It's the June Bank Holiday and here come the girls

Sat, May 30, 2009, 01:00

ATHLETICS:OF ALL the nerve-racking, hair-raising, mind-boggling and ultimately shattering “learning experiences” of my short but varied career as a sportswriter, my first encounter with the women’s mini marathon remains the most unforgettable, if not terrifying. Surround any young man shoulder-to-shoulder with 40,000 women smelling of Deep Heat and Tiger Balm – every one of them ready to kick ass – and see how quick he forgets it.

There are some sporting occasions which defy both logic and explanation, and the women’s mini marathon is chief among them. Nothing in the country, or the world, for that matter, readily compares. It may be strictly limited to women, but much of the appeal lies in its easy accessibility. Indeed most of those taking part next Monday have probably decided to do so on a whim, or else while out on a Saturday night with seven or eight friends, probably all half drunk.

There is no qualification standard and certainly no minimal level of fitness. Age, weight or girth is no obstacle, nor are fleshy knees, and sometimes sexuality isn’t either. They come from across the country and across every walk of life, and many of them do in fact end up walking it. No one talks about personal bests or split times in the women’s mini marathon, and no one takes it too seriously. Few of them even know how far it is (a mere 10km). It’s all about the taking part, just like the Olympics used to be.

Who cares when they’ve turned it into the biggest all-women’s event of its kind in the world? It doesn’t matter either that very title “mini” marathon is the biggest misnomer in all of sport (with the possible exception baseball’s World Series). Not only is there nothing at all “mini” about this marathon; it’s impossible to have a “mini marathon” in the first place.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “mini” as denoting something small, short, or minor or its kind – as in a Mini Mars bar, or a mini skirt. By that same definition it can’t apply to a distance or measurement. Given the “marathon” is a distance of 26.2 miles, it’s impossible to have a “mini marathon”, the same way it’s impossible to have a “mini inch” or a “mini mile” – at least outside of North Kerry.

If anything it should be renamed the Women’s Mega Mini Marathon. Either way, the overwhelming scale of the event can only be appreciated up close and personal, which is where I found myself exactly 12 years ago. Having failed to sustain a viable career as a biologist, guitarist, artist, waiter, actor and Teacher of English as a Foreign Language (in descending order, by the way), the notion of becoming a sportswriter finally became unavoidable. Like father, like son had nothing to do with it.

For that I remain forever indebted to Frank Greally, the indefatigable editor of Irish Runner Magazine, who gave me my first start in this cut-throat business. After publishing my first article (something to do with the benefits of being a vegetarian runner, which I’ve long since renounced) Frank sent me along to the 1997 women’s mini marathon to do that all-encompassing “colour piece”, which of course means mixing down at ground zero.

So I found myself on St Stephen’s Green on a typically sweltering June Bank Holiday Monday surrounded by 40,000 women. The first group I cautiously approached, who had just endured a six-hour bus journey from Donegal, had somehow got their rush of endorphins before actually running. They insisted I pose for a photograph with them, hysterically, and only eventually let me go, smeared with lipstick.

At the finish line the atmosphere was even more feverish. As they poured through in their thousands, sweaty and red-faced, fiercely brushing damp hair from their eyes, their fleshy knees quivering uncontrollably, it was impossible not to be touched by the emotion and power of this event.

Con Houlihan used to say the only girls he ever saw running around the streets of Dublin in his heyday were Americans or would-be-goddesses from Scandinavia. “Both species,” he once wrote, “were of course over here to do a thesis on Finnegan’s Wake.”

Con remains as baffled as anyone as to why women runners now outnumber the men on the streets of Dublin – but the women’s mini marathon has a lot to do with it: “All, all is changed – an alarming beauty is born,” he reckoned.

“And now decent citizens who wish to walk their dogs must wait until late at night – and they aren’t safe even then. The Women of Ireland are running and you know neither the day nor the hour when as you turn a corner you’ll be trampled all over by dainty feet.”

For years no one was entirely sure just how mega the women’s mini marathon had become. It was dreamed up in 1983 when a small band of (male) running enthusiasts met up in the Mill House in Stillorgan and decided an all-women’s race could only help increase women’s participation. They just never realised how great that increase would be. The late lamented Evening Press came on board as sponsors, Dundrum took over as host club, and it very quickly became the phenomenon that it is today.

From day one it also combined that all-important charity element. Participants were encouraged to run for whatever cause took their fancy – and over the years the event has raised staggering amounts of money for poor women, sick women, forgotten women, and worse. Last year, 281 charities were represented, the 40,516 finishers raising an incredible €13 million.

Then two years ago the Irish Sports Council tried to put some scientific reasoning behind the phenomenon and commissioned a study at the Waterford Institute of Technology. They found the majority of participants were drawn to the event by a charitable cause first, and their own physical cause second – but in the end were left as mystified as anyone as to why 40,000 women would want to give up their June Bank Holiday Monday to run, walk or crawl around the streets of Dublin.

It obviously wasn’t to try to win the thing – although over the years the women’s mini marathon has attracted the cream of Ireland’s women’s distance runners. In her memorable autobiography, Running For My Life, Catherina McKiernan recalls winning the first of four titles, in 1997: “I enjoyed every moment of it,” she wrote. “The crowds were more incredible that I expected, and it was just something I always wanted to do.” That may capture part of it, “something I always wanted to do”.

It also goes way beyond that, because the women’s mini marathon is more a social event than a sporting event, and that’s where its real power lies.

There are stories of neighbours meeting for the first time through the women’s mini marathon – to become lifelong friends. That may ultimately explain the phenomenon; neighbours may be defined by distance, but no distance – mini or otherwise – can keep friends apart.

See you all again Monday.

“As they poured through in their thousands, sweaty and red-faced, fiercely brushing damp hair from their eyes, their fleshy knees quivering uncontrollably, it was impossible not to be touched by the emotion and power of this event