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Julie Balmer was the first NI woman to finish the Belfast Marathon, now she's lining up for RunHer

Kerry McKittrick talks to some of the top athletes taking part in our annual charity event

By Kerry McKittrick

RunHer is open to competitors of all levels of ability, including those who just want to walk or jog the course for a good cause. But that doesn't mean it is not attractive to serious athletes, and among those taking part in this month's RunHer Coastal 10K Challenge will be the first Northern Ireland woman to finish Monday's Belfast Marathon. Others include a former international hockey player, a member of this year's Irish women's rugby Grand Slam team, a championship winning camogie player and a member of Glentoran ladies football club.

Although each is a winner in her own sport, their sporting instincts mean that they are looking forward to the challenge of taking part in what has become one of Northern Ireland's most popular athletic events.

They will be joined by hundreds of others keen to do their bit for charity and to realise personal goals. The event has no designated charity this year, which means that participants can ensure all of their sponsorship money goes to a worthy cause that means something special to them.

Well-known personalities lending their support to the event on May 24 will be Dame Mary Peters, Miss Northern Ireland Tiffany Brien, Junior Apprentice finalist Maria Doran and Belfast Telegraph Woman of the Year Kate Richardson, who set a world record rowing across the Atlantic Ocean.

Here, five elite sportswomen taking part tell us what the event means to them.

Julie Balmer, (36), is a primary school teacher and lives in Newtownards with her husband David. She says:

I was the first Northern Ireland woman to finish the Belfast Marathon last Monday which I regard as a great achievement since I never had an athletic or sporting background. I did a bit of netball and aerobics and that sort of thing, but nothing serious.

I have celiac disease and in 2008 I decided to walk the marathon to raise money for that charity. I did a combination of walking and running and managed to complete it in four hours.

Then I started doing some 10K runs the next year and at RunHer in 2009 I actually won it. That day I met people like Mary Peters and David Seaton from Athletics NI. I started believing that I could actually run six miles and beat other people and I really enjoyed myself.

David Seaton told me I should join a running club so I started training with one in North Down.

Since then I've won RunHer once more and come second three times. I've done the Boston and London marathons with this year the pinnacle of my achievement on home ground. I did it in three hours 26 seconds.

Doing the Belfast marathon this year was really important to me, not least because of what happened at the Boston marathon. After the trouble that's happened in Belfast I wanted to take part in something positive in Northern Ireland. I think this year's marathon had one of the highest turnouts so I reckon many other people had the same idea – backing Belfast.

RunHer, though, is the event that has inspired me most to run. The atmosphere is amazing and it's wonderful seeing so many women of every age and ability taking part. My mum has done it and even if she walks she always wants to beat her time the next year.

I love that RunHer changes every year. Even if it's at its usual home of Stormont the route is always slightly different to make it fresh. The Coastal 10K is a runners' trip because it doesn't involve doing laps, just a straight run.

RunHer inspires me to run. It's made me feel like a team player even though it's a solo sport. I like to be involved in it and even when I can't take part because of injury I marshal the course and my husband marshals every year. I can't wait to take part again.

As a runner I tend to have a lot of early nights after watching a DVD. I love going out for dinner and to the cinema. As a celiac I've always had trouble with menus in restaurants but recently there are many more gluten free choices. Most of the time though I like going to friends' houses as they will cater for me.

"I'm very lean but anyone who has run a marathon knows you need to eat and load up on carbs, so I enjoy my food as well."

Claire McMahon (37) lives in Lisburn and is a PE teacher. She says:

My sporting career began almost by accident. I went to Rathmore Grammar School in Belfast, which didn't cater much for hockey – we tended to play netball instead. A new teacher who was covering maternity leave started a hockey team and noticed I had a bit of knack for it. I joined Pegasus hockey team and eventually got selected for Ireland and played with the international team for 10 years. I retired after the World Cup in Perth in 2003. I might have retired a bit early but the demands were high. I had to spend every weekend in Dublin, every morning at the gym and every evening at the hockey pitch training, so it was quite hard going. After 119 caps I just felt it was a good time to go.

I still play hockey with Pegasus, though. I've been there for 20 years and we've won 17 Ulster Premier League titles, four all-Ireland titles and seven Irish cups.

I suppose I inherited my sporting genes from my family. My dad played Gaelic football, my mum played hockey and my granda was a super boxer, so you could certainly say I came from an athletic family.

I really enjoy going to the gym and running, but I rarely run more than three miles, so I think RunHer will be a challenge for me. I'm really looking forward to it though.

Anything that encourages women in sport as well as raising money for charity is good.

I love socialising and it's great to be able to go out since I retired from the national team. For 10 years I spent my weekends in Dublin, watching Casualty and going to bed at 8pm in a hotel room.

I think the best thing is I can take really nice holidays.

I used to spend the summer months at hockey matches, but now I tend to have a good holiday of three to four weeks in the United States with other teachers."

Gail Macklin (34), from Glengormley, is a primary school football coach for the Irish Football Association and plays for Glentoran United Women's Football Club. She says:

It's not surprising I'm a footballer, as my dad, uncle and brother all played the game. Dad, Harry Macklin, played for Cliftonville.

