Down star has made big leap from fun-runner to national title hopeful
Like many of the record 19,500 that will run in the 37th SSE Airtricity Dublin Marathon tomorrow, Laura Graham first took on the challenge of running 26 miles in Belfast six years ago to help others.
Her first child was only four months old but she ran her debut marathon to raise money for a health charity because her dad had suffered a heart attack.
She completed it in three hours and 45 minutes and then her busy life - work and the arrival of three more children - meant that she didn't take on the distance again until May 2015 when she ran 3:19 in Belfast.
No one was more shocked than herself when she knocked 22 minutes off that with 2:56 in Dublin last year, where she was the third Irish woman home and took bronze in the Irish national marathon championships which are incorporated into Dublin's big city event.
Since then Graham has come within three minutes of the Rio Olympics qualifying time by running 2:48.03 in London this year and finishing second in Belfast (in 2:49.18) - just eight days later!
The 30-year-old always kept fit, working as a lifeguard and now a gymnastics coach in her native Kilkeel in Co Down, but her rapid progress has shocked even herself.
"I genuinely don't know how it's happened," she says. "I ran and played hockey in school but that was it. Now running's my way of getting rid of stress. I just love it and it always makes me feel better."
Being tipped to challenge defending champion Pauline Curley for the Irish title in only her sixth marathon shows how remarkably quickly Graham has made the leap from fun-runner to an elite.
She insists "my only aim is to get a new PB. If I don't get that I'll be like a bear!" And that will be the aim of so many tomorrow in a race whose recent resurgence has made it the fourth largest marathon in Europe.
Ethiopians Asefe Legase Bekele, Dereje Yadete Woldegiyorgis and Raheny-based Kenyan Freddy Sittuk are tipped for the elite men's title.
Rathfarnham's defending Irish champion Sean Hehir (2:17 PB) and Clonliffe's Sergiu Ciobanu (2:15 PB), who both missed out Olympic selection this summer, will be looking to stick with them, while Mark Kirwan and Gary O'Hanlon should also be among the best Irish.
A host of Ethiopian and Kenyan women, plus Namibia's 2011 race winner Helalia Johannes, should lead the women's field home, but Armagh's Fionnuala Ross, Rathfarnham's Olympian Caitriona Jennings and Mayo's Norah Newcombe Pieterse will also challenge for the Irish title.
West Waterford's David McCarthy has had to withdraw from his expected marathon debut but his club, whose Winter League races (five and three miles every Wednesday night) have provided a template for so many others, show just why they've been in the vanguard of the latest mass running boom.
To celebrate the 1916 centenary they aimed to get 100 runners to do Dublin this year and, as usual, West Waterford have surpassed themselves.
Their 162 entries are the biggest from an Irish club in a year in which entries from AAI clubs have doubled to 6,000, almost half of the 13,849 Irish entries.
The switch to a Sunday is one of the key reasons for another big surge in international entries (up 30 per cent to 5,700) and some of them have come thanks to the reputation that Ireland's soccer fans garnered last summer!
Entries from France (tripled) Sweden and Poland are all up and several foreign runners have cited Ireland's friendly fans at Euro 2016 as a factor.
Paralympian and defending two-time wheelchair champion Patrick Monahan will be one of the first off the Fitzwilliam Square start-line at 8.55am, followed by a series of wave starts.
So Laura Graham's advice for the many first-timers?
"Enjoy every single step of it and, if you start struggling and doubting yourself at any stage, just keep thinking of all the training you've put in. That really helps."
Every runner's progress can be monitored via the SSE Airtricity Dublin Marathon 'live tracker' which can be accessed via the official website or Facebook page.
For full course details and information on road closures, see www.sseairtricitydublinmarathon.ie and related social media.