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Terry Eakin - LVAC

Who do you rank as the greatest veteran athlete Northern Ireland has ever produced? This is my opinion, if you don’t agree and I’m sure many won’t, send your suggestions to Sandra at

To make it simple, I’m going to ignore women (no comments here please), minority sports such as the pole-vault (sorry Mike Bull) and hurdling events (that’s you out Phillip McIlfatrick). So this is about male distance runners, in other words real men.

The choice seems to be between guys who kept going at a high level for a few years beyond their 40th birthday and those who seem to have kept it up for ever.

In the first category, Derek Graham is an obvious candidate; he competed with distinction in several of the early Belfast Marathons after returning to running as a vet. I remember once asking him for advice and he said ‘get to the front at the start and stay there’. I tried this once on a wet Saturday at Ballyclare and gave up the idea after about 30 seconds.

Willie McCracken from Newry was another front runner. He once lead the Belfast Marathon field, Africans and all, by about half a mile and that was when he was pushing fifty. Willie can still occasionally be seen racing lorries around the Newry By-pass. Armagh’s Dermot Kerr is still running well and took silver at the World Vets steeplechase a few years back.
There were many other athletes in their 40s who produced amazing performances for a few years. One who immediately comes to mind was Billy Brannigan (North Down AC) who regularly ran from his Bangor home to his work in Belfast. Billy was a threat to the younger generation in any race. He always gave the impression of impersonating Emil Zatopek, in other words he at least looked like he was trying – Fionnula McCourt please note.
In my book, a true champion vet is somebody who has kept it going at a relatively high level for his entire lifetime. From today’s bunch, John McKeag probably wins in terms of age - he’s still running in races which he first entered 60 years ago and is high in the UK rankings for his M80 group. Jimmy Reid – the tartan flyer who has run some great marathons since reaching sixty and was the first local man to make an impression at the vets international cross-country. Jimmy still runs for Springwell and is an example for us all to at least try to follow.

Younger men in their fifties like Ray Curran (six times Vets XC Champion), Matt Shields and Dessie McHenry (who gets extra points for his fell-running, triathlon and comedy performances) have a chance to become immortal if they can keep going for another 20 years or so.

My votes for the top two are:

In second place – John Henning the Duncairn Nomads legend who took on the might of Britain’s marathon runners, on an almost weekly basis, right up until he was fifty years old. His 108 mile Dublin to Belfast record (16:20) was an incredible effort, during which he didn’t touch a drop of Lucozade Sport, his only drink was a cup of tea at Dundalk. John also bettered the world 40 and 50 mile records at Motspur Park, London.

And the winner - Jimmy Todd, East Antrim’s loyal clubman was a real gentleman who spent a lifetime competing, organising races and generally living for running. He broke the Northern Ireland marathon record (2:37:42) and, at the age of 59, was selected as a Northern Ireland international walker. In 1993, Jimmy ran an amazing 41:01 in the Belfast 10K at the age of 71.

His three world records still stand today:

M70 Indoor 1500m (5:13.1) 1992
M75 Indoor 3000m (12:12:72) 1997
M75 Outdoor 5000m (20:00:13) 1997

Will any of us ever get near these times?