Friday, 29 April 2011

Marathon is Taking Veteran Tommy Hughes to the Top of the World

Tommy Hughes knows what it takes to be among the best in the world at marathon running. In 1992 the Co. Derry man ran his personal best of 2.13.59 in the Marrakesh Marathon and later in the year represented Ireland at the Barcelona Olympics. Eight months ago, at age 50, Hughes defied his age and ran 2.29.14 in winning the Robin Hood Marathon in Nottingham. When the Veterans World Rankings are finalised later this month, there’s a good chance that run could put Hughes at the top of the world in the over-50 category.
His half marathon time of 70.28, achieved at the Peterborough Half Marathon in October 2010, should also be among the world’s best.
Now 51, Hughes is looking forward to competing in the Belfast City Marathon on Bank Holiday Monday. It’s a race Hughes has won twice – in 1988 and 1998 – and he says his training has gone well and he’s ready to put his best foot forward. Hughes says,
‘The Belfast Marathon is home. I know most of the runners in the race and I get a lot of good support around the course. It’s hilly but at the same time it seems to suit me because I was surprised to run 2.28 there three years ago [at age 48, when he finished sixth overall]. Training has been going okay. I’ve had problems with my left Achilles tendon but it hasn’t stopped me too much. I’m happy enough with my form.’
Hughes, a member of North Belfast Harriers, has been living in England for the last three years and also runs for Leicester Coritanian Athletics Club. An electrician, there is more work for him in England but he says that, ‘my home is Northern Ireland.’ Hughes has also run for Annadale Striders, Belfast Olympic, and Sparta in Derry.
And this year’s Belfast City Marathon will be for him a family affair. His brothers John and Damian, who both live in Northern Ireland, will be joining him on the course as they attempt the distance for the first time.
Hughes was a fulltime athlete between 1983 and 1992. After the 1992 Olympics, he began working again and did not run another marathon until Belfast in 2008. Moving into the veterans’ ranks has supplied him with a fresh wave of motivation and renewed his love of running.
In striving for his goal of reaching the top of the world rankings, Hughes subjects himself to a training regimen that would rival that of many top senior athletes. Indeed, Hughes says he may be training harder now than he did when he was a senior athlete. He says,
‘I’m actually probably doing more than I did when I was younger. I’m working in Leicester so in the time I have after work I can train away. I usually do ten mile in the evening time and 8 in the morning. And I mix it on a Tuesday and Thursday with speed work with the boys from Leicester. And a long run on the Sunday. I’ve been up there at about 120 miles a week, but that’s what I need to do. I’ll not do that all the year round, but you need to get miles in the legs, so I’d say about 6 weeks at 120.’
Hughes says he is not sure how many marathons he has run, but he knows that it is more than 50. Most of those came during his time as a senior athlete. He would sometimes run up to five marathons a year – bucking the conventional wisdom that says that elites should race at most two marathons per year. For example, in 1988 Hughes ran five marathons and won three of them: Belfast, Marrakesh and Melbourne. He says, ‘Even then they were saying only run two a year. The way I looked at it, you have to get used to the distance. If you want to be good at it, you have to be able to handle it.’
Hughes says that from the time he started running he was captivated by the marathon and has ‘always considered myself a marathon runner, that’s what keeps me going: the magic of the marathon.’
His very first marathon was the first Belfast Marathon in 1982. He had only taken up running the autumn prior to that race, because ‘I had just got married and was getting fed well and putting on a lot of weight.’ His initial motivation was moving from the reserves to the senior team in his Gaelic football club.
So off training of four miles a day three times per week, Hughes got around the Belfast Marathon course in 3.01.20. That spurred him on to train harder and try to break the three-hour barrier, which he did in just a few months time in a marathon in Letterkenny, where he recorded a dramatic improvement, clocking 2.35. Hughes describes his first marathon in Belfast this way: 
‘I was going pretty well till 20 mile. I always remember a comment I heard when I was running by a group of people. One shouted, “who do you think you are, Alberto Salazar?” I realised at 20 mile I was not Alberto Salazar! I learnt the hard way. But I didn’t know any better. So I just decided after that to train a bit harder.’
His first victory in Belfast came six years after that experience. Hughes said he had built up a lead three-quarters of the way through the race, but he began to tire and his Sparta teammate John McDowell closed the gap. Hughes held on to win by four seconds, 2.19.00 to 2.19.04. Hughes says his second victory in Belfast, coming in 1998 at age 38, was more of a surprise:
‘Coming up to 1998 I decided to have another go because it had been ten years of a time span. I trained January to May and then at the start of the race we were told that the course would be rerouted because of a bomb scare. It was a bit longer than normal distance, and I won it in 2.23. I was surprised that no younger people came along and gave any competition on the day. After that I concentrated on work again, and left athletics until three years ago. 2008 was another ten year span and that brought me back to Belfast. I was now 48 and I ran sixth in the race and ran 2.28.35 and then after that I left it for another couple of years, turned 50, and decided to come back in that age category to achieve as much as I could.’
Hughes says that he has pondered why there is no longer the same depth in quality in marathon running in Ireland and the UK. No man from Northern Ireland has broken 2.20 in the marathon since 1995. He says,
‘Way back when I stared the marathon our generation trained a lot harder than the generation now. They are distracted by a lot more things than we were. There are a few young people coming through but not as many as the days when I was running. There were more people around the same standard, and they brought each other on. Today there are only one or two, and the rest are in it for the fun of it.’
But it’s clear that while running is fun for Hughes, a competitive fire still burns in him. Hughes says he continues to relish the challenge of the marathon: ‘The marathon is just a very, very tough event and there’s so many f actors in getting it right and getting it wrong. That adds a mystique about it. You have to try and get it right every time.’
And he says that when ‘you get it right’ the rewards are incalculable. He says he has had two days during his long career that stand out in that regard: winning Marrakesh in 1988 and Dublin in 1991. Hughes describes those races this way:
‘The win in Marrakesh came out of the blue for me. I didn’t expect it. I went not expecting anything and ended up beating men like Mike Gratton, who had won London in 1983. He was a bit of a hero for me. So to end up winning really made my year. Then the other was the Dublin Marathon when I won it, the year before the Olympics in 1991. In that race, everything went absolutely perfect for me. I could do no wrong. Everything clicked totally on the day. Every part of the race felt so comfortable. When I decided I wanted to do something I just done it, within reason. I think about 18 mile there was a group of us, Jerry Kiernan and John Griffin, all the top Irish boys. But I decided let’s see what everybody’s got, put on a surge, and nobody came with me. I moved away and kept going. I ran 2.14.46 I think it was, feeling good the whole way through. There’s not many times you can say that about a marathon!’

