and Jo Pavey return – the latter of whom was disappointed to withdraw on the eve of the 2020 race with an injury.
“Lots of the road races are doing five, six, seven or eight loops but we’re doing one lap which is quite cool in this day and age,” says McIlroy. “We’re 12 miles from the Mull of Kintyre. There are 100m cliffs on your left. You’ve got a lot of iconic landmarks on the route.”
The area is indeed so stunning it has been used to film Game of Thrones. But McIlroy says: “Overall the vibe is the thing that is attracting people back for this year. We weren’t able to get the after party on last year but we’re trying to capture the similar kind of atmosphere that the Night of the 10,000m PBs has with its celebration of running.”
The Night of the 10,000m PBs has already succumbed to the pandemic in 2020, but it was due to be held in June whereas McIlroy’s event is almost three months later in the year and with athletes spread out over miles of road.
“Last year was great but it promises to be a different animal this year,” he says.