Runner Conlan hopes to help Portafery cross the finish line

CIARA Mageean might have put Portaferry on the map for athletics but, long before she picked up any major international medals, Shane Conlan swapped the caman code for long-distance running away from the Ards Peninsula.

It’s been more than a decade since Conlan, 20, ended up on the cross-country team at Missouri Valley College while on a college scholarship midway through a law degree. at Queen’s, with a natural aptitude for eating hard yards on a hurling field ultimately served him well on the track too.

He’s not shy about laughing at the lingering reputation that has followed him ever since, but, as Portaferry prepares for Sunday’s Championship Down final showdown against rivals Ballycran, Conlan’s relentless run is still part of the arsenal of ports – whether from the start or on the bench.

This athleticism is also clearly family-oriented, with younger brother Matt being a key man in the middle of the club, and regularly showing his class in the county colours.

The experience in the United States may seem like a lifetime ago, but it provided Conlan – now 32 – with a challenge beyond his comfort zone and a welcome window into another sporting world.

“When I went there, college was mostly sports-based,” he said, “a lot of skill-based sports like football, basketball, baseball, and a bit of football, but they were elite players.

“I was the only Irishman there, and it was really about trying to find something to do rather than just studying. I first got involved in cross country and then once this season finished, I joined the track team.

“It was pretty intense. You practiced twice a day, you did a lot of inter-collegiate competitions, you traveled all over the place… for a lot of these guys, if they didn’t perform, they would lose their funding.

“I enjoyed the challenge because it was new to me, a different experience. I can’t say I ever looked to win anything there – I was probably more trying not to finish last – but I was able to get by with a lot of college guys.

“Having never done athletics before coming out, it was a completely different atmosphere, but still the same underlying competitiveness as any sport – you don’t want to get beat up by the guy next to you .

“That side was not at all foreign to me. That’s what I wanted.

Conlan kept it around when he got home, around practice and games, and it remains more of a social pastime than anything too serious.

“I would do the Portaferry 10 mile race during gala week, I did the Portaferry GAC 10 mile race a few weeks ago but I wouldn’t classify myself as a runner – although other people seem to do.

“But I don’t really go out to beat times or compete.”

The same cannot be said for the code which has always come most naturally.

Conlan was part of the county’s U21 and senior setup before life got in the way as the next stop on the road took him to the English Midlands and a job at a law firm in Birmingham.

There he remained for the next five years, resuming his career at the county of Warwickshire where a series of impressive performances earned Conlan a place in the 2015 Lory Meagher Champions 15.

However, a return to Les Ards and St Patrick’s Park was still on the cards – although some faces changed by the time he returned to home soil in March 2017.

“Sometimes it was hard being away, and then the social side, you miss the craic at home. But I always intended to go home… that was always the plan.

“When I came back it hadn’t been that long since Portaferry had won Ulster so you still had Paul Braniff, Ciaran Coulter, John Convery still involved.

“In the current squad I’ve played with boys like Conor Mageean, Conor O’Prey, Patrick McNally, Aaron O’Prey, Brendan Coleman, Fergal Rogers…but a lot of the ones I would have looked at who were more older than me, when I came back I was on the older side of the team – even more so now.

“There was a bit of a changing of the guard, I suppose.”

And, with little between Portaferry and defending champions Ballycran in recent years, Sunday’s showdown at Pairc Esler should be no different. Opportunities like this never get old, no matter how often they come.

“The commitment and the intensity are the same as they always have been.

“We are trying to beat the best team in Down – that’s how we see it. Ballycran have won three of the last four championships, they are a very good team, so we know we have a mountain to climb.

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