Meet the couple who have run an astonishing 200 marathons (and fallen in love along the way)
Gary Connolly and Gillian Cordner used to be couch potatoes, but will soon take on the toughest footrace on Earth. Their romance is going the distance too, they tell Stephanie Bell
Unstoppable running partners Gillian Cordner and Gary Connolly have between them chalked up an astonishing 200 marathons - that's 5,500 miles, or the equivalent of running from Belfast to Guatemala.
This time last year the super-fit Carrickfergus couple hit the ground running when they set themselves the staggering goal of running their 100th marathon before the year was out.
For Gillian (40), who is still relatively new to the sport, it meant packing in a mind-boggling 62 marathons in 12 months, while the challenge for Gary (51) came out at a mere 47.
Both achieved their magnificent goal in December and Gillian's latest 26-mile run on New Year's Eve has given her the unique distinction of becoming the first woman in Northern Ireland to run 100 marathons.
Her 62 races last year alone also made her the first female to run the most marathons in a calendar year in Northern Ireland.
Just last weekend, she became only the 10th woman in Ireland, as well as the first in the province, to be presented with the 100 Marathon Medal by the Marathon Club of Ireland.
Her achievement is all the more remarkable given that she only took up running less than three years ago at the age of 37, describing herself as a couch potato before that.
The mum-of-two, who works for the Belfast Health Trust, has not only been given a new lease of life through her passion for pounding the pavements, but also found romance when she met Gary through her new hobby.
Gary is a founding member of Seapark Athletics Club in the couple's hometown of Carrick, and although he has been running since 2000, he credits Gillian with being the driving force behind their mega 100-marathon achievement.
"It was the greatest feeling doing my 100th marathon on December 13," says Gary. "We were supposed to run it together, but something came up which meant Gillian couldn't do it, but she encouraged me to go for it even more and then she did her 100th on New Year's Eve.
"Gillian has inspired me. She only took up running two-and-a-half years ago and to have clocked up so many marathons since then is amazing.
"She is a very determined person and if she says she is going to do something, she will do it. She is also a very strong runner and has had quite a few podium places, which is brilliant. There is no doubt that it is because of Gillian that I have achieved so much in the past two years."
Still buzzing from her triumph on December 31, Gillian says she can't quite believe how far she has come since setting out for her first run in March 2011 with no other aim than to try and lose a little weight.
Mum to Jacob (18) and Adam (14), she says she was never a sporty person, even in her school years, and led what she described as a completely sedentary lifestyle.
"I was a true couch potato," she says. "I did nothing but watch TV and ate and drank too much.
"I put on weight after having my kids and never really lost it. In March 2011, I decided to go out running just to try and lose some weight.
"I then signed up for the Cancer Research Race for Life at Stormont that summer to give myself something to aim for, and after doing that I got the bug. It becomes very addictive.
"No matter what is stressing you in life, when you go out for a run you can completely forget all your troubles or if you have a problem in work or at home, it gives you a chance to think it through. It releases you from everything and there is the added bonus of keeping fit.
"It has completely changed my life in terms of my health. My fitness is better, I feel healthier, my blood pressure and BMI are normal, even my hair and skin are much better, and I have a much more positive outlook on life. It's all about setting yourself goals and achieving them."
When not in training for a major event (which, let's face it, for these two is once in a blue moon), they typically run five times a week with two five-mile runs, two 10-mile runs and a 30-mile run - a total of around 60 miles a week.
When preparing for a marathon they up the training ante to seven times a week, on top of whatever event they have signed up for. Like Gillian, running is something which Gary, a self-employed bathroom fitter, took up from a starting position of having never participated in any sport before.
"It was because of the Millennium," he says. "I felt it was a special year and I got it into my head that I should get off my backside and do something special to mark it so I signed up for the Belfast Marathon. I had never run before so I joined my local running club; it just went from there and I haven't stopped since.
"I certainly never anticipated carrying it on. I thought once I did the Belfast Marathon that would be it, but the sense of achievement when I crossed the finishing line was amazing. As you are running you are saying to yourself 'Why am I doing this?' but once you cross that line you can't wait until the next one.
"It's hard to put into words what it is like. The buzz is unreal. When you are running everything just disappears." Gary signed up for another marathon and averaged a couple a year until he met Gillian, and together they have gone on to increase their challenges year after year. Last year he completed 47 marathons, while the year before he topped 29.
