Our Sporting Lives: How marathon man Connor McCarroll inspired a community to put on their trainers and remember one of their own, sadly lost in road tragedy
Popular Knockmany Runners have grown from humble beginnings into a fitness phenomenon
Like a lot of organic sporting phenomenons, the genesis of Knockmany Runners came out of a simple good turn from one person to another.
Connor McCarroll was a man who spent hours upon hours traversing the slopes and hills of Knockmany Forest, a beautifully forested hilltop with a cairn at its tip, 700 feet above sea level just outside Augher in the Clogher Valley.
Around a decade ago, his sister Leanne was getting married and Connor's mother Celine, mindful of future commitments as mother of the bride, pressed her to ask Connor for some light training.
"She asked me if I would take her out running over Knockmany. I took a bit of persuading but lo and behold, she said there were a few other women who wanted to go as well," says the joiner now with a chuckle.
When he parked up that morning, five women were ready to go. Celine's neighbour Paula Woods, her neighbour Una McNelis, Una's sister Meave, and so on. Two more arrived the next week. Two more the week after that…
And now Celine is 70, still running and winning awards.
The popularity of Knockmany Runners has exploded over the last decade. Only last month, 74 members took part in the Dublin Marathon and throughout the summer this previously untapped beautiful natural resource is crowded with people of all shapes and sizes, all ages, wearing the red vest of Knockmany Runners pounding the paths towards the cairn.
"We have 70 regulars now on a Wednesday and a Saturday, we have 130 in all," explains McCarroll.
"We have started a youth programme and we went into the Clogher Valley around the primary schools of all religions and got a cross-community response.
"Our seniors is very much cross-community. It is a great rapport for both sides, a great atmosphere. I think we have 60 juniors now and 130 seniors.
"Twice a year we would organise a beginners programme over eight weeks where we filter people. Once you hear of marathon training, people would be a bit intimidated if they were only starting out. So twice a year we run a beginners thing."
He's not a fan of the 'Couch to 5k' programmes as he feels that having such a goal, once achieved, leads straight back onto the couch again. Instead, his beginners course brings people up to a certain level and once completed, people just filter into the main body of runners.
"The people that come to it, they are the most unique bunch," enthuses McCarroll.
"So easily trained. It's women who are after having children. They are looking to get away from the babies and the husbands for an hour!"
You can see why they want to be there. McCarroll himself bubbles with enthusiasm and he has established a running club that flies in the face of a 'survival of the fittest' ethos. Instead of a tiered approach to training, everyone goes in one big group and they wait for those at the end to complete a section, regroup, and go onto the next training drill.
His passion for running came towards the tail-end of his Gaelic football days with Eskra Emmets.
He ran his first marathon in Dublin in 2008 and discovered he had a love for going over that distance, so he also undertook various courses to become qualified as a running coach.
A bad hip injury in 2014 halted his running. A labral tear and a femoral hip impingement had some medics diagnosing a hip replacement, something he managed to avoid after a consultation at the Ulster Independent Clinic with hip specialist Dr Jonathan Bunn.
The procedure was a success in that he didn't require a hip replacement, but he was informed his days running marathons were at an end.
Until 2015, when his great friend Paul Murray, a member of the club who was working in the north of England, was hit by a car while out training for the Dublin Marathon and died days later from his injuries.
Connor had attended school with, indeed even been in the same class as, his wife Tracey. They were all close and he left behind two children, Gemma and Conal. Paul had even entered the marathon by the time he passed away.
"I told Tracey that I would run for him," he recalls. "That I would get him his medal and I would run in his number. I suppose with something like that, you would have the will to do it even with no legs.
"It was the worst tragedy. Paul was a big, big man in the club, one of our most well-liked people."
The club had been thinking of ways to honour his memory and last summer they did with 'The Paul Murray Grand Prix', a series of runs all over the Clogher Valley over the course of a month.
After Paul was struck, he was airlifted to a hospital and that intervention kept him alive for a few days longer than might have been expected. So therefore, the money raised, £7,000 in all, was handed over to the Northern Ireland Air Ambulance.
Such a tragic event often spurs people on, to redouble their efforts for the good of others.
The participation at Knockmany is thriving and the infrastructure is about to catch up. For some time now, McCarroll has been in the ears of every local politician, campaigning for some changing facilities and toilets. "I just thought it was a sin, for a long time the women had to go behind a hedge or behind the trees and it used to madden me, just to go to the loo," he said.
They enlisted the help of some figures in the council, brought them out to enjoy the fresh air, the exercise and the views. McCarroll ensured there was a bumper attendance that Saturday morning with cars double-parked and halfway up hedges, to impress upon them the need for a bigger car park.
A grant application to Sport NI along with similar lobbying to the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs has yielded funding for facilities, something they hope to see coming soon.
But the worth of such a group cannot be measured in bricks and mortar. It is in what the local community are getting out of it. McCarroll is too modest to say it himself, but he has kick-started a running revolution in the Clogher Valley area.
"I always said that my mother took us to Knockmany when we were younger and over to Lumford's Glen," he recalls. "And if mum was sitting on the sofa on a Saturday morning then we would have sat on the sofa as well, too.
"So we were introduced to that, running about, playing about and she was walking. You had memories of that when you were younger."
He explains the health benefits.
"Every single thing the Government are trying to do to stop cancer and childhood obesity involves targeting these groups, but the groups they want to target are ours.
"We have women in their 40s, who are a high-risk group. We tick a lot of boxes, we have a kids group, cross-community. Men in their 40s and 50s, we have a lot of men who have stopped playing football. I have seen it all down through the years where lads stop playing football, they might play a bit of indoor soccer and play past it. They have got heavy and put on a couple of stone, get into a bit of a rut.
"Boys from their early 40s… that is an age bracket you want to target to keep exercising. That's the kind of groups that are at risk of diabetes and obesity and heart problems."
He continues: "There was always a good rugby team and loads of good Gaelic teams in this area. But that can only attract 15 men on each team. There was nothing for people outside of that. People thought they couldn't try, that running is for 10 stone waifs. But then they saw all the women who do train and none of them got it easy at the start.
"My big thing is that I never focus too much on speed. I've seen it down through the years with fellas who fell out of love with it because they were running for the wrong reasons.
"Going to 10ks and trying to get faster and then they just got fed up with it and stopped running."
Now, a friendly atmosphere and a happy camp make it something people are sacrificing home comforts for.
"If you are sitting in on a Saturday night with nowhere to go to on a Sunday, you would probably - not that there is anything wrong with it - but you would order a pizza and drink beers or a bottle of wine," he reasons.
"But if you have running in the morning, you might think that you will leave it out."
More and more are making that choice. And it's doing them no harm.