By Gladys Ganiel

Thursday, 28 April 2011

First Lady of the Belfast Marathon: Sue Boreham on the Sport Then and Now

Sue Boreham was the first woman across the line in the inaugural Belfast Marathon in 1982. It was an impressive performance by the then 23-year-old, who was running in her first marathon and had taken up the sport only two years previously.

Boreham will be participating in the 30th running of the event this Bank Holiday Monday. Now a mother of adult children and a Physical Education teacher at Forthill Integrated College, Boreham will run as part of a relay team of athletes who completed the first Belfast Marathon. She says that winning that first race remains her fondest memory from athletics.

‘I had a feeling of euphoria at finishing it. I just really enjoyed it. It was an absolutely wonderful experience simply because all of your friends and all of your family were along the route. It was good for friends and family because the course then was two loops and they could watch you run by twice. I wasn’t even thinking I was going to finish it! But the support kept you going.’

Boreham, running for Tailte Athletic Club in Belfast, completed the course on that cool, windy day in 3.11.26, more than eight minutes ahead of second place finisher Brigid McCabe from Mullingar (3.31.29). She says that a mystery runner who joined her for the final minutes of the marathon helped her along the way:

‘I was amazed during the race because around 18 miles people started to say I was the first lady, and I was thinking, where is everybody else? I shouldn’t be in the lead. But at 22, 23 miles I was beginning to flag. I don’t know who it was, but a male runner slowed himself down and sat on my shoulder and said I could finish. He just said I could do it, and he was really great, and ran with me the rest of the way. I didn’t know his name. Unfortunately he ran off at the end of the race and I couldn’t get his name.’

Boreham remembers that the day was especially satisfying because her coach, Malcolm Brown, also coached the men’s winner, Greg Hannon.

Discovering a Love of the Long Distance

Originally from Drumbeg, Boreham says she took up athletics when she began dating English decathlete Colin Boreham, now her husband, who represented Great Britain in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. She had built solid athletic foundations as a youngster, competing in squash and hockey. When asked why she took up long distance running, Boreham laughs and says:

‘I wasn’t fast enough for anything else! I seemed to be able to outrun most other people, but there seemed to be no fast twitch muscle fibres there. Having been involved in team sport I found marathon running totally different. But I think what I did like was the hard part, the physical challenge of it all. I loved that feeling that I could run and run and run. And I really liked the feeling of fitness that I got.’

Boreham says that when she heard that Belfast would be staging a marathon, she was excited and there was no question that she would take part. She says,

‘The first Belfast Marathon was part of the new running craze that was going around the world. And at that time, [during the Troubles], it seemed that nothing good ever really happened in Belfast. So it seemed like a good thing to get involved in. And it was a challenge. It was part of something worldwide and something Northern Ireland could be contributing to worldwide in a good way, which was quite motivating.’

Boreham was second in the second Belfast Marathon in 1983, improving her time to 3.00.06 as Roma McConville of Newry took top honours in 2.58.07. Boreham remembers her disappointment at narrowly missing dipping under the three-hour barrier on that day.

