On a rather chilly Saturday morning in mid-February I drive to the town of Cahir in Co Tipperary to go for a run with the Cahir Meet and Train group.
I’m not going to lie – it is hard to drag myself out of bed and put on my running gear, but the minute I arrive in the car park at Duneske I am really glad I did. I’m no stranger to the group, I’ve joined them before, but this time I am here to find out what makes them so special.
As the run gets under way, I fall into step with the leading group. Everyone is full of chatter as they head off at a brisk enough pace into the town. We run on until we come to the path that leads to Swiss Cottage. Taking a small breather I wait for the next group to join us so I can grab a word with Andy Moloney. Moloney runs the group – literally.
I came down and there was 127 people waiting to go running. It started going from there
“It started four years ago with a fundraiser for Shaun Fogarty, who was left paralysed as a result of a traffic accident. We decided we’d try to raise money to get him home to his own house – an extension had to be built and so forth.
"It was a challenge for some of us to lose weight and the more weight we lost the more money we raised. On that occasion we raised over €5,000. When we finished RTÉ's Operation Transformation's 5km fun run that year, people said we'd meet up again. So we turned up the following Tuesday night. I was training young kids up in the top field and someone said you'd better come down quick. I came down and there was 127 people waiting to go running. It started going from there."
With its roots in Cahir's tidy towns group, the fitness and weightloss group used the same model as Operation Transformation hosting the OT 5km run each year for a different charity. And so the Cahir Meet and Train group was formed. It turned out to be more of a community of the like-minded rather than a fitness group.
“It’s not all about running,” Moloney says. “What I find is people come into us and they feel better about themselves and it doesn’t cost them a penny. We are out on the footpaths and the roads on Tuesdays and Thursday nights. An awful lot of the elderly people in town who don’t come up to us to run feel that it’s safer to go out in town on the nights that we are out. So at about between 7.30pm and 8.30pm, a lot of people go out for a walk on those nights.
The group has proved therapeutic in other ways, says Moloney. “There are some people in the group who suffer from health, depression and mental health issues and they find it’s great to clear their head. The enjoyment you can see when people finish their first 5km is unreal. You’d swear they’d won an Olympic medal, it’s the feel-good factor.”
The buzz to run over that line and be wrecked in such a healthy, happy way, I'd run forever because I don't get that feeling
While Moloney’s stature in the community and his personal enthusiasm for this project has nurtured the group, he has had a lasting impact on individual members as well. In January, an anonymous letter from a member of Cahir Meet and Train, which enthused about the group’s huge positive influence on her, prompted my further interest in this Tipperary group. I wanted to find out what its secrets were.
Having tracked down the author, she kindly allowed me to interview her. She still wishes to remain anonymous. As a sufferer of paranoia and anxiety, she’s made three attempts to stick with the group – the last one has done the trick.
“The first time I joined it the paranoia kicked in. I had self-inflicted thoughts in my head. I went down the second time and I was running along the road and my head was tormented, I wouldn’t even hear the girls speak because I’d just have one voice screaming at the other over and back all the time. By the time I’d get to the end of it I’d be just so worn out. So I gave it up again.
“Andy would keep texting every now and again. He would say: “We’ll be at running on such and such a night, or we’ll see you again. They meant so much that I don’t think Andy will ever, ever know. I’d receive some of his texts when I’d have been lying down on the bed and I’d be thinking why can’t I just be like everybody else? Why can’t my life just be simple and I just run? So then I joined the third time.
Peace of mind
“Run, breathe and peace of mind is all I wanted. It must be a miracle because I’m able to run now. I stopped listening to myself and I hung on to everybody there. I literary hung on to everybody there and there’s nobody out in the group turns their back.
“There’s one or two girls in the group who know me and sometimes I would text before it and say look I’m not going to go and they’d arrive up at the door.
