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'I was too busy trying not to throw up. I had to go and nearly collapse'

Cian McPhillips talks to The42 after his incredible display in the 800m at the National Indoor Arena over the weekend.

LONGFORD ATHLETE CIAN McPhillips had one goal in mind when he stepped up to the starting line of the 800m at the National Indoor Arena on Saturday.

cian-mcphillips-wins-his-heat-of-the-mens-800m Cian McPhillips in action last year. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Racing in the Irish Life Health Elite Micro Meet, his aim was to match the European standard time of 1:48.2 and earn a spot on the Ireland team heading to the European Indoor Athletics championships next month.

Anything beyond that was a bonus, and what a bonus he ended up receiving.

There were five competitors in the race, including veteran middle-distance runner and 2019 European Indoor bronze medallist Mark English.

The field had a pacer in Kevin Woods of the Crusaders club, who took them through the first 400m. As he drifted off the track, 18-year-old McPhillips found himself leading the pack coming into the final bend with English charging behind him.

English showed his pedigree as he rounded the Longford AC Leaving Cert student, but McPhillips dipped down into the reserves to find another kick in him.

“That kind of race really suited me because an athlete like Mark English is fantastic, he’s incredibly fast and powerful,” McPhillips tells The42 as he takes up the story of their dramatic battle to the finish line.

“The only way I could even hope to compete with someone like him was to go out as hard as I possibly could.

“He still managed to overtake me but mightn’t have had as much energy in the legs to just completely power by me so it gave me a little bit of a chance to get back.”

Their combined efforts produced record-breaking times. English squeezed home in first place by a stroke, clocking 1:46.10 to break his own national indoor record of 1:46.82.

National and international records crumbled before McPhillips. His 1:46.13 saw him shave over six seconds off his personal best while also setting a new National Junior and U23 record over this distance.

He also became the second-fastest U20 800m indoor runner in European Athletics history as well as the quickest in the continent in over 20 years.

Additionally, his time was the fastest by an U20 indoor 800m athlete for more than five years.

The race garnered a huge response on social media, drawing applause from those inside and outside athletic circles.

Fellow Longford man — and Irish mile and 1,500m record-holder — Ray Flynn was among the many who honoured McPhillips’ incredible result.

“It’s only kind of sinking in today and yesterday,” says McPhillips about seeing the reaction to his race.

“I was too busy trying not to throw up. I had to go and nearly collapse on the ground.

“I suppose I’d nearly be disappointed if I went out in a race and I was able to walk afterwards because it might show that left something in the tank.

“When you see all the different people getting back to you that you wouldn’t think would get back to you but they’ve found some way of seeing it.

mark-english Mark English. Source: Bryan Keane/INPHO

“I’ve got a lot of support from Longford AC and all my friends and people that I train with. Even people like Ray Flynn was on Twitter [talking] about it, so it’s great when you see people like that getting back to you.”

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The 1,500m is actually McPhillips’ primary event, and it didn’t take long for comparisons with Flynn to pop up.

“I’ve known Ray for a while now and he was a great help to me,” says McPhillips. “He got me into the Millrose Games in America and gave me advice on college in the States and the options available. He was an all-round help. Anytime you need anything, he’d be the man that you give a buzz.

“I’m not going to even think about breaking those records because to break them, you need to be one of the best in the world so I’ve a bit to go before I get there.”

That Millrose Games McPhillips refers to is the event where he won the High School Mile last year, beating off quality competition to put himself among the best emerging talents in the sport.

“It was very important, probably the biggest race I had done up until then,” McPhillips recalls.

“It was a fantastic experience flying out there and being in the hotel with all these other athletes that are the best in the world.

“There were lots of senior professional runners racing there as well. Going to the track and being in a crowd of 5,000 people in a tiny little arena was something I hadn’t really experienced over here so I think it’s fantastic to get an opportunity like that, especially when I’m so young.”

McPhillips didn’t get a proper opportunity to converse with English after their battle to the post on Saturday. They couldn’t even shake hands on account of the Covid-19 measures, although English did tell the Irish Examiner that McPhillips is “future of Irish athletics.”

The positives are still rolling in for the teen star after achieving his goal of being named on the Ireland team that will travel to Torun in Poland for the European Indoors.

It will be his first taste of senior competition at continental level after an unfortunate experience as an U18 athlete. 

“The only European I had ever competed in was the U18s two years ago. I lost my shoe in the heat for that race so I end up getting through which is unfortunate because I was ranked as one of the favourites. That was unfortunate but at least I have this one now.

“The shoes will be nailed to me.”

Away from the track, McPhillips has a Leaving Cert to prepare for with an eye for a course that relates to maths, physics or engineering.

Heading to America for third-level education is a common path for Irish athletes to take, and while McPhillips was speaking to a few universities about a potential move, he has decided to stay in the Irish system to continue working with his coach Joe Ryan.

“It’s something I never thought I would achieve in an 800m,” McPhillips says to sum it all up. “I always thought I’d be close to a top five in the 1,500m but never in the 800m.

“Athletics Ireland have done a very good job. They got me on this list that are able to train at the National Indoor Arena in Abbotstown. That’s the only reason I’ve been able to run this fast.”

Screenshot 2020-11-24 at 9.04.07 AM

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