“While I am glad to see people achieving, I want to beat them”
By Ciaran O’Donnell
The setting in of shorter days as Autumn takes a firm hold has always signalled two words and one thing in the world of Kay Byrne – cross country. It might be close on 50 years since her first race, but her appetite to compete and beat as many of those who line up with her remains as big as ever.
This Sunday, she’ll pull on her spikes and do her bit for Finn Valley AC in the Donegal masters’ cross country championships in Carndonagh. Cross country is the discipline in which she had made such an indelible mark. It’s also the arena in which she’s happiest to push her self to the absolute.
Little did the 55-year-old Twin Towns native think when she ran to the local national school at Glencovitt with two of her older brothers, Seamus and Sean, where those steps would lead to.
“I ran in between them and my feet hardly touched the ground. They were trying to beat the neighbours up to school,” she recalls.
Kay cut her teeth at the school sports under the guidance of teacher, Manus O’Donnell.
At school, Kay says she was “mildly dyslexic”, and found herself struggling as a result.
“Running was only thing I could say I was in control of and good at. Dyslexia wasn’t recognised back then. Running was something I really enjoyed excelling at. I also had a great fight to beat people – I didn’t want anyone to beat me and that has always been my biggest asset,” she says.
Her first race outside of the school sports was in the Ulster cross country championships in Dreenan, Ballybofey. She won the under-9 provincial title. The same afternoon, a certain Donal Reid won the boys’ under-9 title.
“It was a big deal at the time because there were so many children in it,” she comments.
Finn Valley AC, which was still in its infancy, was the local club and it was there she met Patsy McGonagle for the first time.
“I’ve always enjoyed a great relationship with Patsy, but I always questioned him and always challenged him. He was a fabulous motivator. He could see how to get the best out of you. That might have meant falling out with you. But he didn’t care. He did what he had to do.”
Patsy is one of a number who have mentored Kay. Peadar McGranaghan, Neil Martin, Anthony Murray and Mark Connolly, who is her current coach, have all guided her along over the years.
At the start of the eighties, Kay moved to Dublin where she worked with the Department of Finance for two years. The running was put on the back burner during her stint in the city. Her transfer home took her to the Department of Agriculture in Raphoe.
A few years before heading to Dublin, Kay had made the Irish Under 19 team for the international meet in Wales – she finished fourth in the nationals – along with Ann Keenan-Buckley.
Kay gave birth to twin girls, Sarah and Kate, in 1986 and soon after, she contacted Patsy McGonagle.
“I rang him and told him I was in trouble and that I needed to get out running again. My husband, Gerry, didn’t want me going back running so soon. It was tough going at the time with the twins. So Patsy and myself devised a plan. I would have my gear on and be ready at a certain time on a certain night. Himself and Michael McGranaghan would ring the doorbell and spring it on Gerry like that.”
The first night the pair came calling, Kay had the twins in bed. She was ready to roll and Gerry was in the kitchen. When the doorbell rang, Gerry answered. Patsy asked if Kay was ready. Gerry asked for what.
“At that moment I said ‘I’m going running with the boys.’ I got about 400 metres over the road and I was knackered.”
That was the beginning of a hard slog and apart from a major blip in 2010 when she was laid up with a back problem, Kay has had a fairly injury-free career.
Kay was a member of the Finn Valley AC senior women’s team that won the national senior cross country team titles ten times, with eight of them on the bounce between 1993 and 2000. She has the unique distinction of being the only runner to make the scoring four in all ten successes. Those who joined her in digging deep for the cause during that golden era were Catriona McGranaghan, Dawn Hargan, Magaret Synott, Helena Crossan, Belinda McArdle, Rosemary Bogle, Ita Boyle, Rosaleen Campbell, and Noeleen Merrit.
“We were very lucky. We didn’t have just one or two good athletes, we have seven or eight good athletes that any club now would be dying to have. Our challenge was always to make the scoring team. I was lucky on some occasions to make the team. I would have ran below par, but that fighting thing would always have kicked in and would have left me always in the top four.”
Her highest place in the national senior cross country was fourth, and while she has three successive Ulster senior crowns to her credit, Kay never won the Donegal senior.
“The Donegals came at a period when we were in heavy training for the nationals always. Patsy and myself decided that I wouldn’t run in a few of them,” she explains.
Kay clocked 16:59 for 5,000 metres on the track which earned her fourth place at the nationals, while her PB for 5k on the road is 17:14 which she posted in Letterkenny. Her lifetime’s best for 10k on the road is 36:14 and 36:36 on the track.
The one regret Kay has is not tackling the marathon distance sooner. She completed three, all in Dublin, in 2006 (3 hours, 20 minutes), 2007 (3 hours, six minutes) and 2008 (3 hours, 10 minutes), and all for different charities. Her first attempt was a real school day. She hadn’t enough miles done, hit the proverbial wall at 16 miles and walked part of the way to the finish.
“I think I could have ran a sub-three hour marathon if I’d tackled them eight or nine years earlier. I will do another one, not for a charity this time, and maybe in a different country.”
She’s proud to represent club and county, and country when the opportunity arises. The one thing she’s never done in a race is “run around”.
“I did it once for my daughter who wanted to run 22 minutes for 5k. But if you get into a habit of running around and just being there, you just can’t switch it on and off.”
The talk drifts back to the now. And to this weekend when she heads to the Inishowen peninsula in search of more glory.
“Sunday is about seeing where I am and seeing where I need to improve. The course doesn’t lend itself to someone like me because it’s a fast, flat course. If I have an issue, it’s with the speed. But it has improved.”
She certainly showed there’s plenty of life in the legs yet. Earlier in the year, she took gold in the Over 55 1,500 metres at the national masters’ championships in Tullamore in a time of 5:20. Hours earlier, she won silver in the 3,000 metres in a time of 11:26.
Kay has always given respect. As such, she’s always been given respect. In lorryloads.
“While I am glad to see people achieving, I want to beat them. If somebody beats me and runs really well, I’m happy for them. While I do my best to beat them, I respect what they’ve got.”
Given her competitive nature, it’s no surprise she’s no notion of hanging up the spikes.
“If I was always at the back of the field, I don’t know how that would sit. But when I can run, I’m going to run because it’s very good for every aspect of your life. Now I have grandchildren, they ask me where was I and how did I do. They’re not at the stage when they think you are going to go out and win. They were in Derry watching me run for Ireland last year. I wasn’t in my best shape then and had a bit of an issue with my knee. I wouldn’t have been happy with how I ran, but it was really nice to have them there with the girls supporting me.”
Most of Kay’s best friendships have been forged through athletics, within her own club and beyond.
“Running is what I’ll always be known for,” she states. A given, for sure. But she’s no ordinary runner, as her 48 years on the go will show. The sport of athletics and Finn Valley AC will go far for a better ambassador whose steel, style and sheer substance sets her apart.
Good luck to the rest of the masters athletes in her category in Carndonagh. They’ll need it all when they line up beside the queen of the country.
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