This year’s Easter Festival of Running is expected to provide another weekend of superb competition in the latest edition of an event which spans more than 50 years. The Festival, supported by Celton Manx, comprises three races in three days from Good Friday on March 29 to Easter Sunday on March 31. Every year it attracts hundreds of participants with many university teams from around the UK coming over to compete.
It has long been an important fixture for the development of Manx athletes as it gives many of them their first taste of competition against runners from off-Island. The story of international distance runner Keith Gerrard – who in February this year retained the English National Cross-Country title – shows just how vital such events are in drawing young athletes into the sport who then go on to greater achievements.
Keith’s aim for the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow is to represent the Isle of Man in the 10,000metres. He already has a personal best of 28mins 27secs – a time that would have earned him fifth place in the Delhi 2010 Games – and he’s hoping to lop a big chunk off that this season in his quest for a place in the GB team for the World Athletics Championships in August. So he’s well on course to put up a strong showing in Glasgow 2014 against the likes of London 2012 Olympic champion Mo Farah, who is expected to compete for England, and medal contenders from Kenya and Uganda. But back in 2002 Gerrard was just 15-years-old when he lined up for a five and a quarter mile race in the Easter Festival of Running against senior athletes from the Island and overseas. Andy Fox, who was then a leading light among Manx distance runners, takes up the story. “I was already aware of Keith before that race as from February that year he had trained with a group of runners I was coaching at Manx Harriers. The opening Easter Festival race was probably the first big event in which he had represented the team. I remember writing a preview of the race in which I said that Keith might surprise a few senior runners – and he certainly did that although even I didn’t expect someone so young and inexperienced to run so well.” Keith also remembers the race which started and finished in front of the TT Grandstand. “I was still playing football at the time and surprised a lot of the local senior athletes with my run that day,” said Keith. “Andy was one of the Island’s best distance runners at the time and I pushed him all the way to the line.” Fox finished fifth and was the first Manx athlete across the line – but just five seconds behind was the precocious youngster from Peel. Understandably, Fox was impressed by the youngster’s performance and began giving him some coaching. Gerrard says the race gave him a real sense of his potential as a distance runner if he took it more seriously. It was a ‘sliding doors’ moment when Gerrard took the path which would lead him to international success on road, track and cross-country. And, despite his already bulging trophy cabinet, his greatest performances may yet be ahead of him. If, as expected, Gerrard steps onto the track in his Team Isle of Man vest to race in the 10,000metres at the 2014 Commonwealth Games there’s no doubt that Andy will be one of many at that Easter Festival race in 2002 who will cast their minds back to the moment when they saw the emergence of the best distance runner in the history of Manx athletics.
Like all contenders hoping to win selection for the Island’s 2014 Commonwealth Games team Keith will put in months of hard work in training before the Games begin on July 23 next year. Behind the scenes, organisers from the Isle of Man Commonwealth Games Association, the registered charity responsible for the publicity, fundraising, travel and support for Team Isle of Man’s participation at the Games, will also be working hard to raise funds. Public support is vital and donations are always greatly appreciated. To make a donation to support Team Isle of Man please go to www.cga.im