Four decades on and the Belfast Marathon is still as popular as ever, as Belfast Telegraph speaks to some of the participants
Sunday marks the 40th year of the Belfast marathon, a 26.2-mile annual trek that in its four decades has seen people of all ages, abilities and backgrounds take part in some form or another.
Since 1982, participants have signed up to take in the city’s sights in an active way like no other, either walking, jogging, running or wheeling their way through the different routes on the first bank holiday of May every year.
Starting amidst the height of the Troubles, chairman of the marathon’s organising committee John Allen said its creators “felt that this would be a good way of getting community involvement on both sides”.
“There was a boom in marathons and running generally 40 years ago. Every city was vying to have a marathon. The first London marathon happened the year before (in ’81).
“At the time, the Troubles were fairly serious and although it was primarily a running event, certainly there was thinking that it would help community relations as well”.
The inaugural marathon was launched through Belfast City Council, with Guinness as the title sponsor, and it was a simple two-lap course, beginning at the old Maysfield Leisure Centre, with 3,021 runners setting off through a route that took in just the south and east regions of the city. The first winner was Greg Hannon (pictured on the Review cover) who crossed the finish line on May 3, 1982.
Despite Northern Ireland’s problematic past, John added that “there were a few (bomb threats) but not as many as you might have thought”.
The most recent scare was in 2005, when bombers — suspected to be dissidents republican — threatened to kill then PSNI Chief Constable Hugh Orde, who was taking part in the race.
The bomb was discovered at Gideon’s Corner in Newtownabbey on Belfast’s outskirts, a changeover point in the relay event.
Greg McClure, who ran in Belfast’s first ever marathon, was also running that day 17 years ago.
“That one was the strangest year,” he noted, joking at his dismay when he realised he would have to run for even longer than planned as runners had to be diverted to avoid the explosive.
The 65-year-old quipped that “it couldn’t happen anywhere else in the world but Belfast” and said it has never deterred the city from being his favourite marathon location in all these years.
This Sunday will be Greg’s 22nd time running the city’s route. Throughout his life, he’s competed in marathons in London, Dublin, Berlin, Barcelona and Cork — but the Lisburn man said Belfast will always be his number one.
Laughing that back in the Eighties, “you were lucky if you got a plastic cup of water thrown at you on Boucher Road and Guinness waiting for you at the end”, Greg said the event is “much more sophisticated now”.
“The marathons don’t get any easier over the years, especially as you get older, but I always try to do Belfast because it would be my favourite marathon of all the ones I run.
“It’s all down to the people on the streets — it’s the support and atmosphere that make the thing.”
An avid member of the North Belfast Harriers athletics club, Greg said a personal highlight has been the Belfast Marathon recently incorporating the area’s Waterworks Park into its course a few years back.
“For us [in the running club] that was great to run through there. You felt like there were hundreds of people and you knew all of them, and it comes just before the 20-mile mark when it’s starting to get a wee bit harder — it certainly gave me a lift. I’m looking forward to getting back running through the Waterworks this year.”
A large reason for the Belfast marathon’s success has been its capacity to attract runners of all aptitudes — even if they have never really ran before in their lives.
That was the case for Eugene Winters, who turns 65 on Sunday and will be gunning for the whole 26.2 miles, which will further mark his 600th marathon in 600 weeks.
The Co Tyrone native, affectionately known by all who come across him by his nickname Oggie, is completing the challenge for Action Mental Health NI, having previously ran 300 marathons in 300 weeks for the charity.
He has also completed 500 marathons in 500 weeks for The Rainbow Project, an organisation that works to improve the health and wellbeing of the LGBTQ+ community and their families in Northern Ireland.
“I’ve done 10 marathons in 10 days, trebles, quads and all, but I’ve been doing mostly a marathon or two every weekend,” he told the Belfast Telegraph.
“I’ve done them all over Europe and England, I’ve completed all the world majors — Tokyo, Boston, Chicago, Berlin, New York, Cape Town and the likes.
