The running definitely helps - when life comes at me, I start running!

Marilyn O'Shea is someone who was born to run. The popular Tralee woman chats to Stephen Fernane about her passion for running and her work in harm-reduction hostel Arlington Lodge

Just a few minutes into my conversation with Marilyn O'Shea over a coffee in The Ashe Hotel, she offers a subtle hint that I should take up running.

Marilyn is well-known in Tralee circles as a member of the Born to Run running club. I make a solid defence for my recurring calf strain and dodgy knee, but Marilyn's smile tells me she isn't having any of it.

"All you have to do is make a start," she says, to which I reply in that most vague of Irish promises: "I'll see."

Marilyn is a Tralee woman through and through, and while she may be slight in stature, her convivial character and dedication to her work at Arlington Lodge add immeasurable weight to her personality.

Arlington Lodge is a harm-reduction hostel dealing with people struggling with addiction. It helps those who, for all sorts of reasons, have fallen on hard times, and Marilyn said it's all about putting a plan in place so they can get their lives up and running again. Emotionally, it's a tough job. "But it's one you wouldn't do unless you loved it," she assures me.

Her passionate outlook tells me that Arlington Lodge really needs people like Marilyn. Having a genuine willingness to care for people can't be taught; it's a character trait and Marilyn describes herself as a 'people person' to the core.

"It's a tough job. But I like to think I can change things, and I give it 100 percent," she says.

"You meet the best of people who for one reason or another have hit a low point over things that could happen to any of us at any time.

"What I've seen, you couldn't put into words. During the recent bad weather we had people come through our doors who would never have done so. Some of our residents even gave up their beds for them and slept on the floor. I've learnt that there's a human and compassionate side to all of us, no matter what we go through."

Marilyn insists people are lucky to have a facility like Arlington Lodge and she hates to think what would happen if it didn't exist. The hostel caters for 14 people, while other houses are dotted around Tralee catering for people at different stages in their recovery. It's all aimed at making people independent again and better able to manage after a setback.

"Each person is at a different stage in recovery and requires certain supports. We have two staff on at any one time, 24 hours a day, which is all done through three shifts.

"A case can stem from a breakdown in family relations, addiction, falling behind in rent, mental health. Very often it's a combination of all of these things at once."

She explains how one small problem can trickle into a bigger one, which can trigger other problems. Marilyn is 12 years with Arlington Lodge and one of the main differences to when she first started is the number of young people now using the facility.

"Their payments are so low that they can't get a rent footing. If they don't have work, what are they supposed to do with €100 a week? How can they get accommodation and live on that? It's very hard for young people.

"I also think there was a better sense of community years ago, and people today tend to keep to themselves more.

"Some of the older estates in town have retained that sense of community, but many of the newer ones haven't. That's a factor also."

Everything about Marilyn's persona is geared towards the underdog. A mom of two and recently divorced, she explains that life has taught her that nothing is ever as it seems.

She worked in factories prior to returning to college to complete her training, and today she closes that circle by trying to help people find a similar pathway in life.

Being a hard worker is an advantage, but devoting energy to helping the kind of people society chooses to relegate to its peripheral vision is to be respected.

What also impresses me about her attitude is that it's not guided by any political ambition or point-scoring. Most of Marilyn's work is done behind the scenes as she and her colleagues make subtle changes in people's lives.

It's also at this point that I realise how her appetite for running helps her wind down from her job.

"The running definitely helps. And when life comes at me, I start running," she laughs.

The Born to Run club has continued to prosper ever since Marcus Howlett established it a few years ago, and Marilyn met many new friends through running.

The sense of camaraderie it brings can't be bought, she tells me, and for Marilyn it all started when a work colleague asked her to run a marathon to raise money for Arlington Lodge.

"Straight away I said 'yes'. For some reason I had it in my head it was a mini-marathon.

"I soon got a shock when told it was 26.5 miles. But I started the programme with Born to Run and finished it. Marcus [Howlett] started it all off and what he's done for this town is brilliant."

Fast-forward five years, and Marilyn has completed over 50 marathons, and her number of 100ks, 10ks and 5ks is in the hundreds. She has also done two 24-hour marathons. Her most recent achievement was running from Dublin to Belfast, a 111-mile challenge.

But she prefers to call them "experiences of a lifetime". The well isn't empty yet, and she's as determined as ever to keep on running.

Not only has Marilyn managed to convince her family to take up running (aka 'Team O'Shea'), she's even encouraged some of the residents at work to clock up the miles. One individual even kicked the alcohol to complete a half-marathon.

"That was nice. I just love how running has so many positives. Sometimes I like to look at my medals because there's a story behind each one.

"Each medal reminds me of who I ran with and how I felt on a particular day. To anyone else they're just a piece of metal, but to me they represent an experience."

Running has even taken Marilyn to international events. She has run through Las Vegas at night dressed as Elvis; completed an ultra-marathon in New York city, and the next day ran a marathon in Brooklyn.

It's all about goals for Marilyn, and up next is a 24-hour run in a couple of weeks time, a 40-miler in July, a 100k in August, and the Dublin Marathon in October. It's a year-round labour of love.

"It's a real social thing and meeting people is the best part of it as we really encourage one another. It also allows us to forget our problems. Running introduces you to people you'd never get the opportunity to meet on a daily basis.

"And it doesn't matter who or what you are in life. We're all the same once we start running; there's no airs or graces once you're half-way through a marathon, let me tell you.

"We've created a great community through running and I don't have a shadow of a doubt that it has helped change some people's lives."

Kerryman

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