Now's the time to hit the ground running with eight events exploring Northern Ireland's scenic forest parks
Here's your chance to get the training shoes on again and take part in a new Belfast Telegraph event set in some of the most spectacular forest parks here. Laurence White talks to two women about their inspirational running journeys
The Belfast Telegraph is teaming up with local race organisers Born2Run to offer a series of events at eight of Northern Ireland's most scenic forest parks - the programme of which runs into next year.
Run Forest Run will offer everyone the chance to get fit while enjoying some of the province's most picturesque woodlands.
Our partners are Born2Run, which was set up in 2012 by runners Carol McMenamin along with Jane and Gerard Rowe who are all members of Murlough Athletics Club in Dundrum.
The group is well known for organising multi-terrain runs in beautiful locations at some of our most famous beauty spots like Silent Valley, Tollymore Forest Park, Gosford Forest, Castlewellan Forest, Mount Stewart and Antrim Castle Gardens among others.
Now, together with the Belfast Telegraph, eight forest run events will be hosted, the first of which is at Mary Peters' Track, Minnowburn in Belfast on Saturday, October 31. The next outing for runners will be Gosford on November 21, then Loughgall on December 5 with the famous Tollymore Forest Park, which is renowned for its inspiring woodland, the final outing of the year on December 19.
The events will kick off again in the new year at Kilbroney on January 2 - what better way to get 2016 off on the right foot, followed by Mount Stewart on January 16; Antrim Castle Gardens on February 6 and Castlewellan, February 21.
The trio from Murlough Athletics Club first got involved in organising races following their involvement in the GR8 Dundrum Run with their clubmates which quickly became one of the biggest and most popular races on the local running calendar. They enjoyed organising their annual club event so much they decided it would be great to set up other races in equally beautiful locations.
"There are a lot of races out there for people to choose from but we wanted to offer runners a totally different experience," says Gerard Rowe. "Our races are not only in great places but we also go out of our way to make runners feel welcome at our events."
Runners can also enjoy a package which offers a great setting, a friendly atmosphere, post-race refreshments, massage and a quality meal. The events have become pivotal in many local people's lives for different reasons.
We talk to two local women who have found inspiration and motivation from these running events and hear why running means so much to them.
Kerri Thrower (38), a book-keeper, is married to Karl. The couple, who live in Antrim, have no children. She says:
Kerri had two ambitions when she took up running in May 2013 - to get fit and to get pregnant.
She now laughs: "I'm still not pregnant, but I am fit."
Kerri and Karl had been trying for a baby for some time when she sought medical advice. She was told that her weight could be contributing to her inability to get pregnant.
"At my peak I weighed 15st 9lbs. I had always been a big girl - the fat friend - but I had an outgoing personality and as far as anyone knew my weight never annoyed me. Yet deep down it did," she says. "I was never really into exercise.
"I used to take up the latest craze such as Zumba, but I was more interested in getting to the pub afterwards than really taking part in the activity.
"When the doctor told me I had to lose weight, I enrolled with Slimming World in 2012 and during the next year I lost three stone. However, I seemed to get stuck there and I really wanted to lose another stone, so that was the impetus for me to consider taking up running."
Her first experience was a 5k Park Run in Ballymena. She says: "I thought no one would know me there."
Kerri adds: "These runs take place every Saturday morning. On my first go I was the last person to finish the course. It took me 40 minutes through a mixture of walking and running. However, the great thing was I didn't feel out of place. Everyone was so welcoming.
"Another bonus was that during the 5k, I never thought once about babies.
"Two months earlier I had just finished IVF treatment and, unfortunately, it had not been successful. The fact that I had such a clear mind during the 5k run, it got me hooked on running.
"Suddenly I felt free. There was no telephone ringing and no one trying to contact me during those 40 minutes. And I have been running ever since."
Kerri did her first Born2Run in 2013 and husband Karl accompanies her on all her runs.
"He loves the Born2Run events in the forests because it is all up and down hills and through mud. He hates running on the roads."
She remembers her first 10k event which was near Christmas and she completed the course wearing a Santa hat.
Now she is constantly racking up the miles, doing training runs twice a week, a Park Run every week and the Born2Run events. Add in half marathons in Larne and Berlin — “a beautiful city and the course is flat” — and this year, the London marathon.
“It took me four-and-a-half hours,” Kerri says. “I enjoyed the atmosphere, but it took a lot out of me. It was my first and my last marathon, and in future I will stick to half-marathons and 10k runs.”
