Morton Magical Memories with Noel Guiden

Tonight was supposed to be Morton Games night but you know what put a spanner in the works several months ago. Rather than be in any way downbeat today I want to bring you my memories, as the Meet Director as to what in my humble opinion has been the best Morton Games to date. There have been many magnificent Morton Games over the past decade, the pre London Olympic one in 2012 is a standout, the visit of Yohan Blake in 2015 and even last year’s “the 2019 Deluge” in the heel of the hunt proved to be memorable, however, in my view 2014 was the Magical Morton Games.

To try and give a snap shot of what goes into putting on the meet, I’ll give a 30 second run through. Planning for each Morton Games starts in September. Usually the Meet is held in July, the weeks following Morton Games are spent tidying up the outstanding financial aspects, making sure that all bills are paid, agents are paid, athlete’s outstanding expenses are dealt with, any outstanding payments come in and the books are balanced.

Then in September it starts all over again. The early months are taken up with the unseen tasks, one of the most important is the fixing of a date, this is a fine balancing act. We have to look at the National Championships or Olympic trials and when they take place in the USA, in Britain and of course our own National Championships. We also have to avoid clashes with certain Meets and we would also liaise with the Cork City Sports. Other tasks at this stage would revolve around booking of accommodation for athletes, contacting existing sponsors and potential sponsors, making a decision on the programme of events. Matters then really start to crank up from the springtime when we contact many of the agents whom we deal with with our brochure for this year’s Meet. Then steadily it start to build up to a crescendo, the excitement really starts to mount in May and June (assuming it’s a July Meet), fields are built, athletes confirmed, events are full and then the inevitable emails start to arrive as the fields start to fall asunder as athletes pull out. We then build all over again, indeed on occasions right up until the day before the Meet. That process is a process which is, and I use this word deliberately, endured year upon year.

So thinking over the decade of Morton Games and asking myself the question of, first was there a best and then when was that I’m going for 2014, July 11th . You may remember that the summer of 2014 had been possibly the best summer since 1976. It hadn’t rained in weeks and the Emerald Isle looked more like the scorched yellow grasslands of the Savannah than the forty shades of green. 2014 also may well have marked the coming of age of Morton Games. The Meet had up to this stage enjoyed an excellent reputation with the athletes who attend the Meet and also the agents who as Meet Director I deal with year upon year but 2014 brought us on to a new level.

The big names taking part that year included the world 400 hurdles champion Jehue Gordon (TTO). That race was a stacked field which also included Brazilian Olympian Mahau Suguimati, Japan’s Takatoshi Abe and the, then, up and coming start of Irish athletics, one Thomas Barr. Other confirmed competitors that year included reigning European 100 record holder with a best of 9.86 Francis Obikwelu (POR), in the 400 USA Olympic relay silver medallist Manteo Mitchell, London Olympic relay bronze medallist Jarrin Solomon and of our own Brian Gregan. The distance races were also stacked: Juan Luis Barrios (MEX) in the 3000, Molly Huddle (USA) and Cory McGee (USA) in the Women’s Mile. Phoebe Wright (USA) in the 800, in the Men’s 800 Mark English, Ryan Gregson (AUS), Kenya’s Abraham Kiplagat and in the Morton Mile two time winner Will Leer (USA) facing his USA teammate Pat Casey, Vincent Letting (KEN), Irish athletes Ciaran O’Lionaird, who came chasing European qualifying time and both John Travers and Danny Mooney chasing their first sub fours.

As is the norm myself and Killian Lonergan set up camp in the lobby of the Holiday Inn Express in Northwood Santry, greeting the athletes as they arrived in Dublin from early morning the day prior to the Meet and then looking after their every need thereafter and at times just a cheery hello did the trick. The Irish welcome really is the most important thing about Morton Games, it was commented on extensively by the athletes we met not only in 2014 but throughout the life of this fantastic event. So the athletes arrive at the Holiday Inn, having been met in the Airport by Alan O’Neill and our brilliant bunch of junior athletes, we give them their welcome packs and get them sorted with their rooms. They are roomed in pairs, sometime we get the pairings right, sometimes not. One year we had two female athletes from a particular European country lined up to room together, we are thinking they may know each other, they will have a common language etc. Well they shared a common language and they knew each other, but….they despised one another! So that problem had to be solved and quick!

