FEATURE: Athletics club back on the right track

THE Keepmoat complex has focused mainly on football and rugby facilities - but another sport has benefited in a big way. Free Press sportswriter JONATHAN JUREJKO takes a close look at the thriving Doncaster Athletic Club.

EUROPEAN gold medallist Brian Shenton could never have dreamed that Doncaster would one day boast a top notch athletics track.

The town's most successful ever athlete trained as a youngster with the Doncaster Plant Works Athletic Club - and had to hone his talent on the

old cinder tracks at the Plant's Hexthorpe base.

But it did not stop him sprinting to glory in Brussels in 1950 to win Britain's first European 200m gold medal.

Shenton also won three silver medals at European and Commonwealth championships but died tragically in a car crash at the age of 60 in 1987.

Up to three years ago athletes in Doncaster were using the same rundown and outdated facilities at Eden Grove, along with a similar provision in Stainforth, as Shenton had trained on decades ago.

But then came the eagerly awaited move to their new home at the 32million Keepmoat Stadium complex in January 2007 enabling up and coming youngsters to follow in Shenton's spring-heeled footsteps.

With its six-lane tartan track, field event area and modern changing rooms, the facilities are far superior to those on offer before and it means talented Doncaster youngsters now have access to vital resources needed to progress to an elite level in the sport.

Doncaster Athletic Club vice chairman Dave Lilley is adamant that moving to the new facilities has been fundamental to the club's survival - and the future of athletics in the town.

He said: "If the club hadn't got these new facilities it wouldn't be here now.

"It would have folded - as simple as that.

"Because of the poor facilities at the old place our numbers were dwindling.

"We had to park up and shine lights across the track to see the athletes running round - it was that bad.

"We were desperate for a new home and compared to running on the old cinder tracks, which were mud heaps in the winter and rock hard in the summer, the new facilities are a million times better.

"They are state of the art and were certainly worth the wait."

The move, which finally came to fruition after years of lobbying from

club officials, has proved a triumph with membership numbers rocketing over the past three years.

DAC now boasts over 500 members of varying ages and abilities, who train every Tuesday and Thursday at the Keepmoat.

Dave said: "Over the last two years our membership has more than doubled which is probably quicker than we anticipated.

"We're getting more and more members so we're getting stronger and turning out more representatives at each fixture.

"The more people we've got competing, the more we've got to select from.

"It's nice to have a choice of athletes to choose from rather than the

team picking itself."

A larger pool of talented teenagers has certainly benefited the club as they raced to promotion in the Young Athletes League (YAL) for the second successive season.

It means athletes eligible to compete in the Under 13s, 15s and 17s categories will now represent DAC against high-profile rivals, such as Gateshead, Sale Harriers and Sheffield, in the Northern Premier Division of the YAL.

The new season starts when the Doncaster team travel to Blackpool for their opening fixture on May 3.

Dave said: "Training has been ongoing through the winter but it is being ramped up more so the athletes are fully equipped for the season.

"We achieved our place in the Northern Premier Division in a short space of time with back-to-back promotions - now we've just got to make sure we keep going forward.

"Looking at the talent we have we should hold our own in the league.

"There are some long established clubs in there and we don't really know how strong they are.

"But we come up against athletes from the likes of Sheffield and Leeds and they don't outshine us so we hope to stay in the league."

Following the success of the current crop of promising youngsters, club officials are hoping to see one of their athletes progress to the international stage in the near future.

Shenton and Barnsley's Arthur Rowe, who won shot putt gold in both the 1958 European and Commonwealth Games, are believed to be the Doncaster club's only medal winners in major athletic championships.

But hopes are high for the future with the 2012 London Olympics and the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow two years later on the horizon.

"We have quite a few youngsters that could make the grade if they stick with it," said Dave.

"Doncaster has been sadly starved of top athletes competing at the highest level for a number of years.

"But there's no reason why some of the youngsters coming through now cannot be considered for international places in the future - and that has to be one of our major aspirations.

"It would be the pinnacle of all the work put in by club secretary Barry Barnes, who worked hard for 20 years to get the new facilities, the coaches, administrators and of course all the athletes."

Although schoolchildren represent a large proportion of members, DAC has a vast range of athletes among its ranks.

Older teenagers will compete in the Humber Division of the National Junior League after the club entered the competition for the first time, while senior athletes are set to participate in Division Three of the Northern Athletics League.

The club also has a number of successful disabled athletes.

Dave said: "The prime focus is on young athletes because they are the future of the club - and of athletics in the town.

"But we're here to cater for the community.

"We want to attract people of all ethnicities, as well as disabled and able bodied athletes."

He added: "It is not just about track and field - our road running section is getting bigger.

"People who used to run by themselves are joining the club because it can be easier to run in a group than on your own."

The club's quest to increase membership includes staging the Doncaster Festival of Running this summer, which will comprise of the Sandall Beat 10k Trail Race, the Doncaster Town Centre 5k and the Cusworth 10k, and tapping into local talent at junior events such as this Saturday's Doncaster Primary School Cross Country Championships.

Dave said: "The stadium has had a tremendous effect in bringing

athletes from the town along.

"But we're still at the tip of the iceberg.

"We're looking forward to the future with optimism and we're going in the right direction - building brick by brick for the future."

Going the distance does not mean going it alone

FREE Press features editor DARREN BURKE is one of the newest recruits to the growing ranks of Doncaster Athletic Club. He explains how his twice weekly rambles around the roads of Doncaster with the club's team of road runners have helped transform his life over the past few months.

TWELVE months ago, if you had suggested to me I would ever be a member of an athletics club, I would have laughed at you.

To be blunt I wasn't exactly at the peak of fitness.

Vastly overweight and my daily exercise limited to a stroll to my parked car, it's fair to say I wasn't in the best of shape.

But last summer, fed up of eating my way through a diet of crisps, pop and chocolate and my weight rising to over 18 stones, I decided enough was enough and decided to get in shape and began a slimming programme with a colleague.

Spurred on by early successes on the scales I felt confident enough to turn my legs to exercise and began with a few solo short runs.

Gradually, my breathless wheezing gave way to longer, faster, more confident runs which saw me first complete a 5k at Sandall Park and then a 10k at Castle Howard last summer.

But as the autumnal days started to draw in I found it more difficult to haul myself out of bed each morning, fed up of pounding the same streets, listening to the same songs on my iPod and finding solo running a chore rather than a buzz.

And so it was that I ended up at Doncaster Athletic Club on a cool October night, plodding round the athletics track on my own having missed the Thursday night road runners who had already hit the streets due to my dodgy timekeeping.

But, hooked on the camaraderie, I was back for more the following Tuesday night, joining up with road race group leader Dave Grayson who took me under his wing as I struggled to cope with the increased pace in the early days.

But gradually, over the freezing cold winter months, my times, stamina and distances have improved and along with my closest running mates Michelle and Jenny, the three of us are now keeping up with established club veterans and giving them a run for their money.

We regularly clock up seven to eight miles on the twice weekly runs and a few weeks back I pulled on my white, green and blue DAC vest for the first time to pound the hills and country lanes of North Yorkshire in the Norton 9, my first proper road race, a nine mile trek round Norton which I completed in a pleasing time of 1hr 26mins and which left me with nothing worse than a slight blister the following day.

In a few short months I've gone from being breathless just trotting to the bus stop, to running a nine mile road race.

Over the next few months I've signed up for a few more 10k races - as well as the club's Festival Of Running.

And then I'm looking to get a few half marathons under my belt before the big one - the full 26 miler, hopefully next year.

Proof that no matter what your shape, size or fitness levels, anyone can have a go at athletics.