The loveliness of Belfast’s long distance runners
For all of the complaints about the traffic chaos |it causes, the Belfast Marathon |represents our single biggest act of charitable giving, says Ivan Little
And they’re off: some of the thousands of runners in the marathon including a team raising funds in memory of Emmett Delaney (5) who died in December 2011 (inset); Below: Claire Squires who died during the London Marathonmain: paul faith/pa
For some, it’s more of a moan-a-thon than a marathon; an inexhaustible opportunity to complain about delays and diversions as thousands of people hit the streets of Belfast to cover the 26.2 mile route as quickly — or as quirkily — as they can.
In their race to get to god-knows-where on a comparatively traffic-free Bank Holiday Monday, the Bahumbuggers grumble and groan from their motors at chaos that the more laidback citizens simply can’t see as they take the marathon in their stride.
Near the end of the day, the same bellyachers bemoan the saturated stragglers who take hours to reach the finishing line.
Sadly, for the car-carpers, there’s no finishing whine in sight as they nudge and wink their scorn to their companions about the fun-runners’ fancy dress that the rest of us never tire of seeing.
“Why the hell don’t they have it on a Sunday?” is a constant cry from the town-criers who forget that a proposal to hold the marathon on the Sabbath a year or two back ran into the proverbial brick wall of holier-than-thou hollering from Lord’s Day observance groups who reckoned worshippers might be delayed from getting to their churches on time.
The immediate response was that churchgoers could have left their homes a bit earlier, but that idea never made it off the starting blocks.
What many considered to be a more reasonable never-on-a-Sunday argument was that many runners would never take part in the event on the Sabbath — particularly Christian groups, which enter relay teams in half-marathons and fun-runs.
The anti-marathon malingerers conveniently forget that many thousands of pounds are raised by the participants for a diverse range of excellent charities and individuals.
Scores of people among the 20,000 who braved the rain in Belfast yesterday were there with thoughts of a sadly-missed five-year-old boy spurring them on.
Little Emmett Delaney was the victim of the sort of accident every parent has had a nightmare about. He was knocked down and killed in the driveway of his Upper Lisburn Road home by a car driven by his grandmother.
Emmett’s mum Paula, eight-year-old brother Pearse and his grandmother, Pauline Gorman, got into the marathon mood by raising money for New Life Counselling, which has helped them, and for the Northern Ireland Children’s Hospice, the marathon’s main charity.
Another tragedy — the death of English marathon girl Claire Squires — also struck a chord with thousands of people yesterday.
The 30-year-old hairdresser, who collapsed in the final stretch of the London Marathon, completed the Belfast event three years ago. Since her death, more than £1m has been donated in her memory to The Samaritans.
As someone who’s only ever managed to walk a stage of the marathon — after the event, it has to be said — I know I’m not the best advocate of its merits. But, as a watcher, I am second to none.
Last year, I happened to find myself in London in the middle of dozens of officials from at least 20 charities who were cheering on their runners at The Embankment.
It was impossible not to be caught up in the euphoric atmosphere, or to avoid breaking the habit of a lifetime and give generously to anyone who waved a bucket in my face.
I also encountered inspiration nearer home three years ago, when I wrote a story about a young Belfastman who was a walking — or, rather, running — advertisement for tolerance and forgiveness.
As an eight-year-old, the man was shot and badly injured in a sectarian gun-attack, but he completed the marathon in support of the Northern Ireland Hospice, which had cared for his late father.
I went to Ormeau Park to cheer him home and, although he was in agony, it was clear the memory of his father had kept him going.
It made me ashamed to think that I had complained that the walk from the Ormeau Road to the Ravenhill Road had nearly been enough for me.
Many years ago, one of my oldest and thirstiest drinking buddies announced, in the midst of a beer-swilling beano, that he was cutting down on the pints to pound the pavements and the parkways in training for a marathon.
The snickers about his marathon plans lasted long into the night, but he had the last laugh. Thirty years on, he can look back on an athletic career that has seen him complete hundreds of races, often among the top five finishers, and collect thousands for good causes in the process.
He looks 10 years younger than the rest of us. And he’s 20-times fitter to boot.
Just as Belfast is all the better for having had the marathon every year since an uncertain city in 1982 welcomed the event for the first time at the height of the Troubles.
Of course, the knockers said it would never last, citing security concerns, bomb blasts, rows over its route and police overtime.
They all presented their own hurdles for the enthusiastic organisers, like the indefatigable Davy Seaton, to clear.
But with the number of competitors and tourists regularly on the rise, there’s no doubt this event is going to run and run.
And with records falling yesterday, they might even change its name to the Belfaster-than-anywhere-else Marathon.