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Rescheduled Antrim Coast Half Marathon chasing record times and place amongst elite European races

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In the running: Jo Pavey

In the running: Jo Pavey

Getty Images

Gemma Steel will be in action at the Antrim Coast Half Marathon

Gemma Steel will be in action at the Antrim Coast Half Marathon

Getty Images for QTA

In the running: Jo Pavey

The P&O Ferries Antrim Coast Half Marathon can help signpost the route to top-level sport's return in Northern Ireland.

That's the hope of the ambitious organisers who, having assembled a field packed with more than 20 Olympians, are aiming to break Irish records and announce their event as one of the best in Europe now that it has been rescheduled for Saturday, September 12.

Among the headliners confirmed are former European champion Gemma Steel, five-time Olympian Jo Pavey, Irish 2016 Olympian Mick Clohisey and British international Ben Connor.

Elite entry manager James McIlroy, who represented Great Britain at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, said: "The Barcelona Half Marathon happened at the start of the year, which was a big elite event, and the half in London, which is effectively the British Championship, but our confirmed field would be better than both of those.

"We can't take European or African competitors given the current pandemic but we've got effectively the British and Irish Championships merged into one. We have over 20 Olympians, from as far back as the Barcelona Olympics in 1992 with Tommy Hughes going for two world records, and we also have Jo Pavey, who is now preparing for what would be her sixth Olympics.

"Then we have the likes of the current British champions, Lily Partridge and Ben Connor, going for their first Games.

"It's very high quality and we have a very fast course in place, which is paramount to attracting these top international runners."

The task for them and the rest of the elite athletes is to break the current records for half marathons ran in Ireland. Those are currently 62 minutes 29 seconds for men, set by Jerry Kiernan way back in 1982, and 72 minutes 26 seconds for women, set by Maria McCambridge in 2014.

If both can be broken, McIlroy says, the news will spread quickly and will help the new event to go from strength to strength in the coming years.

"We've made the course faster than it was due to be before the race was postponed because of the pandemic," he said. "It still takes in the major landmarks of the area including, of course, the Coast Road and finishing at Larne's Chaine Memorial Tower. There was really only one hill on the course anyway but now you go down it rather than up so it should be even faster.

"Nice weather now would help but we have maybe seven or eight girls who have run five minutes faster and five or six men as well. Do I think we'll beat the records? I hope so. If they can post half-times, that would really put us on the map as a major European event, the athletes can come back and we will really scale things up next year."

It's not the only change that has been made to make the race safer.

The entry has been halved while runners will start in waves of 30, based on timing zones, and there will be no spectator zones.

"There are now hotspots in the UK and if that doesn't go away, any elite competitor coming from that area will have to be tested and declare a negative test or else stay away," said McIlroy.

"Tom Cragg, who wrote the policy for Run Britain's Covid-19 guidance, is going to be at the race. We've taken a lot of precautions and we're taking all the steps to allay any fears.

"We're streaming the race live online so people can watch it and if you live on the Coast Road, it would be great to have people creating atmosphere.

"It's a celebration of British, Irish, Northern Irish sport. There have been races but hopefully we can be at the forefront of coming out the other side and showing what we can do as sporting nations."

Belfast Telegraph