“The buzz to run over that line and be wrecked in such a healthy, happy way, I’d run forever because I don’t get that feeling. That’s what I wrote in that letter, I don’t get that feeling anywhere else.”
Susan Moore had only lost her husband six months before a friend brought her to a suicide remembrance walk in late 2014. She met the group there and started to go to the training sessions.
“As for health and mental health, it’s definitely impacted on those. I mean when I first joined I was in a pretty low place, but just the community spirit in the group and the fact they will talk to you and listen to you – it’s a great idea to join it.”
Moore, who studies in Dublin and is from Clonmel, feels that when she gets the chance to go out with the group now, it's as if she never left.
“It’s such a close-knit community in Cahir and everybody I’ve met in the group was so lovely and chatty. I am definitely a blow-in, but I’ve found Cahir to be such a lovely community of people. I would say that a lot of it is down to Andy Moloney, the tidy towns and the meet and train. I just think he has that gift to bring everybody together. He’s the crux of the whole operation really, he brings it all together and he’d always have an encouraging word for everybody.
I needed the confidence to rebuild my life. I found it in abundance with the Meet and Train family
“I started off the running training with him and it used to fascinate me how he’d run from the top of the group to the back of the group shouting words of encouragement at everybody.”
Today, as we reach the Swiss Cottage we start the short steep climb up the hill that will take us on to the road back into town. There are a few light-hearted moans and groans from “the couchies” (couch to 5k), but a few encouraging words from Moloney and the promise of a breath-catching descent has us all knuckling down.
“Anybody at all can do this,” says Moloney. “We’ve five levels of fitness – from walking, run/walking, slow jogging, jogging and, as we call them now, the elite. The guys in group five at the moment started off in group one and have worked their way up along. They’ve been running 10ks, half-marathons and full marathons. A lot of them have gone off and joined Clonmel Athletic Club when they get to the stage we can’t do anymore for them.”
We single out onto the main road to do some Indian file training and Moloney tells me about the social side of the group – an annual fashion show fundraiser which gives the members a chance to show off their new-found confidence and a few table quizzes.
The fun runs are stewarded by the Cahir Men’s Shed and supported by the Tipperary Sports Partnership, bringing the whole community together not just people from the town but, as Moloney explains, from the surrounding areas too.
“It’s not just about Cahir town. We are hitting the hinterlands of Bansha, Ballylooby, Ardfinnan, Ballyporeen. There are some guys coming down from Boherlahan, and out from Clonmel because of the noncompetitive nature of the group. That’s the main thing – nobody gets left behind, you go back and bring on the last person.”
On that note I leave the couchies and catch up with the last of the faster group as they return to Duneske. It turns into a sprint finish. To my shame, I am pipped at the post by Vincent Bradshaw.
“I had a liver transplant 13 years ago, but about three years ago when I was 17 stone, my consultant told me that if I didn’t do something about it [my weight] I’d end up having to have another transplant. I joined the group. I knew no one, but I have made friends and have lost two to three stone, so I’m much healthier now. It’s so much easier to do in a group than on your own.”
Cahir M&T has a few subgroups. A walking group that take to the hills on Sundays and a Meet and Cycle group goes for spins on Saturday. One of the main instigators of the cycle group, Jim O’Donnell, came across the group after retiring from a job he loved and surviving cancer.
“I needed the confidence to rebuild my life. I found it in abundance with the Meet and Train family – no questions asked, no conditions, just turn up and train. You know you are part of something special when you get the words of support and find the front runners coming back down the road to encourage everyone in.”
I can second that. I recently returned to the county to take part in my first duathlon, I was on my own and feeling pretty nervous, until I bumped into into Cahir M&T’s Nicola and Donal Ryan (who is one of the trained group leaders) and Marian O’Mahony and her husband John. The women were competing and the men supporting.
Before the start of the race, we grabbed a photo with Moloney, who is also the Lord Mayor of Clonmel. At that exact moment I thought to myself, I’m not alone. I’ve got my support right here.