The couple met when Gillian joined Seapark AC in Carrick at the end of 2011. The club had been defunct for several years when Gary persuaded a couple of other runners to join him in relaunching it six years ago.
It started with five members and has gone from strength to strength, with a current tally of almost 50. Gary was responsible for organising club training sessions and so he and Gillian started training and then competing together.
In 2012 they ran five marathons, dramatically increasing it to almost 30 in 2013, and then going all out for the big one last year.
"We both really found our niche was marathon distance so we set ourselves a challenge to run 10 in 2013," says Gillian. "This gradually increased to see if we could run 20 and we actually ended up doing 27 together in 2013, while I did another two."
Their shared passion for running soon saw their friendship blossom into romance, though while encouraging each other, Gillian confesses that their competitive edge does sometimes get the better of them.
"It has its upside, but there is a downside, too," she says. "You can become a bit too competitive sometimes, much as you try not to be.
"It's about the only thing we argue about, especially if one of us is having an off-month and not training as much as the other, but generally it works very well."
As well as what Gillian now casually refers to as "normal marathons", last year they completed a 10 marathon in 10 days event in England, as well as nine marathons in eight days.
They also ran from Belfast to Dublin in two days - a total of 113 miles - to raise money for charity. The couple also came joint fourth in 2013 in the Hadrian's Wall ultra marathon, covering 69 miles in two days.
Gillian's many podium places include coming second lady in the Achill Island 39-mile Ultra Marathon in 2013, second lady in the 26 Extreme Causeway 100k last year, and third in the Tralee 100k last year.
She also took two firsts last year in the Born2Run Surf N Turn Marathon in Wexford and the Quadrathon, four marathons in four days. She also achieved her personal best of three hours 18 minutes last year in the London Marathon.
Hitting her 100 marathon milestone has been her highlight so far: "It was just amazing and I'm really proud of myself," she says.
"When I got to the last two miles it was really overwhelming and I just couldn't believe that I was doing my 100th marathon.
"My parents and the boys and some friends came down to see me cross the finishing line, and that was lovely.
"My children thought it was awesome and Gary and I are so proud of each other."
The couple have already found a way to top their amazing achievement by taking on what has been described as the toughest footrace on Earth - five-and-a-half marathons in six days in the formidable Sahara Desert.
The Marathon des Sables - simply known as the MdS - is a gruelling adventure which tests participants to the limit.
Gillian and Gary have already started training for the event in April and are understandably a tad apprehensive about what to expect from the extreme conditions they will be facing.
"The heat is going to be the biggest factor, but we will also have to run while carrying everything we need for the six days such as our food and sleeping bag in a back pack," explains Gary. "We need to work out what food we will need; it certainly will be something new for us and definitely a challenge."
Gillian admits to being "petrified" about what they are letting themselves in for, in what really is the ultimate challenge for any runner.
"Apparently the heat is unreal and we have had to train carrying equipment on our back," she says. "We wanted to pick something big and I guess we have done that, but we're up for the challenge.
"We are also doing a 100km race in Romania in May - this year it's more about doing long distance."
And, as if all of that weren't enough, there are of course still the standard marathons to complete - the couple plan to take in a round figure of 50 this year!
How you can get going too...
- A big part of the appeal of running is that it costs nothing, you can do it anywhere and it burns more calories than any other mainstream exercise
- It’s also good for your health, as regular running is known to reduce your risk of chronic illnesses, such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and stroke. Celebrities who love to run include Gordon Ramsay, Nigella Lawson and Katie Price
- If you haven’t exercised for a while, however, build your fitness levels gently with walking. Plan your runs. Work out when and where (the exact route and time) you’re going to run and put it in your diary. This will keep you focused and on track
- Start each run with a gentle warm-up of at least five minutes. Start walking for an amount of time that feels comfortable (anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes). Once you can walk for 30 minutes easily, include some running intervals of one to two minutes
- As time goes on, make the running intervals longer, until you’re running for 30 minutes continuously. Keep an upright posture and a smooth running stride, striking the ground with the middle of your foot.
- Give yourself a few minutes to cool down and to bring your heartbeat back to normal after each run by walking, followed by gently stretching your leg muscles
- Beginners should aim to get out at least twice a week. It’s better to run twice a week, every week, than to run half a dozen times one week and then do no running for the next three weeks