Wednesday 23 October 2019

Up and running: what is behind Ireland's obsession with marathons?

Dublin's City Marathon once struggled to drum up interest but tickets for the 2019 race sold out in just 40 days. John Meagher on why so many of us are addicted to pounding the pavements

Louise Heraghty training at Fitzwilliam Square, Dublin. Photo: Caroline Quinn
Louise Heraghty training at Fitzwilliam Square, Dublin. Photo: Caroline Quinn

Last Saturday morning, in the glorious December heat of Lanzarote, Louise Heraghty ran a half marathon. She had been on holiday with her family, but had linked in with her Dublin running club for the event - and she enjoyed every single stride of it.

The RTÉ weather presenter (36) is passionate about running. In 2016, she ran no fewer than eight marathons. And when she was pregnant with her son, she continued running the whole time, competing in the Raheny Five Mile Road Race in January of this year at full term, 38 weeks.

And being a new mother hasn't dampened her enthusiasm for distance running. In October, she completed the Dublin Marathon, and she is eagerly looking forward to the racing challenges that next year will bring.

"I only started running in my early 20s," she says. "I wasn't good at sport in school and when I started it I wanted to get fit and keep the weight off. But then, like so many others who discover that they really love running once they start, I couldn't get enough of it."

She's not the only one. Running has become something of an obsession for increasing numbers of Irish people - something that became very clear on Monday when it was announced that the KBC Dublin Marathon 2019 had sold all 20,000 tickets just 40 days after going on sale.

It's a far cry from just two decades ago when the marathon was struggling to attract runners.

"The increase in the number of people running in this country has been incredible," says the race director of the marathon, Jim Aughney. "We will speak with other stakeholders, such as the gardaí in the New Year, and see if it is possible to raise the capacity. There's a huge demand out there and it's great to see."

'Very cheap to do'

In 1997, the year that Aughney became race director, just 2,997 people entered the Dublin marathon. It was seen as an event for serious club runners to tackle. Now, it's on the bucket list for many who are fitness-minded - and some who are not.

"In the 1980s running really took off in this country," Aughney says. "The recession of that time was probably partly responsible because running is something that is very cheap to do - get a pair of runners, a top and shorts and you're off.

"It's become very popular again because more people are mindful of their health - not just physically, but mentally too. Running can be a great stress-reliever and I've often found that a lap of the Phoenix Park will completely clear your head."

The Dublin-based running coach, Mary Jennings concurs and says that for many of the people she trains, running is more about a mental release than a physical one. "Some of them say that the hour they're out running is the only hour that they can get away from their mobile phones and the demands of daily life. It's a time to disconnect - and I would say that's one of the very appealing things about running for me as well: you have time for yourself or a group of like-minded people and you don't have to think about texts and emails and deadlines."

The name of Jennings' running group, Forget the Gym, was inspired by her own dislike of the gym environment. "I like being outside, no matter what the weather and I think there are a lot of people who feel exactly the same," she says.

"With running, you can start as soon as you've closed your door behind you. There's no driving to the gym and changing and waiting on machines. When people are time-poor, running can be fit into their lives. And it's something you can do anywhere."

Former Ireland international badminton player Jim Colfer has a running shop in Rathgar, Dublin. Now in his 50s, he's still capable of running a sub-three hour marathon although his presence at the Dublin Marathon Expo in the days preceding the event precludes him from running his home-town event these days.

"Obviously, from a business point of view, it's great to see a huge upsurge in the numbers out there running," he says, "but it's also good to see more and more people finding out that running is something that can change their lives in the most positive ways. Besides improved fitness and something that's really good for your mind, running can help you meet people. It's very sociable and friendly - and it's something that can appeal to all ages."

Jim Aughney notes that octogenarians have signed up to next year's marathon, but says that there is a concentration of runners in their 30s and 40s. "For a lot of people, running really becomes a thing in their 30s. Maybe, they become more health-conscious, or maybe there's a greater sense of their mortality, or maybe they're just looking for something different in their lives, but it's a time when they make time for running. Of course, it's not for everybody and some find they just don't like it, but for those who get the bug, they really love it."

For Mary Jennings, the great pleasure is seeing someone who thought they couldn't run become a runner.

"I coach all kinds of people, including those who might want to knock five minutes off their 10k time. But it's especially great to be able to help someone who wants to run, but can't run a kilometre, and to see them improving all the time. Running becomes a key part of their lives and they reap all the benefits.

"And when they see that they can comfortably do something they previously thought impossible, they might ask themselves what other challenges are out there for them to do?"

Be prepared

Louise Heraghty says that she is not motivated by beating PBs (personal best times) but by trying out new events and meeting new people.

"When you have an event coming up, it's something to be excited about, especially if you've never been there before. It can be a different way to see the world."

Jim Colfer, meanwhile, will likely be welcoming new customers through his door who have Sunday, October 27, 2019 - the date of the KBC Dublin Marathon - fixated in their minds.

"They will get to experience one of the great marathons," he says, "in a city where there's incredible support all through the course."

But he offers a note of caution. "It's a cliché, but you have to respect the distance when it comes to marathon running," he says. "You need to build up to marathon level and that can take time, a few years in some cases. My fear is that some would have signed up to next year's event not having run that much at all and be unaware about how much training is involved if you want to go and run it properly.

"It's sad to see people who are unprepared and have an awful experience and then decide that they never want to do any running again. But if you've prepared right, and put the miles in, you'll have a day that you'll remember for the rest of your life."

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