Tuesday 22 October 2019

'Nobody says: I wish I hadn't gone for a run'

Olywn Dunne is the first female director of the VHI Women's Mini Marathon and is encouraging women of all ages to get involved with running

Leading from the front: Olwyn Dunne, the first female VHI Mini Marathon race director. Photo: Caroline Quinn
Leading from the front: Olwyn Dunne, the first female VHI Mini Marathon race director. Photo: Caroline Quinn

Kathy Donaghy

Every June Bank Holiday since 1983, thousands of women have descended on the capital to take part in the biggest women's event of its kind in the world.

This year the VHI Women's Mini Marathon takes place this Sunday and for the first time in its history, there's a female race director.

Olwyn Dunne (51) was assistant race director last year and takes over at the helm this year. A dedicated runner herself, she says the mini marathon gives women a goal to aim for whether they choose to walk or run the 10K course.

While she only took up running 10 years ago, Olwyn has serious mileage under her belt having clocked up over 30 marathons.

She's modest about her running achievements - she won a national championship title in 2012 for a 50K event in Co Kildare at the age of 46 - she is keen to spread the message that running is for everyone. And her relatively late start is an inspiration to other women who are considering a mid-life fitness drive.

It was as she approached her 42nd birthday that Olwyn, mum to Jack (19), Luke (17) and Max (15), decided to up her game in terms of her health and fitness.

Her own mother, Kitty Conroy, had died at the age of 42 and Olwyn felt that while she'd always been fairly active, that now was the time to overhaul her fitness and health. It coincided with a time in life that her sons were all out at school and she had a bit more time to take on something new.

Running became that something new and Olwyn was quickly hooked. She incorporated it into her life most days of the week. Even when she was bringing her sons to their own sports practice or events, she'd bring a pair of trainers and go for a run.

Three years after she took up running, her husband Joe followed suit. Her first Dublin marathon was in 2008 and her best time was in Limerick in 2014 when she ran the city's marathon in three hours and 12 minutes. In 2012 she did the Women's Mini Marathon for the first time. It was an unforgettable day, she recalls.

"I had never done the event before and I remember getting the DART in from Glenageary where I live and being blown away by all the T-shirts women were wearing, some in memory of someone they'd lost. By the time I got to the start line I was an emotional wreck. The last time I ran it was in 2016 so I've seen it from both sides," she says.

Even in her role as race director behind the scenes she knows that she'll still have a lump in her throat come the big day, as women of all ages and from all over the country come to participate, most with their own special reason for doing it. "This year we hope to have 35,000 women doing it. The mini marathon has become an institution and the numbers have increased steadily from 9,000 in 1983. The fantastic thing about it is women of every age can take part. The oldest participant we have is close to her 80's and we have a big group of women who have done all 35 races. Up front you'll have the speedy runners, but a large group are walkers out to enjoy the day," says Olwyn.

Throughout its history, raising money for charity has been an integral part of the mini marathon and last year it's estimated that €9.3m was raised. Since its inception in 1983 in excess of €210m has been raised and Olwyn believes as well as raising much needed funds for charitable causes, the women have raised awareness of the organisation or cause they're running for. As a woman, Olwyn is deeply aware of the journey women have to the start line. She says women often put themselves last on the list of priorities and so when they make it to the start line, this is a fantastic achievement in itself.

She believes that at 10K the race is perfect for women who want to set themselves a challenge as it requires making time for yourself to train if you are going to run the race. "It's a challenge but people can see themselves doing it," she says.

It was through the Park Run movement that Olwyn eventually became race director of the VHI Women's Mini Marathon. She set up a Park Run in Cabinteely which led her into a whole new social network which in turn took her into the role of assistant race director of last year's race and director this year.

As a Park Run ambassador, Olwyn believes the park runs, which take place all over the country every week, are the perfect training ground for women who want to do the mini marathon.

A few years ago, as her sons were getting older, Olwyn coached a group of women every Tuesday and Thursday. In the early days of the group's running life, Olwyn remembers telling them to prioritise their run and to put their own health first. Now she says those same women have taken on big challenges themselves, including half marathons. While the seeds for her taking over the stewardship of the mini marathon were being sown back then, she says nothing could have prepared her for the enormity of the task which reaches fever pitch as the race day draws closer.

"It's a great day out whether you're up at the front or at the back. I always say you get the best value for money at the back," says Olwyn.

While she says women can be hard on themselves and put the needs of other family members before their own, she says when it comes to running you'll never know unless you try.

"Running may not be for everyone but walking is. While it came naturally to me, I still have to work at it and I could never have imagined myself here," she says.

Olywn still gets up at 5.30am to run six days a week, taking the seventh day off to rest. "For anyone starting out you will find it a struggle - that's normal. Pick a goal or pick a charity and don't put yourself at the bottom of the list of priorities. Just make the time to get out for a walk or a run. It's so important for your physical and mental health," says Olwyn.

"One day you'll be out and you'll think 'this is heavenly' and you'll always remember the time it clicked.

"Nobody ever says 'I wish I hadn't done that'. I used to bring my children to GAA and I'd run around the park when they'd be training. I know it's hard when your children are young but you can always fit it in," she says.

"I know so many people through running and I have a great support network. Running is a great leveller - no matter what age you are or background you have, everyone on that start line is the same although we're all different."

Surviving the minimarathon

1 Rest well - Get lots of sleep in the run up to the big day. Sleep is the answer to all our problems, so make sure to get to bed early the night before, all the better if it's after a relaxing bath.

2 Eat well - Keep it simple and don't try anything new this week.

3 Plan your race day - Fear of the unknown adds to stress especially if you're a first-timer. Organise your race day gear; top, bottoms and shoes. Don't forget to pin your number on your top. Public transport is the best option to get to the start line, but make sure to keep an eye on the websites for any changes and give extra time to get to your start zone.

4 Check the weather forecast and don't forget the sunscreen - If we're lucky enough to have a nice sunny day.

5 Most importantly, ENJOY - A big smile as you cross the start line will relax you. The support along the route and the entertainment will have you flying around to 10K and then give an even bigger smile at the finish line for the cameras. Then it's time to collect your goody bag and medal and then head to Merrion Square to enjoy all our sponsors' activations with lots of free treats.

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