Sunday 21 January 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Our long-distance love affair

Eamonn Sweeney

It would have been around this time last year. They'd have glanced at the telly, seen the thousands making their way through the streets of Dublin and suddenly been seized by the strangest of notions. I can do that. I could run the marathon.

Maybe they even said it loud to the family member or friend who was sitting next to them and who would have looked at their friend or partner or father's waistline, remembered that they tended to be a bit of a dreamer and measured out 26 miles in their minds before saying, "Yeah, right," or "Of course you will," or, "Can you throw me over the remote."

By the next morning the marathon dreams of most of those people would have gone wherever it is lost dreams go. But there would have been some who couldn't shake the vision of themselves running down Clare Street and turning into Merrion Square with the finish in sight. Some of them would have been 20, others would have been 40 or even 60. They'd have come from cities, small towns and farms. They'd have been teachers, plasterers, nurses, shopkeepers, students and unemployed. They'd have been us.

And what they would have had in common was the first day. The statistical probability is that it would have been raining with probably a bit of wind thrown in as well as they hit the road and did two or three or four miles, the first steps to the long journey destined to end last Monday.

Some of these first-timers would have been sportsmen or sportswomen. Some of them would have been the type of people who are always in the gym, some the type who get there now and again. And some of them wouldn't have been fit at all and not entirely sure what would happen if they tried to propel their legs into a run for the first time since they'd left school.

There are also the experienced marathon runners, a noble tribe who are thinking not of finishing but of their finishing time and who may even have enriched their lives by travelling abroad to see the great cities of the world by foot in some municipal marathon or other. The fairest of play to them. But my fascination is always with the crew running their first marathon, the people making the leap into the dark who start with those short runs when 26 miles seems an almost impossible ask.

All kinds of different people take on the marathon challenge but over the past four months or so they'll have been engaged in a common enterprise. A month into training, the neophyte has probably worked up to a 25-minute run, the seasoned sportsperson is chancing a ten-miler at the weekend and the club athlete who has his eye on a good time is clocking 50-odd miles. But they're all in this together. And while the Emil Zatopek expressions of agony you witness as you drive past them on the road may suggest differently, they are all happy. Very happy. Because we tend to be happiest when we are part of something larger than themselves. And there's nothing much larger than you than a marathon.

That's why there is probably no Irish sporting event quite as heartening as the Dublin Marathon and nothing quite like the spectacle of the record 14,500 entrants who set off on Monday morning. Among them were people like Lavinia McCarron from Carlow who was diagnosed with breast cancer two years ago, had major surgery, ran the marathon with five female friends and received the Lord Mayor's Medal. Or League of Ireland legend Stuart Byrne, who was running to raise money for Gary O'Neill, scorer of the winning goal in the 2009 FAI Cup final, who has recently been diagnosed with testicular cancer. Or even Sean McShane, a school caretaker from North Belfast, whose 3:18 time was a world record for a marathon run dressed as a zombie.

There was also Ricki Savage, who died of a heart attack after finishing to become only the second fatality in the history of the race. It says something about the capricious nature of fate that the 27-year-old from Kent was an experienced runner whose finishing time of 3:10 would have been beyond most of the other competitors. At the time of writing, over £7,500 has been donated to the British Heart Foundation, Ricki's chosen charity. God go with him.

By and large marathon running is not dangerous but it is undeniably difficult. The achievement of getting round the Dublin course can't be gainsaid. The finishers have spent three or four or five or more hours on their feet and had to concentrate all the way. For the newcomers, and even some of the old hands, there will have been plenty of pain and moments when they wondered if they could really go through with this. At moments like that the lonely miles on the roads and paths of home pay dividends. The guts it takes to get round that first marathon should not be underestimated. At some stage, either during the race or the training, a massive effort of will is going to be required. Yet people find they have that effort within them and that knowledge is a wonderful thing.

That's why year after year they come back to the streets of Dublin. Not just Irish people, there were runners from 47 countries this year. What seemed like an utterly eccentric proposition when Noel Carroll and the Business Houses Association staged the first race in 1980 and 1,420 runners got round the course has now become a national institution. And it's a very rare national institution, one for which hardly anyone has a bad word.

You see, the rest of us still remain highly impressed by anyone who's done that 26-mile trip. Forget mini-marathons and half-marathons, there is only one real marathon. It has not lost its spell since Pierre de Coubertin and his associates cooked up the idea for the first modern Olympics in 1896 and a 23-year-old Greek farmer's son Spyridon Louis won in in two hours and 58 minutes.

It's doubtful if De Coubertin would have imagined a day when the marathon would become a mass participation event. That it has is a tribute not just to the people who are willing to make running a part of their lives but to the 1,000-plus volunteers on the day. There were 10

water stations in this year's race which dispensed a total of over 270,000 bottles. There were 372 toilets and 2,890 barriers and 1,842 traffic cones. It was, in other words, the kind of operation which requires an enormous amount of selflessness and goodwill from the Irish public, right down to Fr Philip Bradley, the Parish Priest in Milltown who was out praying for the runners as they passed his church at the 18-mile mark and prepared to encounter The Wall. Fr Bradley ran the race himself as a seminarian.

The Marathon is one of those rare experiences which seems to ennoble everyone who has contact with it, whether they're running it, out on the course shouting people on or merely stealing a look at the TV and imagining themselves out there next year. It shows us at our best as sport often does in this country.

You know I've even been thinking myself of . . . No. We'll say no more for the moment. But we might get back to it in a little while. In the meantime if you ran it last Monday just remember that the rest of us, even if we're not saying it, are looking up to you right now.

And whether you're Michael McKeown who finished 1,258th in 3:21.19, or Fergal O'Driscoll who finished 4,296th in 3:53.11, or Colette Kinsella who finished 7,895th in 4:25.25, or Mairéad Berkery who was 9,999th in 4:52.06, you're as important a part of the sporting tapestry of this country as any rugby international, inter-county GAA star or Olympian. Take a bow the lot of yiz. You searched for the hero inside and found him or her.

And now all of us pause for a minute and think of Ricki Savage. If you have a couple of bob to spare, his charity page is on justgiving.com.

Let's honour one brave young Englishman. He deserves it.

backpage@independent.ie

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