ARTICLE: Next season's Heroes?

Having had a preview of next years calendar and plans to start entering it onto the website this weekend, I could not help but ponder who will be the prominent runners of next seasons campaign.

The past year has been dominated by excellent results from newcomers to hill running, female runners Mags Greenan and Donna Mahon, and the men's Brian McMahon finishing 24th in the Worlds. On the local front Aoife Joyce won her first Leinster League title and the rise of Barry Minnock continued to gather momentum as he crushed all opposition to secure his second Leinster League and record a number of other impressive results in the hills and on the roads.

The coming season should be interesting, this year has seen the slow return of James McFadden, who with his recent win the in Donegal Novices and his win at Scarr this year, is sending a statement of intent that he could do something on the local hill running scene next year. Then there is Ronan Guirey, the long missed Cork-man, if he returns to the form of 2006, he will be a formidable opponent for anyone. The same goes for Sli Cualann runner Colm Mullen and Riocht runner Eoin McKenna, the latter arguably the best hill runner in Ireland in 2007.

Then there is the return to the scene of legendary Scotsman John Brooks. While he has been on the scene for many a year and could be forgiven for complacency after stunning victories in major races such as Carrauntoohil and Ben Nevis, he may yet have the desire and the ability to take the fight to the "young guns" emerging in IMRA. Simon Fairmaner and Paul Nolan are others of the "Old Brigade" who may yet challenge the emerging generation should they chose to do so and should they stay clear of injury.

Outside Runners
Something that will undoubtedly spice up the men's competition is the addition to the scene of top-class cross-country runners such as Sean Hehir, Mark Ryan, and Brian McMahon as well as international class fell-runners visiting, such as John Heneghan, who showed great class at Croagh Patrick this year to edge out numerous strong competitors.

The prospect of "outside" competition will grow with the WMRA World Trophy being remade into the World Championship, meaning Northern Ireland will no longer be allowed to compete as a single nation. This means Republic of Ireland runners will have to contest with the best of the North at the 2 Trial races for the Europeans and the Worlds. Its no exaggeration to say that next season could be the most competitive yet with the existing guard having to fight it out with cross-country cross-over (no pun intended!) and Northmen (not the Danish kind!) joining the fray.

Dark Horses
It's hard to point to dark horses, runners who are not yet challenging the very elite but could take the step up to threaten the existing status quo. One obvious is Peter O'Farrell who will have gained valuable experience for his call-ups to the Euros and Worlds this years and who is a seasoned performer, one of the most experienced on the IMRA tour.

Less obvious candidates could be the development team that went to Snowdon, primarily Brian Furey who was gaining great momentum before injury stopped his season. Richard Healy, a very good cross-country junior, is rebuilding his form and could be an interesting one to watch as well, and so could AAI-man Ryan Montgomery, who may be Scottish, but could take a step up to threaten for the Leinster League. Niall McAlinden and William Powderly also showed promise last season and there development will undoubtedly be monitored by Gerry Brady.

The Fairer Side
On the women's side, its less transparent as competition at the very front was not as pronounced this year as others. Will Beth McCluskey make a long-awaited comeback?

Certainly the now staple appearances of Donna Mahon and Mags Greenan will add tenacity to the local competition and who would question Aoife Joyce continuing her improvements? Orla McAvoy, Winter League winner 2007, is another who could return, as could Irish Champion Aisling Coppinger if she again puts her focus back on the local competitions and the Trials.

Moire O'Sullivan, the Wicklow Round now attempted, would be a strong contender for some of the rougher races, and Michelle Finn may continue her development.

All in all, an interesting season should beckon before us...