Peter Lynch and Shay McEvoy wearing facemasks on their way to a race for the University of Tulsa. Despite the global pandemic, the Kilkenny City Harriers duo are faring well Stateside
Much like the spring weather, the first shoots of a hopeful return to a blossoming sports season have started to sprout.
However, for some people the resumption of competition isn’t close to home. In fact, it’s more than 6,800km away!
For Kilkenny’s Peter Lynch and Shay McEvoy, students at the University of Tulsa, the return to competitive action has taken longer than they would have hoped for.
After months on the sidelines thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, the Kilkenny City Harriers (KCH) duo put their spikes back on to compete in the NCAA Cross Country Championships in Oklahoma.
The competition, the national championships for American universities, went well for the school, as the Tulsa men’s team, known as the Hurricane, finished in sixth place in the field of 30 teams in Oklahoma.
It was the second-best finish in school history - last year the team, of which Lynch was also a member, finished fifth. Peter ran to a 12th place finish this year, one spot ahead of his 2019 NCAA performance, with a time of 30:17.7. It was enough to earn him All-American honours (a title bestowed on the top 15 finishers at national level) for the second consecutive season.
“It was good,” he said of the race. “I was pretty happy with my performance at the National Championships. It was nice to get back up around the same place as I finished last year. Our team finished sixth, which was pretty good. We had been hoping for a podium finish, but it wasn’t to be.”
Not that the results are anything to be sniffed at.
“Thirty-one teams were selected for the Nationals, with a field of over 250 athletes,” Lynch explained. “There are a lot more colleges who don’t qualify.”
Peter Lynch (fourth from left) and Shay McEvoy (second from right) with the Tulsa men’s athletics team who competed at the NCAA National Cross-Country Championships in Oklahoma
Staggering numbers, which are even more impressive considering the quality of the field.
“It’s the cream of distance runners, not just in America but from Europe, Australia and Canada too,” explained McEvoy, who marked his first appearance at the Nationals with a time of 32:18:5 and 157th place overall.
“Along with the Worlds and Europeans, I would say it’s one of the premier cross-country events in the world. In terms of the collection of talent at the race it’s at the pinnacle of the sport.”
For the Kilkenny pair, the Championships were a welcome return to action in a season which has been blighted by the pandemic.
“Before the Championships we had two races this semester,” said Lynch. “Our conference race was on February 6; that’s a smaller race with a selection of schools in your division. Prior to that it had been a full year since we’d raced - we didn’t have anything in the build-up to Christmas, just some time trials on the track where we all raced each other.”
It’s not just their on-track life which has been turned upside down. Lynch, a mechanical engineering major and McEvoy, who is majoring in political science, have had to get to grips with a change to their study life too.
“It’s a little different this year as most of our classes are online,” said Lynch. “We wear masks at training the whole time, bar when we’re running. While everything is open they have been getting the vaccine to people promptly. We got the first dose of our vaccination this week, which is good, with the second to follow in a few weeks.”
“We’ve been in a bubble with all the cross-country runners, so that’s how we’ve managed,” added Shay. “We’ve secluded ourselves from most other students on campus throughout the pandemic, which has worked well for us.”
That said, there are some signs of life returning to some level of normality.
“Things feel a lot more normal here than at home,” said Peter. “We get tested for Covid at least once a week here and were tested three times in the days before Nationals. We had some people who tested positive over Christmas but no-one has had it since then.
“The infrastructure is very good here,” continued Shay. “At home people have to have symptoms to get a Covid test whereas here anyone can drive up to a centre and book a test. It’s the same with the vaccine - I was in a convention centre getting vaccinated a few days ago and there were maybe 70/80 people getting it at the same time. Their mass operations are very impressive.”
As well as receiving the vaccination, being able to compete again has been a relief for the pair. Lynch and McEvoy were part of the Irish team who competed at the European Cross-Country championships in Portugal at the end of 2019 - they were two of the five Kilkenny people involved, with Eoin Everard, Niamh Richardson and the silver medal winner Aoibhe Richardson - and had high hopes of making the team again for the 2020 games which were due to held in Dublin.
Then there was coronavirus, followed by lockdowns and cancellations. Like many others, they have lost a year of competitive action - more than they could have imagined.
“It never looked like we’d lose a full year at any stage,” Lynch reflected. “I definitely thought we’d have races before Christmas, but we’ve always had a goal to keep us focused. We’ve had training and 3k and 5k time trials on the track, but everyone in the NCAA was training away.”
It may have been tough, but they were able to put their disappointment into context.
“It was frustrating, but everyone was in the same boat,” added McEvoy. “Obviously you want to be racing, but you have to put it into perspective - if you’re complaining about not being able to run a race, consider what other people are going through.”
The break, although now what athletes wanted, worked a little in their favour.
“I hadn’t taken such time off running since I started in the sport,” McEvoy added. “It was the longest period I hadn’t raced in nine or 10 years. It was definitely different, but I think it benefitted a lot of people.
