I will never forget the experience of my first marathon. As I travelled down to Dublin in the October of 2012, I had no idea of what to expect. The pain that lay ahead, not only the next day during the race but also in the years that would follow. The Dublin marathon was where I kickstarted this journey into life as a professional runner. I was working full time in the Belfast City hospital and running was a hobby, always coming second to my medical career. It was almost just by chance, that I found myself doing Dublin. I had met Andy Hobdell, my current coach, twelve months previously. After a solid four months of his training, my knee had given way and I had to return to the medical world. In my mind, life as a potential full time runner was not meant to be. Thankfully though, with patience, I recovered. I had remained in contact with Andy but it was still medicine that always took priority over running. I had never run further than twenty miles before the Dublin marathon. Most Sunday runs involved going out and running as hard as I could until I died. I knew a marathon was twenty six miles. Noone told me about the extra bit at the end! I was definitely at the novice level of marathon running.
And yet, I survived the Dublin marathon. I remember phoning Andy from the hotel corridor after the race, still buzzing with adrenaline. I had finished in 9th position, as first Irishman, in a respectable time of 2.16.30. I had badly mis-paced the run but that did not matter. I had reached the finish line and that was my only goal. It was not until the next day that I found out that I had run a qualifying time for the 2013 World Athletics Championships. Following those World Championships, I have been fortunate enough to have gone on and run in several more major championships including, most recently, the Olympic Games. But I will never forget where it all started, and that feeling as I crossed the Dublin marathon finish line.
I know what it is like to be an athlete to finish a race in a higher position than expected. To come from nowhere and impress other runners. This year in Dublin, I have every hope, that some other Irish runner will also surprise and impress everyone looking on from the sidelines. The Dublin marathon is a magical race. Having run both London and Berlin, I can honestly say that the atmosphere along the race course is comparable to them both. While the weather can sometimes be temperamental (it is in October in Ireland after all), the route is undulating and enjoyable. It is now the fourth largest marathon in Europe behind only London, Berlin and Paris. This year also marks the first year of the new Dream Run Dublin project. As part of this project, I will be coaching ten Northern Irish runners to the Dublin marathon, in the hope that they will all run personal bests and break the three hour barrier, as well as make some new friends along the way.
The idea of the Dream Run project arose shortly before this year’s London marathon. One of my friends was targeting a sub 2.45 marathon time in London and we were chatting about where this might place him in the 2017 NI marathon rankings. After an in depth look at the figures, a pattern started to become increasingly clear. Every year, there are a few hundred Northern Irish runners breaking 1.26 for the half marathon. It is a time that, most conversion tables agree, equates to a sub three hour marathon. However, for whatever reason, not even a hundred runners from Northern Ireland break the magical three hour barrier every year. Having got in touch with Ryan Maxwell, (owner of www.nirunning.co.uk and heavily involved with the promotion of Northern Irish athletics), an idea quickly began to turn into reality. I would coach ten applicants to the 2017 Dublin marathon, in an attempt for all ten to break the three hour barrier. If the project is successful, approximately ten percent of NI sub three marathon runners in 2017 will likely have been part of the project. Hopefully, with time, the pool of sub three hour marathon runners will grow, and in doing so, the standard of Northern Irish marathon running will also improve. The standard of marathon running in Northern Ireland is probably the best that it has ever has been with Kevin Seaward, Stephen Scullion, Thomas Frazer and myself, among many others, battling for Commonwealth Games selection. Hopefully the standard will only continue to grow.
The Dream Run team is composed of eight men and two women, with marathon bests ranging from 3.02 to 3.26. Out of close to a hundred applicants, the choice of the final ten athletes was extremely difficult. Unfortunately, two of the original ten athletes selected have already been replaced. Liosa, who was 36 weeks pregnant at the start of the project, decided to withdraw following giving birth. Another good athlete Danny, decided to follow a different training plan and so also left the project. The first time that I met the team was at a Belfast Victoria park parkrun at the end of April. Since then we have got to know each other, and friendships are starting to form. The ten athletes are:
- Paul Curley North Belfast Harriers North Belfast 3.03
- Stephen Smartt Willowfield Holywood 3.17
- Darren Wallace Foyle Valley Donegal 3.26
- Tara Malone 1Zero1 Enniskillen 3.06
- Paul Gorman Albertville Harriers Glengormley 3.12
- Neil Curran Dub Runners Belfast 3.08
- Jonathan Little 1Zero1 Lisnaskea 3.05
- Denise Bowers Ballydrain Bangor –
- David Conliffe PACE Dundrod 3.17
- Barry Reid Unattached North Belfast 3.02
I am already amazed by the progress that the vast majority of the ten have achieved. Pick ten marathon runners and it is very unlikely that all ten will be fit at the same time. Managing and trying to prevent these niggles is an essential and important part of marathon training. Pretty much from day 1, Stephen was out injured for three weeks. Others had colds. Tara was still recovering from an excellent run in the recent London marathon. As soon as one athlete recovered, someone else would develop a niggle. The initial challenge was to get each athlete accustomed to my type of training. Having never met any of them before, they were all coming from different places in terms of their experiences of running. It took a few weeks but the group is now starting to come together. They are beginning to understand the training that I am setting and I am already impressed by the improvements that have been made. Currently eight are training well, with two carrying small niggles. Who said the human body was made for marathon running!
The past six weeks, a lot of hard training has been done. There have been no standout sessions. No amazing runs of which to brag about. Instead, quite simply, each athlete has been doing the conditioning. They are getting ready to handle the marathon training that is to come. With over twenty weeks until race day, time and patience is a luxury that we have. The harder each athlete works now, the easier it will be come September and October. The first test of their progress will come on the 21st June at the Lisburn 10k, where eight of the ten will hopefully be racing. I know that they are all looking forward to it. I am too!
Regular updates and athlete profiles will be put up weekly on www.nirunning.co.uk following the Lisburn 10k. If you know any of the ten athletes or see them out on the Lisburn 10k course, give them a cheer. They have a lot of miles and hard work coming their way. They could do with all the support they can get! #DreamRunDublin17