Ian O’Riordan: Let this be the final year of the Virtual Dublin Marathon

On weekend that nightclubs reopen Dublin’s streets will still be devoid of keen runners

The 40th running of the KBC 2019 Dublin Marathon, with a record number of 22,500 runners. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

The 40th running of the KBC 2019 Dublin Marathon, with a record number of 22,500 runners. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw


Mick Pyro is returning from his deeper space to play two live gigs this weekend and the plan is to stand in line for them both. It’s still unclear if once inside we’ll be seating at a table or standing beside it, which is okay because at early Pyro gigs the fear was the tables might get smashed or thrown about.

Things are different now for the former front man with the Republic of Loose. He’s mellowed and chilled and sings songs of experience like William Blake and more importantly he’s performing in front of us live and in person and not transmogrified into the anonymous encounters of the virtual space.

It’s true that as we bid farewell to the last of the pandemic strapping there are some things we never want to hear talked about ever again: closed wet pubs and takeaway pints and Zoom parties and the waving in the window at elderly parents. Plus the virtual live gig and all the sadly depersonalised obscurity that came with it.

Try as they did, like alcohol-free beer and spreadable butters they were nowhere near the real thing. Even Dylan got in on the act this summer, performing a show called Shadow Kingdom on the Veeps livestream platform, although his latest interpolations weren’t actually live: there was a mock audience hilariously drinking and smoking their faces off, only here’s to standing in line outside the Beacon in New York next month.

We’re not out of those woods just yet. For better or for worse there is still one event forced to take place by means of its virtually anonymous equivalence and that’s the 2021 Dublin Marathon. Originally set for this Sunday, Dublin took the decision back in July to cancel the event for a second year. It was to be another 25,000 sell-out, and even with the expectation that the vast majority of the population would be vaccinated by the event date, there were still too “many unknowns” according race director Jim Aughney.

It’s gently ironic that on the same weekend the nightclubs and dressing rooms reopen to full capacity the streets of Dublin are still closed to the marathon runner. Maybe not strictly speaking, and even if there’s little doubt if Aughney knew then what he does now he’d have pressed on, his caution was understandable: imagine if in July the FAI or IRFU had put on sale 51,700 tickets for the Portugal or New Zealand matches at the Aviva next month without being sure that capacity would in fact be restored by then?

So, love it or leave it, there is still the 2021 Virtual Dublin Marathon, which like last year is open to anyone either willing or able to run the classic distance - only without much of the true or lasting reality of the experience that would normally come with it. “Virtual in name only”, they say, only not really, at least not in my experience. Nothing with the shared existential qualities of running a big city marathon can ever be replicated by virtual means. Besides, if a marathon runner falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does a marathon runner make a sound?

Still this otherwise virtually thankless exercise clearly appeals to some - around 2,600 have signed up, according to the organisers. For a modest fee of €15, entrants get to download the Virtual Dublin Marathon race app, which will track their distance and then upload their time onto the virtual results page. They can start at any time this Saturday, Sunday or Monday, the main proviso being they run the 26.2 miles in the one go; no stopping for a nap on the side of the road and definitely no jumping on the bike or the electric scooter. Honesty here is the only entry policy.

Everyone that does finish will be sent a medal in the post and can download a “digital celebration frame”, and for another €18.50 can order a long-sleeved finisher’s T-shirt. Unlike last year, there’s none of that 5km radius nonsense to worry about and there’s no limit on the numbers you can run with either.

There were some uplifting stories around last year’s virtual event: Sean Hehir, a two-time Irish champion, recorded the fastest men’s time of 2:21:43, 10 months after being knocked down and out by a car; Mary Walsh from Raheny ran the fastest women’s time of 2:57:57, inspired in part by the loss of club stalwart Pat Hooper in the weeks before. There is a charitable element which otherwise would be virtually zero, and it keeps the link to headline sponsors KBC Bank, who have stood loyally by Dublin over the last two years.

Only let this be the end of it, let the virtual marathon runner finish for the last time in Dublin this weekend. There is talk of hybrid marathon events in the future - real and virtual - just when this sort of thing should be let die among the confederacy of pandemic dispossessions. Better than nothing maybe, only nothing like the actual thing.

Maybe that’s because my experience of running the Dublin Marathon remains so utterly unique and memorable, even 20 years ago to this year already, the first and fastest and still the favourite. Running later in places like London, New York, Jamaica and Honolulu had their own shared experiences, only there was something about running in your own home city, raging against the dying of my youth only still bold enough to believe in it, five months of crash training also luring me into thinking I could be the best of the Irish.

Which for a while I was, passing halfway in around 70 minutes and still mixing it with the Kenyans, in minimalist footwear, the only gel on board in my hair, before both wheels blew off and I finished in 2:31:09, swearing never again and yet never again feeling so absolutely real about any marathon run.

It’s also why when Noel Carroll helped start up the first Dublin Marathon, in 1980, of course had to run it too, which meant every one of his many great quotes came from experience. I know that because I’m still quoting them today, 23 years after his sudden death - mid-stride, as it were - after one of his regular noontime training runs around UCD, in October 1998.

Carroll was only 56, the embodiment of clean living and physical fitness, the sadly gentle irony being he died of a suspected heart attack doing what he loved to do all of his life. Much of what Carroll achieved came from the heart of distance running, one of his lasting mantras on the marathon being “it’s not the distance that kills, it’s the pace,” something all real marathon runners know only happens within the race itself, and not the anonymous encounters of any virtual running space.

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