Nakita Burke, who only took up athletics two years ago, won the National Novice Cross-Country title on Sunday in Waterford. Chris McNulty speaks to the Letterkenny AC woman

When Nakita Burke first laced up her runners to start into the local 5k circuit – seven or eight years ago, she ventures – running was little more than a pastime.

Football was her game then.

As part of the Irish Colleges squad, Burke wore the Irish green at the World Student Games twice, competing in Bangkok in 2007 and Belgrade in 2009.

Two years ago, something clicked in her mind while training at Lagan Harps. one night: Football no longer sparked how it once did and she longed to be striding in her new calling at Letterkenny AC.

Her times had been impressive, yes, and she’d made some serious erosions into her records, but on Sunday at Waterford she made her biggest statement yet.

Holding off the strong challenges of the more seasoned Sinéad Kevany and Lauren Dermody, Burke won the National Novice Cross-Country Championships. She had two seconds to spare on Kevany to win her first national gold medal.

Teresa McDaid, a coach at LAC who has been involved with Irish teams at various levels over the years, even floated the notion that Burke could well progress to wear an Irish singlet.

“It would be a dream come true if that did happen, but there’s a lot of hard work to be done between now and then,” Burke says.

“The next big goal is to break 17 minutes for a 5k.

Nakita Burke

“I would love it. I’ll be realistic too. The 30-40 seconds will be hard to get down. I’ve never ran in a senior race. I’ve never been at that standard. I’d need to bring my times down before I could compete at that standard.”

Burke’s best for a 5k so far was the 17 minutes and eight seconds she clocked at the recent Turkey Trot.

Already, with the aid of her coach, Sean McFadden, there are plans in place to shave big chunks off her personal best.

She says: “Sean has got Tommy Gallagher on board now. The work he’ll do, Sean reckons there’d be a good 30 or 40 seconds in the strength and conditioning. That’s something I’ve never taken on, nor diet. I just go out and run. But hopefully if that comes on, there will be 20-30 seconds in it.”

The 30-year-old from Slieve Snacht, who now lives in the Mountain Top area of Letterkenny, had been climbing the ladder without really harbouring intentions for gold at the weekend when she headed to the south east.

She says: “It didn’t sink in until the club did the homecoming. I was really shocked. It seeped home then how big of a deal it was.

“On the day of the race, Sean had huge belief. He was all: ‘We can go and win this’. I never really felt like that was going to happen.

“I went out as fast as I could and stayed in the lead group. There were only three of us. I was thinking then I could get a top three finish.

“I thought then I’d try it. I took the lead on, which I never normally do. I went up the hill, Laura came up after me and sprinted. As we got to the top, her pace came back a bit and I managed to push on.

“Once I got around the corner, it was a case of sprinting as hard as I could for as far as I could.”

The fifth class teacher at Letterkenny Educate Together NS, Burke believes her training group have helped push her to glory. She trains under McFadden’s watch with the likes of Noleen Geary, Shauna McGeehin, Maria Mulligan, Irene McFadden, Sinead Peoples and Jane Toner.

“A great group of girls,” Burke says.

“We’re all pushing each other on. We’re all around the same times. Everytime we’re down at training it nearly turns into a race. It’s good, competitive training every Tuesday and Thursday.

“We do some kind of temp on a Saturday. It’s a social thing, too. We’d be really good friends so it doesn’t feel too much like hard work.”

For Sunday, Geary was injured, Mulligan had to withdraw and McGeehin was unable to travel. Had the full compliment been in attendance, Burke believes LAC might have won a team gold, too.

While Sunday’s was Burke’s first national athletics crown, she has tasted Irish success before and is a two-time WFAI Cup winner (Junior and Intermediate) with Lagan. Her games now are infrequent as she aims to break new ground again.

She had played initially with Iona before moving to Lagan and dabbled a little at Gaelic football, lining out for Glenswilly. She progressed as a coach and even managed Bonagee United in the Donegal Youth League for a time – she remains the only female to have managed a team in the League.

At some point, though, she felt unfulfilled and took to running.

“I really enjoyed running initially – it was really fun,” she says.

“I’d be more competitive on a pitch than when I’m out running. Trying to mix both codes was fine, but when I went back to the running I was very sore.

“Football was the main focus at that stage. About two years ago I gave up football – well, I go back to play the odd game! – to concentrate on running solely.”

She often dreamed of playing football for Ireland’s senior team, but now, with gold in tow, green could call again.