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Belfast Marathon - why they decided to take up the challenge

Thousands of people will take to the streets tomorrow for the 2019 Deep RiverRock Belfast City Marathon. Linda Stewart talks to some of the competitors about why they decided to take up the challenge

Pain relief: with the Belfast Marathon coming up, take steps to prevent blisters
Pain relief: with the Belfast Marathon coming up, take steps to prevent blisters
Jayne Thompson
Aveline O'Neill
Paul Finlay
Christopher Hunter
Mark Brooks

By Linda Stewart

Tomorrow's Deep RiverRock Belfast City Marathon will be the first time the race has been run on a Sunday, provoking criticism and support in equal measure. Many evangelical Christians regard holding the event on the Sabbath as a retrograde step, while organisers say it is less of an organisational headache than staging it on the traditional Bank Holiday Monday.

Traders, meanwhile, have welcomed the fillip the rescheduling will mean for the city's economy.

We speak to a number of competitors about why they've signed up for the 26-mile, 385-yard challenge and hear about the good causes that will benefit from their exertions.

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Jayne Thompson

Jayne Thompson

Parentkind manager Jayne Thompson (48), from Kesh in Co Fermanagh, set up North Fermanagh Fitness Club, a running club that encourages people from all backgrounds and fitness levels to get fit with like-minded people. She is married to Mark (52) and has two children, Dylan (21) and Meghan (19).

This year, 15 club members will be running in the relay, while two will be running the full marathon for the first time. The club is raising money for the Alzheimer's Society after one of their members was diagnosed with the condition.

Jayne was inspired by her daughter to take up running and shortly afterwards other mothers asked if she would set up a running club in their village.

"We were overwhelmed on the first night - 45 people turned up, of all ages and backgrounds, and since then we've been going from strength to strength," she says.

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Every Sunday, the group meet to run the trails of Castle Archdale and surrounding countryside and the highlight of these runs is the cup of tea and homebake afterwards.

"We are grateful to the Forestry Service, who provided facilities for us to enjoy this cuppa and chat no matter what the weather," she says.

"The club is about so much more than running. We are a sporting family who are there for each other and, as I can often be heard saying, running allows me to detox my inbox and in this busy world we all need that space to do such with supportive people."

Jayne says that choosing the charity to run for was easy for the group, because of the support that the Alzheimer's Society provides to people such as Seamus McCusker, from Irvinestown, a former PE teacher who was diagnosed with the condition a few years ago and who runs with the NFFC group on a Sunday morning.

From the start, Seamus openly shared his diagnosis with the club members and everyone is supportive in making sure that he remains safe when out running and always has company.

"He may be 70 and he may have dementia, but that doesn't stop him running the legs of all of us," Jayne says.

Seamus's wife Breege, a writer and historian, says he was diagnosed with the disease four years ago and looks forward to his Sunday morning 5k runs in Castle Archdale.

"It is a lifeline for him to be able to continue his sporting interests with a club who have a heightened awareness and understanding of the disease and to run with new friends," she says.

"He is delighted that club members are participating in the Belfast Marathon and fundraising for the Alzheimer's Society, which will be able to build on the social activities for members of the memory cafe in Enniskillen."

Jayne, who is completing the final relay length in the marathon, says the running club is providing the training and opportunities to encourage each of its runners to participate at a level and a distance that they are capable of and comfortable with.

"This is not a day of going out for a time - it's a day of being together as a team. Being together, everyone achieves more," she says.

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Aveline O'Neill

Aveline O'Neill

Student and first-time marathon runner Aveline O'Neill (19), from Kilkenny, is studying dietetics at Ulster University in Coleraine.

She is part of a group of university students and staff who are running the marathon to raise money for Mind Your Mood, a student-led mental health initiative that emphasises building resilience, promoting mental health and breaking down the stigma of mental health.

Aveline says she first felt inspired to run the marathon when she met runners on the Dublin-to-Belfast train.

"I was sitting there and they all had their gear and their hats. I thought 'these people are incredible, I want to be like them'," she says.

As luck would have it, she saw an appeal to take part in the Mind Your Mood team soon afterwards and decided to apply. One of her teammates turned out to be a gym instructor.

"I was like, 'Oh, my God, what am I signing up for? This guy is an elite athlete!'" says Aveline.

With a full marathon ahead of them, the participants undertook a gruelling 20-week training programme that began shortly before Christmas last year.

The Mind Your Mood Belfast City Marathon Project is also an experiment to help experts assess the impact of physical activity on student wellbeing and understand how the university can positively influence the overall student experience.

Aveline says: "The training began in December and we had targets the whole way along for us to hit - three miles, five miles, eight miles, 12 miles, 15 miles and up to 21 miles.

"So many people are affected by mental illness and all of us will struggle with mental illness at some time in our lives.

"This training has done good things for my own mental health.