The couple are still hopeful that Kerri will get pregnant. “In Northern Ireland, you only get one course of IVF on the NHS, and we have had that chance,” Kerri says. “It was very disappointing that it did not work, but with hindsight I realise that there was only ever a 25% chance that it would.
“Just because doctors and science are involved, you build up the prospects of success in your mind to a much higher level than is really the case, so that adds to the disappointment if it does not than work.”
Kerri and Karl have just booked to take part in the Disneyland Paris half-marathon in September next year, and she laughs as she remembers Karl’s comments after they submitted their entries.
“He said that I might be pregnant then, and that I would be running around the course like a huge fat Minnie Mouse.”
She is disappointed that she will not be able to take part in all of the eight upcoming Born2Run events, but holidays will intervene. “Running has been a great experience for me,” Kerri says. “I have changed my eating habits and have lost that stone that I wanted to — and more importantly kept it off — and I am doing a lot more exercise.”
Barbara Fleming-Ovens (46) is married to Alan. They have three children, Dineka (25), Brooklyn (18) and Callum (15), and live in Cranfield, Co Down.She says:
Barbara took up running eight years ago after she nearly died while receiving treatment in hospital for endometriosis, an incurable pelvic condition.
“I had the condition for years”, she says. “But it had got worse and it was decided that I should have a hysterectomy. During the procedure at Craigavon Area Hospital, something went wrong and I had to have several blood transfusions to save my life.
“I was at death’s door, and I was conscious for a lot of the time as first of all the medical team tried to correct the problem that had arisen and then they took me to theatre. I was in quite a lot of pain as well. Fortunately, they were able to save me. It wasn’t my time to go.
“I’d had double pneumonia the year before and then this trauma which did leave a mental scar on me. Every time afterwards when I felt severe pain, it brought me back to my time in the hospital and what I had been through.”
Alan had only just returned home from seeing Barbara in hospital when he got a telephone call to return urgently.
“Obviously, it was a worrying time for him and the children, and after such a trauma you have a new appreciation of life,” Barbara says. “You realise how suddenly everything could be taken away.”
It was a lesson which she was sadly to experience a couple more times in the following years. Alan had been a keen footballer when younger, but had retired from the game by that point. However, he was a keen runner and encouraged Barbara to take up the activity.
“I had been a keen cross-country runner at school and did some walking and climbing, but as ever life starts to get in the way and you have to curtail those activities,” Barbara says.
“But Alan’s encouragement helped get me back running, and I progressed from 5k to 10k to 10 mile events.
“I remember one 10-mile run that I did to raise money for Marie Curie after a friend at work was diagnosed with cancer. I managed to raise around £1,000 on that occasion.”
However, it was another friend, Brian, who continued to push Barbara to extend her limits. She recalls: “He had run several marathons and kept telling me if I could run 10k, then I could run 10 miles, and if I could do that, then I could do a half-marathon, and then why not a full marathon.
“Sadly, Brian was later diagnosed with cancer. He had always wanted to run the Berlin marathon, but was not able to, so I decided to run it for him. He sat at home tracking me around the course on his computer.
“As far as I am concerned, running a marathon is 80% mental strain. You have got to have a strong mind to complete it, and thinking of Brian gave me that strength of mind.”
Barbara is now two-thirds of the way through completing the world’s six major marathons, having run in Berlin, Boston, London and Chicago. She is looking forward to the remaining two in New York and Tokyo.
“If I manage to do those, I will be one of the very few Northern Ireland to complete them,” she says. “Indeed, I believe only around 400-500 people in the world have run all six — mainly because Tokyo is so far away.”
She hopes to have raised £12-15,000 for charity at the end of her marathon slog, and reckons that she has raised some £30,000 in total through a series of charity events, including an annual barbecue held at the holiday park in Cranfield, Co Down, which she runs with her husband.
Barbara’s outlook is simple: “I run because I can, and I run for those who cannot and because I care. I am able to turn my hobby into a way of raising funds while I am doing it. I am lucky I live in a beautiful spot where it is a joy to get up each morning and go for a run. I am originally from Fivemiletown in Tyrone, but I have to admit the view there was not as good.”
Run Forest Run will take place at Mary Peters Track Minnowburn, Belfast on Saturday, October 31. Entry fee is £19 and you can enter online at www.born2runevents.com. Each runner will receive a race medal, chip timing and post race refreshments.