Irish 800m record holder aspires to bring competitive track and field and recreational running closer together, writes James Sullivan.  

Ever since the latest running boom took off in Ireland in the late 2000s, and the numbers competing in marathons, road races and fun runs exploded, the same questions have been asked on a recurring basis. How does Irish athletics benefit from this spike in the number of those who run? Why is there a noticeable disconnect between those who run for fun on the roads, and those who compete competitively on the track? Do recreational runners even care about competitive track and field? Why don’t they care? Can this disconnect be closed?

David Matthews

David Matthews

As Father Dougal, played by Ardal O’Hanlon in the 1990s classic TV sitcom Father Ted, once said in reference to a seemingly hopeless situation, “It’s pointless thinking about it. There’s nothing we can do about the situation. We just have to accept the fact and that’s that.”

For a long time, the above issues were treated along similar lines, as one of those so called ‘facts of life’. Some would refer to competitive track and field and recreational running as two completely different sports, believing the latter has no relevance to the former. However, one person looking to change this mind set is David Matthews.

The Irish 800m record holder now works with Athletics Ireland, as a Regional Development Officer in the Dublin region. Half his time is spent with Sport Ireland and the new National Indoor Arena, located in Abbotstown in Dublin, which consists of a fully equipped international standard indoor athletics facility. One of his big goals is to get more recreational runners to try track and field athletics, and in order to achieve this he has founded NIA Live, a new indoor athletics series with 8 meets from November to February.

“It doesn’t matter whether you are running 4 or 8 minutes for the mile. Everybody is welcome”, said Matthews. “You don’t have to be a member of an athletics club. We want the National Indoor Arena to be open to everybody. It’s a wonderful facility and we want everyone to use it, not just the elite, not just the club runners, but also the recreational runners.

Runners lining up alongside for the mile at the National Indoor Arena

Runners lining up alongside Sonia O’Sullivan for the mile at the National Indoor Arena

“You see recreational runners out doing parkruns and the many 5Ks that have sprung up like mushrooms around the country. Transferring those numbers to the track is the greatest challenge that Athletics Ireland and the athletics community has. If I could manage this, it would be the greatest achievement of NIA Live.”

The meets, which run on Thursday evenings throughout the winter, may have been partly the brainchild of Matthews, but he worked closely with Dublin City University’s athletics director, Enda Fitzpatrick in establishing the concept, and has enlisted the help of students from the university to be officials and helpers for the series. Matthews’ inspiration to try something new came from the Nitro Series in Melbourne, Australia, which has aimed to redefine the way in which athletics is presented.

Matthews has recruited legends Sonia O'Sullivan and Catherina McKiernan to run during the NIA Live series so far

Matthews has recruited legends Sonia O’Sullivan and Catherina McKiernan to run during the NIA Live series so far

“It’s got music, it’s got atmosphere, it’s got graphics. It’s a little bit more relaxed and it’s a social occasion as well as a competition. Many of the races are mixed races, so you are competing against similar ability, rather than gender. We try to move as quickly as we can from the finish of one race to the start of the next. It’s a very condensed package. We are trying to cut down on some of the red tape.”

Despite being clear in his ultimate goal of bridging the gap between competitive athletics and recreational running, Matthews believes the NIA Live series also brings a lot of value to elite and club level athletes, by significantly adding to the number of opportunities to compete during the Irish indoor season.

“These meets are a great opportunity to prepare for the National Championships. The meets on 8th and 22nd February will have a full permit, so any standards run at these meets will be eligible for the World Indoor Championships. I’ve had a lot of calls and emails from athletes from the UK, Netherlands and Romania, so the meets are getting more and more popular.

“We don’t let people know who are in the races in advance. We don’t have a start list published beforehand. We don’t make people aware of who they will be racing, so this idea of people avoiding athletes won’t happen. We want people to show up to run for themselves, not to show up to beat a certain person, or not showing up to avoid a certain person.”

Sonia O'Sullivan with some other participants in the mile at the NIA Live

Sonia O’Sullivan with some other participants in the mile at the NIA Live

While he admits the process will be gradual, Matthews hopes that in years to come recreational runners will have a greater connection with track and field athletics, which can only benefit the sport as a whole. He has recruited the help of national sporting icons Sonia O’Sullivan and Catherina McKiernan, who have both run the mile distance during the series so far, offering recreational runners the opportunity to run with legends of the sport. He is determined to prove that both aspects of the sport can work together side by side.

“If you were a casual golfer you’d love to compete in Augusta or St Andrews, so why isn’t it the same in athletics for a recreational runner? If you were a recreational runner, why would you not like to compete in the National Indoor Arena, a 38 million euro facility? This is the big thing that we have to bridge. I would hate to see NIA Live just become another set of meets solely for those on the competitive side of things, because that would move us from our values of wanting athletics and track and field to be for everybody.”

Click here for further details on NIA Live and on how to enter.

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