Record-breaking Belfast Marathon in store
What a difference the last three decades have made to the Belfast Marathon which will be contested on Monday for the 30th time.
The province’s biggest annual mass participation event will this year see new records set in the Deep RiverRock showpiece.
The magical 20,000 figure has just been broken for the first time — this includes a record 3,544 entries in the marathon itself; 12,110 in the five-person relay teams; 2,587 in the marathon walk; and 1,767 in the fun run.
The 20,000 figure has only ever been achieved once before in Northern Ireland, when up to 25,000 people set out from the old Maysfield Leisure Centre to support Bob Geldoff's Race Against Time event in May, 1985.
Three years before that, Belfast first commenced its enduring relationship with the marathon.
Three thousand hearty souls embarked on the sole event over a two-lap marathon course, with Greg Hannon — who three years earlier had clocked a world-class time of two hours 13 minutes six seconds in the AAA's marathon in Coventry — emerging as the winner.
Hannon recalled: “I was fairly confident that I could win even though I wasn't in two hours 13 minutes form.
“While it was good to compete for once in my own backyard, I was under some pressure as I needed to win to secure selection for the Commonwealth Games in Brisbane.
“A fast time was not an option because of the strong wind. I ran cautiously in a group of four to the 15 mile mark and then took off.”
Weather conditions were possibly the worst they have ever been for the race.
Overnight gale force winds, which had caused ferry cancellations, were still very strong at the noon start time. This resulted in a chill factor causing abnormally low temperatures. The exposed Boucher Road has gone down in marathon folklore as the “wind tunnel”.
None of this deterred the competitors with the entry list reading like a who's who of Ulster's top middle and long distance runners.
This was largely due to running at that time being in the grip of the first marathon boom with many determined to have a go at an event which had previously been regarded as strictly for the masochists.
The sudden explosion in the event's popularity is shown by the fact that in the Northern Ireland Marathon Championships only two years earlier, a grand total of 18 runners took the start line.
The 1982 event therefore featured a very strong quality field and the key statistic is the fact that 110 athletes finished inside three hours — in other words, within a time regarded as the benchmark for a good marathon performance.
This figure is almost 100 per cent higher than the 56 who dipped under three hours in last year's marathon.
This “quality in depth” pointer increased to a classy 184 in 1984 before declining thereafter.
This high water mark for good quality marathon fields also linked in with a peak in the total number of participants.
In fact, the 3,411 entries for the 1985 race has only been surpassed in the last few days with the all time high figure for this year's race.
Another key change over the past 30 years has been the number of female runners, schoolteacher Susan Boreham the first female winner, in three hours 11 minutes.
Until relatively recently women represented a paltry five to six per cent of total entries.
The position remained unchanged for many years with a low point reached in 1997 when a mere 33 (5.5 per cent) of the 602 finishers were female.
Compare this with the entry for this year's event which includes 831 women — an impressively healthy 23 per cent of the total and increasing each year.
The decline in the quality of marathon fields in contrast to continuing increased participation rates is well known although there is encouraging evidence that standards are improving once again.
There are a variety of reasons for the spectacular increase in participation in the Belfast Marathon.
Greater health awareness plus a desire to support the countless charities which will directly benefit from the efforts of all those prepared to undergo varying degrees of physical exertion in their chosen event.
Weather permitting, the occasion as usual will generate a party atmosphere with thousands of spectators encouraging their nearest and dearest.
Hannon has many happy memories of his Belfast Marathon success all those years ago.
While his inaugural victory will always be remembered it masks other achievements by a runner who was regarded as a true athletics giant by his peers.
Hannon's iconic status is fully justified given his marathon successes plus his personal health battle which commenced when he was diagnosed with an irregular heart beat in his teenage years.
In the absence of subsequent medical advances he was forced to abandon running for two years before his condition stabilised and he returned to the sport to produce some startling results.
In 1978, following a classy marathon debut of two hours 17 minutes 35 seconds, he represented Northern Ireland in the Edmonton Commonwealth Games.
This was followed by that spectacular victory in Coventry in two hours 13 minutes six seconds.
In this race he defeated the cream of British marathon running and set a new Northern Ireland record which over three decades later seems to be as unreachable as ever.
Hannon crossed the line one minute in front in a time of 2.20.25, an achievement that delighted him given the testing weather conditions.
Hannon was philosophical about marathon standards today — his 1979 time would, after all, have placed him first Briton in last week's London Marathon.
He pointed out that standards in many mainstream sports have declined over the years with the exceptions including sports where there are lucrative rewards — such as top class soccer and world level marathon running.
“There has been a major social shift in leisure patterns in the last 30 years.
“Young people now have many diverse interests in addition to mainstream sports,” said Hannon.
However he did think that a lot more could be done at school level to instill a more serious approach to sport generally.
So attention now turns to that record-breaking Belfast Marathon on May Day, which starts at the City Hall and finishes at Ormeau Park (www.belfastcitymarathon.com)
Let us hope that this year's event may produce a future Greg Hannon in the making.