“Generally there’s a lot of emotional stress in racing. As people weren’t racing they kept training but didn’t have the stress of a race - physically it’s hard to train, but not emotionally.
“I think it worked for them in the long run,” he continued. “Once people stayed motivated and didn’t slack off during the pandemic they came out of it better off. In a way, when races came back people were running better than they ever had and the standard increased across the board.”
Improved conditioning gave the Nationals some added spice. That may have made competing more daunting for newcomer McEvoy, but he was delighted with how he fared.
“I was happy to get there in my first year at Tulsa,” said McEvoy. “It was the longest I’d run competitively - before that I’d done 8k - so I was happy with my performance. I felt I came through the field well and paced myself, but there was a definite step up in class. You might find yourself towards the front of the field in races at home, but then here you’ve run all out and have hurt like never before and finished in the hundreds - the standard, and amount, of good runners here is insane. It was a great experience.”
We’ve been in a bubble with the cross-country runners; we’ve secluded ourselves from most other students on campus throughout the pandemic
It also helped that Tulsa had some strong support to cheer their athletes on.
“The race in Oklahoma was a 70-minute drive from Tulsa so there was plenty of local support. We had more than 20 guys on the athletic team and while only eight could run the rest could go and watch because it was little more than an hour away. Having all our team-mates there was great.
“The venue, Stillwater, is only marginally bigger than Kilkenny but the sports facilities are incredible,” continued McEvoy. “The Oklahoma State University has its sports campus in Stillwater. There’s a 55,000-seater football stadium (the Boone Pickens Stadium which is home to the Oklahoma State University Cowboys), a new baseball stadium which can hold up 8,000 people - they have an indoor basketball arena which can seat 13,000. Whether or not people went to college, they all support the teams there.”
And being major championships, there was a national focus on the races at Stillwater.
“The race was covered by ESPN, who brought in drones to film the event,” said Lynch. “The coverage was incredible.
“There were some nerves beforehand as we hadn’t had a proper big race before Nationals - in previous years we’ve gone to Wisconsin for a race which is like a dress-rehearsal for the championships - but I was confident I was fit enough to compete. I was extremely happy to finish where I did.
“We had the advantage of running on that course a few times,” he said. “It’s very hilly, but it was nice going into the race knowing what we would be facing.
“The hills probably got the better of some teams,” he added. “My tactics were to go out a bit slower and come through the field as people began to fade because of the hills and having out hard.”
There was real modesty in those comments from Lynch, who clocked a time of a shade over two minutes and 40 seconds for his first kilometre!
“It was pretty insane how fast the race went,” said Lynch (to give you an example, McEvoy ran the first kilometre in 2:44:3 and was 198th at that stage!). “There was one lad on our team (Isaac Akers) who ended up finishing 19th and at the 1km mark he was only 0.7 seconds behind me, but was still 25 places behind me in the rankings - it was amazing how fast the race went out.”
Lynch and McEvoy were two of five Kilkenny City Harriers who represented Ireland at the European Cross-Country Championships in Portugal at the end of 2019. The quintet also included Niamh Richardson, Eoin Everard and Aoibhe Richardson, who won silver with the Irish Senior Women's team
Those fine margins only serve to highlight how elite the field is.
“I was really hurting, but because I was still running I was passing people - in the last 3km I overtook about 40 people because the hills came back to bite them on the second lap,” said McEvoy. “I definitely tired - everyone was, there were bodies everywhere at the finish line - but it was an advantage for us having run the course as we knew there were plenty of hills that would be tough. I think a lot of teams went out fast as it was the Nationals, but they fell apart on the hills. It’s one of the toughest courses in America, as it’s a purpose-built cross-country course (the course was given a multi-million dollar revamp in 2019) like the way the course in Abbotstown is. It’s not like a course at home either; it’s manicured grass, not a speck of mud anywhere (“it’s more like a golf course,” interjected Lynch).
The start of the course was downhill with a tailwind so people really got going, but then you’ve 9km to go so it always comes back to bite you.”
Both Harriers were able to look back on great results, but they also had one eye on the future.
“At this stage it looks like the track season will go ahead as it normally would,” said McEvoy. “There’ll still be protocol to follow, like mask-wearing, but it will be a quick turnaround for some people as they’ll be running in a fortnight or so.”
And Lynch is one of those who will be in action soon.
“I’m racing a 10k in Oregon on April 2, so the season will roll around pretty fast,” he said. “It’s all-go now until the end of the school year - the track season will continue until June. I’m excited for this race (the Hayward Premiere) as it’s being held at the University of Oregon. Their track, Hayward Field, has been redeveloped into a massive stadium ahead of their hosting of the World Athletics Championships in 2022.”
The calendar isn’t as clear for McEvoy, but it promises to be a busy time ahead.
“It hasn’t been decided but, if I do run track it will probably be the 1,500m or 5k in April,” said McEvoy. “There are events in Arkansas, Mississippi and Kansas, before we have a conference meeting in Tampa, Florida in the middle of May.”