"I was never a negative mindset of a person, but I've become even more positive than I was. I had more doubts about my ability before, but now I've made it through this training. There were so many times when I was like, 'I can't do it'. But you make it through those runs and the soreness only lasts for a day or two.

"Nothing is as big a challenge as it was before. This has done huge things for my confidence."

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Paul Finlay

Paul Finlay

Paul Finlay (31), from Newtownabbey, is a council operative for Lisburn and Castlereagh Council. He lives with his mum Margaret (49), dad Paul (51) and sister Carla (27).

Paul is running the full marathon this Sunday as part of a 38-strong team of friends and family of popular north Belfast barman Joe Burns, a boxer who collapsed and died at the age of 23. They are raising money for the British Heart Foundation for research into silent heart conditions.

Following Joe's death, his mum Una and sister Jeanette learned from the BHF that they carried a faulty gene for Long QT, an inherited condition that can cause heart rhythm disturbances and cardiac arrest if left undiagnosed.

Paul was good friends with Joe and this is his first time running with Team Joe, which has taken part in the marathon for the last four years.

"When I started working in The Chester bar, that is when we got close - we were good friends," Paul says.

"He was a really happy person, one of those people you love being around.

"He was always smiling and joking. He was a positive person who always had you in a good mood. It was a massive shock when he died."

This is Paul's sixth marathon and the fourth time he has run the Belfast Marathon, having run the Dublin and Liverpool marathons as well.

"I just really enjoy running," he says.

"I ran my first marathon in 2012, so I must have started running about 2011.

"The first time I went out, I couldn't run round the Valley Park in Newtownabbey once, but I just kept at it and I kept getting better. I'm not in any group. I just go out and run on my own - I stick the earphones in and away I go."

This is the first time Paul has joined Joe's family group at the Belfast Marathon, although he had hoped to do it two years ago.

"I was just out of hospital after having an asthma attack and I couldn't do it. I had to drop out. I'm looking forward to this one, but I'm nervous as well. It's my first marathon in a couple of years, but once I get going, I'll be going rightly."

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Christopher Hunter

Christopher Hunter

Christopher Hunter (33), from Poleglass, had a stroke in 2015 and is running a full marathon to raise funds for the Stroke Association after fighting his way back to health. An administration manager for the NHS, he is married to Maria (33) and they have three children, Gerard (9), Sarah and Mary Rose (2).

He recalls waking up on a Sunday night and calling out to Maria because he felt that something wasn't right.

He says: "My face had slid down to one side and I couldn't move my whole left side.

"They had me in an ambulance outside the house for about an hour working on me. Then I went blank and the next thing I knew I was in hospital."

Christopher was lucky enough to get an anti-clot injection in good time, but had still suffered considerable effects.

"My speech wasn't really great and the whole left-hand side was numb. It took a couple of days to get that feeling back," he adds.

"My speech came back, but for some days I couldn't swallow. I wasn't able to eat or drink.

"It was going into my mouth, but my brain wasn't letting me swallow and I was choking."

Christopher stayed in hospital for 10 days and worked on his mobility with the occupational therapist, gradually walking a little more each day, but suffering severe tiredness.

After coming home, he felt stir-crazy and decided to go back to work in a phased return after about a month-and-a-half.

"Everyday things became really hard - even going up to get the lift into work," he says.

"The fatigue would hit me straight away - it was something I wasn't used to.

"The strength in my left hand eventually came back.

"The stroke happened in August and then, at Christmas, my wife was doing Couch to 5K and I went along to see what it was about and decided to have a go.

"I finished the 10-week course and, at the end of it, I was able to do the Parkrun."

After that, Christopher wanted to continue running and heard about the West Belfast Coolers running group.

"I thought I'd give it a go and I honestly haven't looked back since. I've done three half-marathons and this is my first full marathon.

"I'm looking forward to the marathon and I'm looking forward to the atmosphere. Hopefully, I will cross the line and it will be a big achievement for myself. It will be good to say I've run a marathon."

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Mark Brooks

Mark Brooks

Mark Brooks (30), from Belfast, is commercial manager for the Belfast Giants and is running his first full marathon this weekend. He is married to Lauren (28).

He says: "It's just something that I've always wanted to do - I would have gone to watch the marathon with my parents. I would have been running for a few years, but this is something I've wanted to do for a long time."

Mark decided to join the Victoria Park and Connswater running club after his friend encouraged him.

"I'm not exactly the fastest in the group. But it's really good for fitness and mental health and getting out - it's for the social aspect as well," he explains.

And he admits some of the members of the Belfast Giants have been taking an interest in his running career.

"I'm on a lot of the heart monitors and the tracking the guys would use as well, so there's a lot of fun from them and a lot of encouragement," he says.

"They've just finished the season and won the league this year, so they are happily enjoying their off-season, while I'm preparing to do the marathon.

"I've been looking forward to it - it's my first marathon. I want to run in places around the world, but I definitely want to give Belfast my first marathon."

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