One question that is constantly asked by the athletes surrounds the pacing particularly in the Mile. All of the athletes come to Dublin to run a fast mile and all want the perfect pace. One athlete’s perfect pace is not necessarily another’s! I distinctly recall on the morning of the Meet some athletes suggesting that the pace which was essentially 58 second laps, was not quite quick enough and were looking to go through the 800 in faster than the 1.56 target. The wise head that is Will Leer came to me and had a quiet word: “the pace you have lined up is perfect, but, if some of those guys want to go faster let them at it. I’ll be there to pick up the pieces!” – these words were not only wise but turned out to be prophecy!

I remember with clarity the evening of the Meet, sometimes as the Meet Director you are in the eye of the storm and don’t really notice what is going on. There are so many things to be attended to, athletes go missing, officials go missing, hiccups happen which all have to be smoothed over and resolved as quickly as possible. Having said that the pre-programme passed in an absolute blur – even to this day I have no idea what happened in any of the pre-programme races. I remember the 400 hurdles as being the opening event on the international programme, Thomas Barr taking on the world champion. The stadium was packed and the atmosphere was electric. I recall the roar down the home straight as Barr closed the gap past the world champion and breasted the tape 48.94 to announce himself on the world stage, and here in Santry. Our good friend Liam Moggin, the stadium commentator with great gusto and glee roared into the microphone “a new stadium record!” – that was not going to be the last time on July 11th 2014 that Liam said those words.

Tom Barr, getting the records tumbling!

Morton Games proceeded with its usual breakneck speed. The ethos of the Meet: no gaps. Run to timetable. High octane action. Squeeze in a presentation if there’s a spare 30 seconds! Race after race, bang the starters gun and stadium record after stadium record tumbled: men’s 100 Warren Fraser (BAH) 10.20. Women’s 100 Carina Horn (RSA) 11.36. Another Irish win in the men’s 800 Mark English against a world class field in a time of 1.45.30, Liam again: “another stadium record!” The women’s mile, Molly Huddle (USA) with a stunning performance to knock four seconds off the stadium record 4.26.8. In the Albie Thomas 3000 a magnificent run by Juan Luis Barrios – 7.44.21 as Liam Moggin once again says the phrase that pays: “it is another Morton Stadium record”!

Molly Huddle, Mile record
Juan Luis Barrios 3000 record (7.44.21)

Then at 9 p.m. the Morton Milers came out on track to the sound of Thin Lizzy’s ‘The boys are back in town’. The pacemakers did a superb job, Conor Healy of Clonliffe and then pacemaker extraordinaire Tom Marshall who since has ran sub 4 in a subsequent Morton Mile, doing an outstanding job and sticking to the predetermined pace. As the athletes gathered to take the bell Ciaran O’Lionaird chasing that European qualifying time took up the running, the whole field was strung out behind him and then bolting from the pack Donore Harriers John Travers chasing his first sub 4. Travers opened the lead on the pack, at 200 he was still clear but the beard and long flowing locks of Will Leer ate into his lead. Leer then waited and on the top bend unleashed a ferocious kick coming gleefully down the home straight setting not only a new PB but, yes you guessed it “another stadium record”. Steve Scott’s 1980 record was gone after all of 34 years replaced by 3.51.82.

It’s High Fives all round
Morton Stadium Mile Record, Will Leer

I remember the flood of emotion coming over me as I stood on infield, Killian Lonergan running towards me both with our arms raised as if we had scored the winning goal in the World Cup final. I then sought out our pacemakers, they had done a magnificent job, then I looked for both Ciaran O’Lionaird and John Travers who had been instrumental in Leer running so fast and finally I embraced the man himself, now a three time Morton Mile winner and the Morton Stadium record holder.

Later as we looked at the stats we learned that Leer had also set a new Morton Stadium 1500 record. That made an extraordinary eight stadium record! The stats also revealed that there were ten sub 4 minute miles in that race including John Travers going sub 4 for the first time and how: 3.55.44 and a bit of history for Hamish Carson (NZL) his 3.57.79 in 9th place was the 100th sub 4 minute Morton Mile.

Morton Games after party is renowned. The Clonliffe bar was packed to capacity, it was a cauldron of heat, sweat and excitement, loud voices, high fives, high spirits. Will Leer bought me my first pint of several that night, on an absolute high, both of us! It was the night of nights, after the meet of meets. (Will also presented Morton Games with his racing vest from the night, which is now proudly on display in the club bar)

July 11th 2014 put Morton Games on the International Athletics map. That night I received an email from a US agent which simply said: “Now that was an athletics meet!”

We will return: Friday July 9th 2021. Put it in your diary!