Ian O’Riordan: Belfast Marathon will show what might have been in Dublin

It's a pity the Government could not have been more supportive after the year that was

We were running across Glendoo Mountain on Thursday morning when the wind picked up and the rain began to fall, and I’d be lying to myself if I said I didn’t care. There is nothing more sad or glorious than seasons changing hands, to paraphrase Ecclesiastes, as long as you’re suitably dressed and still have the legs for it.

My neighbour down the road is training for her next marathon, and unlike me is back running most days. She's still not sure exactly when or where that next marathon will be, or if she'll even get in. It doesn't seem to matter: as long as there's hope and a chance there's no time to lose.

Part of me wonders what it would take to face into this sort of grind again, including the grinding of my own teeth, evidently. George Orwell wrote a classic memoir about living as a down and out in Paris and London in 1933, and in Paris he would often see women, not all of them young, pulling bread cars up the hilly streets, and to him, especially in high summer, it looked as near to punishment as one could find in a civilised country.

On the Yangtze in China there are still traditional trackers who pull boats upriver by rope and restrain them on the way down – a similar sort of exercise most people would not voluntarily sign up for. Indeed given the choice between pulling bread cars in Paris, boats on the Yangtze, or running another marathon, for me the last would be the first to go. This is after all an event where in the first ever edition the only finisher fell down and died.


Just don’t tell that to the masses of people who consider their ideal post-pandemic exercise to be taking part in a big city marathon again – and with that put themselves through the grind of 26.2 miles of running, 42.1km, or about 138,000 feet, whichever sounds the less daunting. The popularity continues to soar.

Like many mass events they’ve been in lockdown since March 2020, only to reopen last month with renewed sense of purpose: Berlin, Rome and Vienna are among the big cities to have staged major marathons last month, Berlin last Sunday having 29,635 participants in all from across 139 countries.

The London marathon goes to a bigger level again this Sunday. They put out 50,000 entries for the event originally postponed from April 2020 (last October London did stage an elite-only marathon), and another 50,000 entries to run the distance by virtual means (effectively anywhere you want). Such was the demand they could easily have filled at least twice that number, race director Hugh Brasher, son of race founder Chris, labelling Sunday’s event bigger than just a marathon.

"It will be a moment of joy, of true emotion," Brasher told the BBC this week. "Something we think could easily be the most memorable London Marathon ever.

Attack on our health

“It is more than just a marathon, this is about bringing people together and that is what we have missed so much in the last 18 months. The attack on our mental health, our physical health from being constrained has been huge. Getting people together outdoors in a safe environment in the way that we have organised the event, that is so good for people and that is what we want to celebrate on Sunday.”

The Dublin marathon got zero Government compensation after they postponed last year

Every renewed marathon season like this reminds me of what Hunter Thompson once said: the crazy thing about any big city marathon is the way these masses of mostly skinny runners arrive at the start line for a race they have a fat chance of winning.

“Why do they punish themselves so brutally, for no prize at all?” Thompson wrote in The Curse of Lono, a gem of a book charting his journey to Hawaii to cover the 1980 Honolulu marathon. “What kind of sick instinct would cause 8,000 supposedly smart people to get up at four in the morning and stagger at high speed through the streets of Waikiki for 26 ball-busting miles in a race that less than a dozen of them have the slightest chance of winning?”

Thankfully there is now little or no fear of Covid in or around marathon running. The Vienna marathon, which included a range of running events on September 11/12th, had 18,118 participants, and there hasn’t been a single positive case reported in relation to that event since. Boston, New York and Chicago are also opening up their streets in the coming weeks and the feeling there too is all that hasn’t come soon enough.

Closer to home, Belfast are setting the pace, the 39th staging of their marathon is getting underway this Sunday on what is effectively the fourth attempt – and the first mass participation sporting event north or south of the border since the pandemic. It has a more modest field of 5,600 runners, plus another 1,500 for the team relay, and for better or for worse is a reminder of what might have been in Dublin later this month.

Dublin took the decision back in July to cancel their 2021 event, originally set for Sunday October 24th, having already postponed it from 2020. It was set to be a 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", and with that the decision to postpone for a second year was made by race director Jim Aughney.

There’s no doubt if Aughney knew then what he does now he’d have pressed on, only his caution was understandable: unlike almost all other realms of Irish sport – GAA, rugby, soccer, etc – the Dublin marathon got zero Government compensation after they postponed last year.

It's a pity they couldn't have been more supportive, especially given the entire country will be back up and running by the end of the month, except for the running of the Dublin Marathon.

Belfast, by the way, is also doubling as the Irish National Marathon Championship, which had been staged in some shape or form every year since 1924, except for last year. Since 2003, it’s been staged as part of the Dublin Marathon, and after that was postponed, nothing happened.

This time Athletics Ireland have essentially pawned it off to Belfast, making 100 male and 100 female entries available for championship purposes (along with those already entered and registered with a club). True to recent form they’ve done zero promotion, the one running event where popularity continues the soar. Maybe they just don’t have the legs for it anymore.