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Running into history Moy Park Belfast City Marathon

01 April 2013, 7am

When Greg Hannon and Sue Boreham won the inaugural Belfast City Marathon they were pioneering a mass participation event which in 2013 will celebrate 32 years of existence and innovation. But the City was not bereft of the 42.2km challenge before that date. The first Northern Ireland Championship event took place in Belfast in 1938 and continued to be held annually in the city into the 1980s, interrupted only for a three-year period during World War II.

A marathon of two ages

by John Glover

The first title went to Tom Orr who returned after the war to win another three times. In 1946 the baton passed to 37-year old John Henning, and it took another nine years before he let anyone else get a look in. The Shankill Road legend did not restrict his achievements to his home city. Advised by fellow Ulsterman and British Olympian Sam Ferris, Henning took victories in Manchester, Sheffield and Liverpool and narrowly missed selection for the 1948 Olympics after finishing fourth in the trial despite twice being directed off course. At the age of 72 he completed the first of the ‘new’ Belfast Marathons.

The pre-1982 era was very different to today’s single-lap mass event with all the associated razzmatazz. Fields only reached double figures and all the courses were “out-and-back” – which in Belfast usually meant a long incline followed by a long decline. In spite of this times were very respectable and when Mike Terr won his third of five titles in 1970 his 2:16:50 stood as a Belfast event record until 1984.

Another major innovation in the modern era was the participation of women. Sue Boreham, wife of British Olympic Decathlete Colin, could indeed be called a pioneer, although she had been beaten to the title of Northern Ireland’s first female marathon runner by Annie Hancock who had completed the Dublin event in 1980.

Throughout its modern history the Belfast City Marathon has experienced more than its fair share of drama. The course itself, while holding fast to its primary commitment of touching all the communities of this divided city, has undergone numerous changes both minor and major. The first edition was a two-lap course, which was not popular with runners. Over 3000 took part but because many of them did not appreciate the demands of this new challenge nearly a third of the field failed to finish. The organisers responded positively by changing to a one-lap course and promoting a series of seminars led by distance running experts, including Brendan Foster. The following year the number of finishers and the times recorded both improved.
In 1985 Belfast a 32-year old medical student Marty Deane sped around the course in a record breaking 2:15:51. Deane was, in his own words, a ‘late starter’ having not taken up running until he was in his mid-twenties. Encouraged by younger brother Damien, he quickly established himself as a leading road runner. Despite the predominance of Kenyan athletes in the new millennium, Deane’s record survived for 27 years before Urga Negewo ran 2:13:41 last year. Negewo’s performance was the culmination of a 12-year domination of the men’s race by athletes from East Africa, including three consecutive wins by Kenya’s John Mutai.

The first female under three hours was Roma McConville in 1983 and her performance was dramatically improved a year later when another local athlete Teresa Kidd broke 2:50. Improvement was slower over the next 24 years and it took until 2008 before Ethiopia’s Marashet Jimma went sub-2:40.

Like many new city marathons Belfast saw a decline in numbers after an early peak. By the end of the 1980s the number of finishers had dropped to a level which meant that the viability of the event was in danger. To salvage the situation the organisers came up with the Marathon Relay, a five-person team event run alongside the main race. The enthusiastic response assured the future of the marathon. The rise in relay teams, and the more recent Fun Run and walks, has been paralleled with a steady rise in the number of individual competitors, to the point that 2012 saw a record number of entrants and finishers in the main event.

Like other aspects of life in Belfast the marathon has been affected by the occasional brush with the civil unrest that has plagued the population for over four decades. In 1999 a bomb scare at an early stage in the race was quickly overcome with a rapid diversion which added only 8 metres to the course. The majority of competitors in 2005 were not quite so lucky. Another bomb alert, perhaps prompted by the appearance of the Police Chief Constable in the field, nearly caused a major disruption but a quick witted police officer found a diversion and everyone finished safely, although they ran an extra 1400 metres.

These however have been minor blips and Marathon Monday continues to play a major part in the life of the City and the rest of Northern Ireland with over 20,000 people participating in either the full marathon, the team relay, the walk or the Fun Run. All are greeted with enthusiastic vocal support as the course winds its way through communities in the North, South, East and West of the city. Winning times have evidenced the appearance of world class athletes, but the novice is also welcome and the team relay has become the biggest charity fund raising event in the country.

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