Wednesday 24 January 2018

'If anything's going on in your life, running with other people does you good'

Josephine Dignam initially took up running to lose a few extra pounds for her daughter's communion. Three decades, five marathons and three half-marathons later, the 59-year-old mum of one tells why she's never looked back

Josephine Dignam is an ambassador for the Irish Independent A Lust For Life 5k which takes place at midnight on the runway of Cork Airport on November 21. Photo: Damien Eagers
Josephine Dignam is an ambassador for the Irish Independent A Lust For Life 5k which takes place at midnight on the runway of Cork Airport on November 21. Photo: Damien Eagers
Vicki Notaro

Vicki Notaro

Most people are content for running to be their own personal form of activity, and even therapy. But for carer Josephine Dignam, 59, from Lucan, Co Dublin, it's a passion that changed her own life so much, she wanted to spread the word to others. And she's done just that by forming a Fit For Life group in her locality to benefit beginners.

Just this week, she watched two girls she's coached take part in the Dublin Marathon, only two years into athletics. And in her own words, she was totally chuffed for them. Josephine is currently unemployed, but she lives with her uncle who has Alzheimer's, and has a 37-year-old daughter.

A single mum from when her daughter was very small, Josephine was diagnosed with postnatal depression nearly three years after the birth - something she found carried on for several years after that.

"I always liked athletics growing up, but when my daughter was making her First Holy Communion, I wanted to lose a bit of weight. It was around the time that running was becoming really popular in Ireland, a bit of a boom for it.

"The marathons were starting up, and running clubs were popping up. I started running just for 10 minutes at first. Then after about three weeks, I upped it a bit, and it went from there.

"I realised I really liked it."

For Josephine, the physical benefits were equaled, if not outweighed, by the mental ones.

"Running became a big outlet for me; I didn't realise it at the time, but it really helped. My daughter was in school about a mile-and-a-half away from the house, so I'd walk her there, then come back and run. Over time I progressed, first to three miles, then a seven-mile route and so on."

That was the start of a passion for running that's lasted nearly 30 years, and shows no sign of abating.

"When I started running, it just helped my mental state. It's all about getting out there, in the countryside, and forgetting about everything else that was going on. It did me good to hear the birds singing."

For years, Josephine ran by herself. Then, in 1999, she moved closer to Lucan village in west county Dublin, where there was a well-established running club.

"I joined because I wanted to train for the mini-marathon, and they had groups preparing for it. That was nearly 17 years ago, and I'm still there."

Saying she's "still there" is an understatement; Josephine is now a key member of the club, and through Fit For Life, is inspiring others to get involved not only with running, but with the community.

"It does foster a real sense of community and friendship. If there's anything going on in your life, you're out with other people which does you good, and you can talk about it or not. There are times I like being on my own as well.

"But I think for mental health, it's good to meet like-minded people doing something positive, and I've met friends for life there."

The Fit For Life group came to fruition in early 2014, but it was something Josephine had in mind for a long time.

"I'd suggested it a few times previously, but it was two years ago in January I set it up with some others.

"It's for people who might be afraid to come up to the club on their own, or are complete beginners. There's no pressure to do races, just come up and train for 5k and 10k goals. It's all about making friends and being healthy.

"We have about 50 people, but weather has a big effect, especially the winter. We find that we have more women than men, but it's open to everyone over 18."

As well as the ladies who completed the marathon last weekend, other members have done half-marathons and other distance races, leaving Josephine feeling immensely proud.

And she's not too shabby herself - she's completed five Dublin marathons, three Rock and Roll half-marathons, lots of road races and even the New York marathon at the age of 49.

"Some of them have progressed on to half-marathons, two girls I coached did the Dublin marathon, I'm chuffed for them.

"My mam passed away in 2003, and I had done the Dublin marathon in 2002 while she was ill. I went out and ran just to do something.

"In 2004, I did Dublin with my friend, and then decided we'd do the New York City marathon the following year."

Life has a way of stepping in and causing havoc though; in August 2005, Josephine got a phone call out of the blue saying that her birth family was looking for her; she had been adopted at birth and since orphaned.

"Sometimes these things come to test us, and thank God I was doing the marathon at the time and it kept me on the straight and narrow. It was a big shock, going from being on my own to having eight half brothers and sisters!"

Josephine went on to complete the New York marathon thanks to staying on her training, and says it's one of the best experiences of her whole life. "We didn't go to do it in any particular time, just to enjoy it. And I still talk about it all the time, 10 years later."

For Josephine, running is so inclusive because it's so economical. "The dearest part of running is your trainers. The rest of the gear you can pick up quite cheaply.

"Everyone is different, for me it's the freedom of putting on the trainers and just going out. Nothing extra to pay for, and all the benefits of being out in the fresh air. I still think it's the best thing ever."

And it's proven to be good for her, and those she loves.

"One of the main reasons I started Fit For Life is that my daughter suffers from depression, and the group is about people getting out and doing something good.

"At the time, there was so much about depression in the media, and the positive effects of exercise. I've seen the highs and lows of it all, and it's hard but we're getting through it. My daughter is not a runner, but she's walked a few races and I'm very proud of her."

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