Stars in the running


Two well-known GAA figures and a reality TV participant prepare for their first marathons, writes Ronan McGreevy 

A RECORD 11,000-plus runners will take part in this year's Dublin City Marathon. For many it will be, as Samuel Johnston once wrote about repeat marriages, the triumph of hope over experience as repeat runners aim to remember the exhilaration and not the pain of previous wins.

Many thousands of others, though, will be first-time runners who will approach the start line with a mixture of excitement and trepidation as they contemplate running further than most of them will ever have run before.

Among those stepping up to the challenge are two sportsmen, Tyrone's Peter Canavan and Tipperary's John Leahy, who excelled at their respective sports, but will have the same sense of the unknown that every other first marathon runner will have on bank holiday Monday.

Canavan (36) took up marathon running this summer having given up competitive football because of injury. The two-times All-Ireland winner, six times All-Star and universally acknowledged to be one of the greatest players of Gaelic football started running in June as a substitute to the summer evenings spent training with Errigal Ciarán in Ballygawley.

"I was invited last year to partake in the marathon, but it did not suit, but I retired from the club because I was constantly being injured and the enjoyment had gone out of it. This gave me a chance to keep in shape and also to raise money for a good cause," he says.

Canavan is running on behalf of the charity The Spirit of Paul McGirr, in honour of the Tyrone minor who was killed in an accidental collision while playing for his county in 1997. The money will go to support communities in Zambia.

Canavan confesses that he was never much of a physical trainer even in his best days and is not finding preparation for the marathon to be easy.

"I'm completely taken aback by the amount of training you need to do. It is a different style of fitness. The majority of my training sessions would never have lasted much more than an hour. Now you're running nonstop for four hours. It is hard to get used to," he says.

A fierce competitor in his time, he willingly admits to finding the repetitiveness and loneliness of the long-distance runner to be "boring and hard work". "The biggest obstacle is the lack of a competitive element," he says. For a man whose ambitions on the football pitch knew no limits, his goals for the marathon are surprisingly modest. "I hope to finish it on the same day that I start it. I'm confident I can do it, but I might have to walk some of the way."

John Leahy has found his preparations for his first marathon disturbed by the need to have five benign cysts removed from the top of his head, which saw him lose two to three weeks of training.

"I'm not gearing myself towards any time, I'm just going out there to finish it and do the best I can. I know that if I had been training throughout, I would have tried to gear myself towards a time.

"I said that if I put a time on it, I would get caught up in it and I'd be racing against the clock and I wouldn't enjoy it as much," he says.

Leahy won two All-Irelands and three All-Stars in a tempestuous and often brilliant career with Tipperary which ended five years ago. He, too, had his fair share of injuries which included two cruciate ligament injuries.

"I had gained a bit of weight and I had got out of training the previous year. Since I went back training, I have got myself into good condition again at around 14 stone. I had previously been 16 stone," he says.

"I missed the training when I stopped, and I got into a rut. I miss the camaraderie of team sport, but it is grand to go off running on your own as well."

Leahy is running for Trust, a small agency which looks after people who are homeless. The charity is run by Tipperary woman Alice Leahy (no relation).

Another marathon first-timer, though not a famous sportsman in his own right, is Dave McCarthy (36) from Ennis, Co Clare.

Last year he was 18-and-a-half stone and feeling miserable for it. He agreed to take part in the RTÉ programme How Long Will You Livelast year in a bid to motivate himself.

An area chef manager for a catering company in the mid-west, McCarthy lost two stone while being filmed for the series. The dramatic change was brought about by more moderate eating and exercise.

"I just put on my runners, walked out the front door and started to run," he says.

A chance remark at the end of the TV series that he was going to run a marathon turned into a promise and McCarthy is now preparing for his first marathon.

"I have mixed emotions about it. I'm looking forward to it, but I know I won't break any land speed records. When I ran my first half-marathon, I was hoping I could run a marathon in under four hours, but now I'd be happy just to finish on my feet."

Last weekend he ran 18 miles in two and three-quarter hours, the furthest he has ever run. "I know what that took out of me. I'd be happy to just finish the marathon," he says.

Since he embraced running in July last year, McCarthy has shed a further stone and is approaching his target weight of 14-and-a-half stone.

"The marathon has given me renewed focus because it is easy to drift away after the TV company leaves."

He is running the marathon for the Ennis charity Clare Haven Services which provides refuge for women and children who are victims of domestic abuse.