How changes helped the Belfast Marathon make major strides
For years, Belfast's running community has had a love-hate relationship with the city's marathon.
We felt it was under-delivering, not meeting its full potential - especially in comparison with other cities such as Manchester or Edinburgh, and especially our neighbours in Dublin.
The main complaint was around the route, which until this year included laborious and lonely stretches along the North Foreshore and through the Dargan industrial estate.
There was also a yearning for a Sunday race rather than the Bank Holiday Monday, allowing runners to take part and have the next day off to rest or for visiting runners to explore Belfast.
This year our wishes came true and two days ago the streets of the city, all four quarters, were thronged with 18,000 marathon and relay runners and thousands of supporters.
The response to the Sunday date was overwhelmingly positive, with a 100% increase in entrants for the full marathon.
I spoke to numerous people in the run-up to May 5 who were using the Sunday as the basis for a weekend break, lifting our economy and attracting new visitors to Belfast.
The Sunday date was overwhelmingly welcomed but of course it was not universal, with the more evangelical churches still sticking to the 'never on a Sunday' ideology.
However, at numerous points on the new route, churches had choirs, brass bands and folk groups playing for the athletes. I can attest that the hilliest part of the route, on Woodvale Road, was made easier by the welcome from the choir at the local church.
The singers were applauded by the runners as they went by and the mutual appreciation was tangible.
This was the real Belfast on display and the simple act of groups of people supporting each other was genuinely uplifting. Those scenes were repeated at other churches, some of which had also set up unofficial water stations. It was brilliant.
The crowds did increase and on some pockets of the route, such as Finaghy crossroads, it almost felt like a London marathon with the crowd stacked three or four deep and it is hard to describe to someone who has never run a marathon just how much that means. It puts a smile on the face of the runner and eases those tired legs.
There were problems, we know, with the bag drop and collection process and there have also been reports of some drivers fuming at the wheel as they had to wait for runners to pass. Some runners have complained of breathing in less than clean air for a spell as a result. But those can be managed with experience.
The biggest issue is with the extra distance - 460 metres on top of the official 26.2 miles due to misplaced bollards at Ballyhackamore briefly misdirecting the lead car and runners.
It is clear the course was measured exactly and the mistake was on the day.
That will matter to elite runners aiming for a personal best and even to the club runner looking to breach the four or five-hour mark.
It was a mistake which should not have been made, but no one set out to mess up intentionally and there is little benefit in castigating organisers when they have very promptly accepted responsibility and pledged to ensure it doesn't happen again.
The atmosphere on marathon day, especially on the final Ormeau Road/Ravenhill stretch, is joyous, overwhelmingly positive and something we all need to embrace and build on.
There can be no going back to a Monday run now and I think the numbers taking part and supporting the runners will grow year after year.
Belfast now has a marathon to be proud of and which has the chance to match its potential. Teething problems aside, Belfast you were brilliant - keep on running!
Brendan Mulgrew is a Communications consultant and member of Belfast Running Club