Start line finally in sight for Belfast City Marathon

Welcome return of first mass participation sporting event since the pandemic began

There will be no international elite field, no spectators at the start, no pacing and no handing out of energy foods along the way, and still no shortage of elation at the finish. At least that's what is set to happen when the 39th staging of the Belfast City Marathon gets under way on Sunday on what is effectively the fourth attempt.

It will also be the first mass participation sporting event north or south of the Border since the pandemic began.

After the Dublin Marathon organisers took the decision in July to cancel their 2021 event, originally set for the October Bank Holiday weekend having already being postponed from 2020, Belfast may also present some evidence of what might have been, if only a smaller scale.

Dublin was originally set to be a 25,000 sell-out, and even with the expectation the vast majority of the population would be vaccinated by the event date of Sunday October 24th, there were still too "many unknowns", and with that the decision to postpone for a second year was made by race director Jim Aughney.

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The Belfast event is certainly more manageable in terms of numbers: originally set for May 2020, postponed to May 2021 shortly after the pandemic began, then postponed again, first to September 19th, then to this Sunday (in part there because of a clash with other cultural events in the city). Race entry was capped at 5,600, plus another 1,500 for the team relay, which quickly sold out.

In August, it was also announced Belfast would double as the Irish National Marathon Championship, which since 2003 had been staged as part of the Dublin Marathon. An additional 100 male and 100 female entries were made available for championship purposes (along with those already entered and registered with Athletics Ireland). There was no championship marathon last year for the first time since 1924.

Belfast, like other marathons taking place over the coming weeks (Berlin, Rome and Vienna already happened last month), have also adopted their own measures around Covid-19, which ultimately permitted the event to go ahead. Double vaccination was not a requirement for race entry, and instead the runners have been asked to carry out their own lateral flow test ahead of declaring themselves fit to take part.

Spread out

“What we basically did was ask all participants to feel safe in what they were doing,” says Claire O’Neill, Belfast City Marathon event manager.

“We didn’t put on them to be double vaccinated, or to have a negative PCR test, but what we did do as part of our entry pack is provide access to a lateral-flow test, which is free, gives results in 20 minutes, and to test themselves at least 48 hours in advance.

“If anyone does test positive they can defer to 2022, without losing any of the entry fee. We’re not having any spectators at the start, reducing the crowds at certain pinch points. We’re not doing start waves, but asking runners to line up based on their intended finishing times, and they will be further spread out, whereas normally they would be packed quite close together.

“The walk and the fun run will be segregated, but the runners will start at 9am, and we believe it’s safe in this environment, once we spread out the runners in a larger space.

“We’re asking people to be honest with themselves, because running a marathon with Covid is not safe anyway. There’s also a face mask in the pack, which runners are advised to wear before they start running. We’re also asking them to leave all gear behind, the clothes they arrive in, which will be collected for charity, because it has to be discarded on race day.”

The Belfast route takes in the four areas of Belfast; North, South, East and West, starting at Stormont Estate and finishing in Ormeau Park. For O'Neill and the rest of the organising team, staging the event on Sunday also ends an anxious 16 months.

International field

“At one point we were worried if we could even sustain the event, but people have been very loyal and supportive, sponsors and runners who have stayed with us since 2019. I think at this stage everyone who has entered are all very excited to line up on Sunday.”

On the national marathon front, reigning men's marathon champion Stephen Scullion from 2019 won't be competing as he is set to run the Boston Marathon, postponed from its normal date in April to Sunday week. Reigning women's champion Aoife Cooke from Cork is also skipping the event after also competing in Tokyo. Men's champion from 2018, Mick Clohisey from Raheny Shamrock, is down to run.

“Once Dublin wasn’t going ahead, and because we don’t have an elite international field in terms of Kenyans or Ethiopians, it was felt this would be a good opportunity for the island to come together for the championships, and we’re delighted to offer them that when there wasn’t the chance elsewhere.”

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics

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