I actually started out as a runner and took part in cross-country races with the East Antrim Harriers. Eventually, though, I started to play football. When I was 18 I won a scholarship to the University of Southern Mississippi in the US. It meant I could go to university, play football and have my expenses paid. At the time there wasn't anything that was close to professional female footballers in Europe so it seemed like a great opportunity for me.

When I graduated in sports science I started working for the university as an assistant coach. Then, a Northern Ireland women's football team was formed in 2005 and I began flying back home for matches. However, two years later I became the youngest ever female head coach of a university team at the age of 24. I had to give up playing for Northern Ireland as I didn't have the time to go back and forth. I'm very proud of my 20 caps for Northern Ireland though.

I came home after 10 years in the US. It was time because I didn't feel that I was going to settle down over there. Having said that, life in the US was a dream. I travelled to games all over the country. I was surrounded by athletes so even if I wasn't playing I could go and watch American football or basketball and the college stadium had a crowd capacity of 15,000. Now that I've seen how hard they train I have a real appreciation for American sports. Each year when the Superbowl is on I check out the teams to find out if anyone went to college with me.

I joined Glentoran as soon as I came back and I've been with them ever since. I've thought about retiring a few times. Four years ago I ruptured my Achilles tendon and after I play a match I need to swim and do rehab to make sure I don't get injured. It's the reason I'll be walking RunHer rather than running. I don't do road running any more because it can hurt.

Outside of work and football I'm a committed Christian. My faith is very important to me. I volunteer with Athletes In Action which is a team of Christians who work on humanitarian projects. Last year a few of us from around the world went out to work with orphanages in Moldova and while we were there we played the Moldovian national team.

I'm looking forward to walking RunHer. I think it will be a lovely evening and anything that gets women out and taking exercise is fantastic."

Grace Davitt (30) is a maintenance technician at Belfast Harbour and lives in south Belfast. She says:

I work in a man's world. My job is mainly fixing cranes and plant machinery at Belfast Harbour. I'm the only girl that's ever done that work in Northern Ireland and as it's shift work it's hard to fit in my sporting life around it, particularly when I have to work weekends. I have to say though the company and people I work with have been fantastic in letting me swap shifts to allow me to play my sport of rugby.

I am an Irish international player but I almost turned down the chance to play the sport. Previously I had played Gaelic football, but around 2001 some of the girls in my team started a rugby team because some of their brothers and boyfriends played the game. They asked me if I would join and I refused over and over again.

But eventually they wore me down and I joined them for a training session. The following Sunday I played a match with them and after that I was hooked.

I was selected for the Irish women's team a year later and I got my first cap in 2005. I've also been playing for Cooke Rugby Club in Belfast and the Ulster squad for the last three years.

The Irish team did really well in the previous two Six Nations championships by coming third. When we went into the tournament this year we wanted to take it up a gear.

We thought we might win the championship but getting the Grand Slam was an amazing bonus.

The other sports that I used to play have now fallen by the wayside.

At the moment I'm not training much as the team is training for the Sevens World Cup in Hong Kong in June, but I'm not going. Right now I'm just weight training twice a week and staying fit and strong.

Rugby isn't as much about speed as you might think. Our training is called multi-speed endurance as we need to be able to travel very fast at intervals.

I actually enjoy running. This year I gave up my gym membership so I've been really enjoying taking to the road again. I've never done anything like this though and I've persuaded some of the girls from Cooke Rugby Club to come with me.

I think it's going to be a great day out with some brilliant views along the coast. "

When I'm off season I love being active.

"I got a bike last year so I hit the roads a lot when I can.

I also love gigs. I recently went down to Dublin to see Pink and I'm geared up for Tennent's Vital already."

Aileen Martin (23) is currently studying sport and exercise science at the University of Ulster in Jordanstown. She says:

I started playing camogie when I was about seven years old. I'm the oldest of six and they all played so it was all natural that I started.

In Dunloy where I'm from it's a very small community which essentially revolves around the GAA club anyway.

It's always been a way to get out of the house and to keep myself fit. I particularly like the competitive edge too.

I've been on the winning team of two Ulster Championships and with our intermediate Antrim team reached the final of the 2011 All-Ireland Championships.

I do a lot of running around in camogie and I like hitting the gym too. I like how running makes you feel like you've really achieved something by the time you finish.

I've never done anything like this before and I'm hoping to get a couple of my sisters to join in. I think it's going to be great fun and a little bit different for me.

At the moment I'm studying for my final exams and then next year I'll be off to Liverpool to study a PGCE in PE. I want to come back to Northern Ireland after that though. I'm definitely a home bird. As soon as my exams finish we'll be in the busiest time of year for camogie.

I don't get to go out much during the summer because our matches tend to be on Sundays.

I do like going out and hanging out with my friends though, and in the winter I do a lot of that.

It's nice to kick back and relax when we're out of season – I get a bit of a life back!"

How you can take part

RunHer will begin at 7pm on Friday, May 24 from Seapark, Holywood. You can register for the event online at until Sunday, May 19. After that participants can register at Pure Running, Wellington Place, Belfast or from 2pm at the start line at Seapark.

Pack collection for all participants will be from Pure Running on Wednesday, May 22 from 9.30pm to 6pm, Thursday, May 23 from 9.30pm to 7pm or from the Seapark start line. Entry costs £18.

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