“I never was into sport, I wouldn’t do it at school or nothing, until I started running at the age of 55, on my birthday, 10 years ago in 2012, which is when I first ran the Belfast marathon.”
Oggie started running after he gained weight and wanted to get healthier, adding: “I’ve never looked back since. I’m as happy as I don’t know what.”
Hailing from just outside the village of Eglish, Oggie has called Portstewart his home for the best part of 30 years, where he lived with his partner Brian Simpson, who passed away two years ago. The determined athlete maintains that the late Brian “is still part of me”.
Over the last decade, the pair travelled across the UK and Ireland together in a camper van, as Oggie pursued his newfound love of marathon running.
“I push all my marathons to the limits. I try to get them under four hours. I have something like 205 sub-four marathons out of the 599 I’ve done.”
In September last year, Oggie won a 100-mile race in Belfast over the course of 24 hours — coming in victorious at 21 hours and 40 minutes.
“If you work the mind over the body, you can do it. I run about 70 miles a week, looking at about 4,000 miles a year. When the bounce goes out of the runners, that’s when the injuries start to kick in,” he laughed.
“I do get injuries but I try to work my mind over them. I used to complain to Brian about them.
“If he wasn’t with me, I’d ring him, and the first thing he would ask me is, ‘What time did you do it in?’ If I said under four hours, he would reply, ‘Well there’s no injuries wrong with you’ and if I did it in longer he’d say, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll get it in under four hours again’.”
Another person who defied all expectations in the marathon’s history is Kilkeel woman Laura Graham.
In 2017, the Co Down mum became the first person from Ulster to win the woman’s race since 1999 when Barbara Brewer crossed the finish line first.
Laura finished the event five years ago in an incredible time of two hours, 41 minutes and 45 seconds. Then, Laura was a 31-year-old mother-of-four.
“It was really emotional, because I didn’t expect it,” she said. “I was going for a personal best. It never dawned on me I had a chance of winning.
“It was only when I came round the last corner, with about 100 yards to the line, that I thought, ‘This is happening.’”
Shockingly, that year she came first in Belfast, she had also ran the London marathon the week before.
“I just loved Belfast. It was a real homely marathon,” she continued.
“Everyone was so friendly. The crowd spurred me on. It was so emotional. Overwhelming. And race director Davy Seaton is a lovely guy.”
One of the marathon chairman’s key pinnacles in all these years has been the introduction of the relay teams in the mid nineties.
“For the first sort of 10 years, we just ran a marathon but it became unsustainable. Then we introduced the relay event, which was a rip roaring success and still is,” said John Allen.
“It’s one of the things that I’m just so pleased about how successful it has turned out to be, because it has brought far more people. There’s not all that many people who are up to running a full marathon, but there are plenty of people who can do two or three-mile legs and it has meant that the marathon has been able to appeal to far more people everywhere.”
He added that another success he is pleased about is how many more people have signed up to take part since the event was moved from the first May bank holiday Monday, to the day before instead.
“Since we moved the race to a Sunday [in 2019], it has proved to be very popular in terms of people entering. The numbers have gone significantly up.”
While acknowledging that the decision was “controversial” as many churches and religious groups have opposed the move, he is “pleased” with the increase in uptake.
This year, John says entry numbers are on par with what they were pre-Covid. He said there are around 4,700 full marathon runners and 1,700 relay teams signed up, with five people per team, meaning that’s another 8,500 individuals to add on.
There’s also approximately 1,000 people partaking in the eight-mile walk from Stormont to Ormeau Park, so about 14,000 people are taking part in the entire event — a far stretch from just over 3,000 that took part in the very first event all those years ago.
One thing John was adamant about stressing for Sunday’s big day, is “how grateful we are to all the volunteers who help us out with stewarding, water stations and all of it. We really couldn’t do it without them”.
The 2022 Belfast City Marathon will begin on Sunday, May 1 at 9am, taking off from the Stormont Estate in east Belfast, before ending at Ormeau Park in the south of the city