Irish Olympians keeping the Sanctuary Runners on the move

Group formed in 2018 as a way of marking solidarity for those living in Direct Provision

It’s been one of the more muted sporting postponements of the coronavirus pandemic, but in keeping with the spirit of their Saturday morning gathering the Sanctuary Runners haven’t gone completely silent.

Founded in Cork just over two years ago, with now considerable pace the Sanctuary Runners have been linking in with Saturday morning parkruns across the country as a way of marking solidarity, friendship and respect for those living in Direct Provision.

With all such parkruns now postponed, so too was that link and outlet for those in Direct Provision. Rather than do nothing, the Sanctuary Runners have now started a virtual exercise group, with the backing from an array of Irish Olympians including rowers Claire Lambe and Sanita Puspure, sailor Annalise Murphy, and athletes Thomas Barr and Ciarán Ó Lionáird.

For Lambe, who finished sixth alongside Sinead Jennings in the lightweight double sculls at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, the chance to continue with the Sanctuary Runners in some way made perfect sense.


“Normally we’d meet up to run every week but because of the Covid19 crisis that’s not possible,” she says. “So I thought why not use technology to connect people and ensure they stay fit and healthy during this - even if they are living in the confined space of a Direct Provision centre.”

The Sanctuary Runners now has over 2,000 members across Ireland with about a quarter coming from Direct Provision centres. Lambe gives #SanctuaryStrength exercise classes online each Saturday morning with hundreds logging on to stay in shape. Also contributing personal exercise routines are Murphy, Barr, Puspure, modern pentathlete Natalya Coyle and Ciarán Ó Lionáird, who is US-based and back running after some time away.

Each Saturday morning at 11am Sanctuary Runners (both Irish and in Direct Provision) log into Zoom for a half-hour of energetic exercise hosted by Lambe.

“It’s incredible, we feel connected even though we are all apart, it gives me a sense of not being alone,” explained Sanctuary Runner Deborah Oniah, who lives in Direct Provision in Cork.

“It’s very difficult for many in Direct Provision to exercise during this crisis and energy levels can drop but the class really lifts us, makes us stronger and lets us know there are people thinking of us and loving us. It’s a mental health tool for sure. You don’t need lots of space to do the workout and it’s recorded and sent to us so we can do it over and over again during the week.”

Graham Clifford, the Cork-based journalist who founded the Sanctuary Runners in early 2018, along with photographer Clare Keogh, says the online initiative enables people to show solidarity, friendship and respect to those in Direct Provision during the Covid-19 crisis.

“For people living in Direct Provision the ability to exercise now will be greatly diminished. And people in centres are stressed because the chance of catching the virus is greater than for the rest of us. Many are living in confined spaces, sharing bedrooms, bathrooms, eating areas and so on. This enables people to exercise, to feel that virtual hand of friendship over their shoulder. We also have all of our Irish Sanctuary Runners - people exercising together as families from their kitchens, hallways, bedrooms, back gardens and even farms. Claire, and all the other Olympians, are making a massive impact to the lives of so many people through this. This is the epitome of the Olympic Spirit.”

To find out more about the Sanctuary Runners visit