She says that she tried the method of carbohydrate loading that was widely practiced in those days – depleting the body of carbohydrates by going on a hard run and fasting of carbohydrates, before loading it with carbs during the three days immediately before the race. Today, many marathon runners skip the depletion phase of carbo-loading, believing it stresses the body and does not seem to provide more benefits than eating normally and then simply loading in the last three days before the marathon. Boreham describes that race:

‘I felt awful during the first part. By 17 miles I felt brilliant, but it was too late then. To miss three hours was depressing really. I had no one sitting on my shoulder like the year before. I had tried to do the carbo loading and I felt pretty horrible from 6 to 17 miles, then felt brilliant. Maybe I was a victim of the new carbo loading craze!’

Boreham finally broke the three hour barrier that year in the Dublin Marathon. It was to be her last marathon, as her husband retired from competitive athletics after the 1984 Olympics and they concentrated on raising a family.

A Leading Lady for Athletics in Northern Ireland

But Boreham was in many ways a trailblazer for female athletes in Northern Ireland, demonstrating what local women could do with talent, training, and a love of the sport. She recalls that it wasn’t always easy for women who took to the roads and trails in the early 1980s:

‘Today there’s greater freedom for women running. When I was out running it took a lot of guts to put a pair of shorts on and go out on the roads. For example, men would have made cat calls out of bars and so on. It would have been quite unusual to see women running along in shorts. But a woman can do anything now, there are no barriers. Also I would have run a lot along the towpath, there would have been occasions it would have been dangerous enough running on the towpath. But now it’s a main thoroughfare. It’s much safer and much more accepted now for women to be out running.’

Boreham says she never exceeded more than 55 miles per week in her marathon training. When she stopped competing, she remained active, running for a few days a week. Today she runs three days a week and plays golf. She has had a disc operation in her lower back and has a bulging disc in her neck, which places some limitations on her activities. But she insists it is important to keep active, even if it is ‘at a much more sedate pace.’

Getting Local Kids Up and Running?

On that note, Boreham admits that she is saddened and perplexed that Northern Ireland does not seem to be producing the same number of top quality athletes as it did during the 1980s. As a physical education teacher, she says that pupils who are really keen about sport and athletics in particular are the exception to the rule. She says:

‘Sadly I think that participation and encouragement of children to take part in sport is probably not as good as it was. I think there are other things that children are keener to do and I think that maybe the systems aren’t there to get them home from school, if there are practices after school, and so on. I don’t see the participation levels now in my particular school, as high as they were 15 years ago.’

Boreham says that she attends some schools athletics events during the year and thinks that there are not as many competing as when she was a participant. She says,

‘Maybe our climate is not the climate for athletics. It’s an individual sport. Maybe it is more attractive to play a team sport, where you don’t put your self-esteem and everything else against anyone else. There is a lot of pressure on children in individual sports – you are not allowed to fail anymore. So I don’t know if that pressure affects taking part in athletics. Northern Ireland once produced lots of Commonwealth Games medal winners in athletics and that’s not happening anymore.’

But Boreham doesn’t think all is lost for our local athletes. She says that individuals will need the support of their families, coaches and clubs, as she received when she was competitive, but that with dedication and hard work Northern Ireland athletes can still reach the top:

‘They have to be hungry and keen and willing to work quite hard. But if they do then they can get what they really want out of athletics.’

Past and present marathon runners help Athletics Northern Ireland celebrate the 30th Anniversary of the Belfast City Marathon. Athletics NI have played an instrumental role since 1982 in the organization and logistics of the Marathon along with arranging the elite field over the years. Greg Hannon & Susan Boreham were the 1st winners in 1982 and are joined by marathon regular Alan McCullough (Willowfield Harriers) with his infamous hat and NI’s top finishers in 2010, North Belfast Harriers Breege Connolly and Lisa Sturgeon.

By Gladys Ganiel

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Marathon Question and Answer with Matt Shields

The man who finished third in the very first Belfast City Marathon, Matt Shields, is still active in athletics in Northern Ireland as a coach and veterans competitor. The North Belfast Harrier was recently awarded the Belfast City Council Senior Coach of the Year.

Shields has a marathon best of 2.19.43 from Dublin in 1983. Now 57 years old, Shields competed during an era when it was not unusual for men from Northern Ireland to run under the 2.20 mark for the marathon. Fourteen men from Northern Ireland have broken 2.20, and all but two of them (Tommy Hughes in 1992 and John Ferrin in 1995) achieved this between 1978 and 1988.

Shields says he has run about 20 marathons, all between 1979 and 1990 with the exception of last year’s London Marathon, which he completed in 2.54.37. He got his start in running during PE class in secondary school, when a teacher spotted his potential. From PE class he was directed to Lisnagarvey athletics club. Shields didn’t compete during his time at Queen’s University, but when he returned to the sport, he says that ‘marathon running found me’ and he joined the elite marathon squad at Duncairn Olympic. When Duncairn disbanded he joined North Belfast Harriers, where he has remained for the last 17 years.

With the 30th anniversary edition of the Belfast City Marathon fast approaching, Shields shared some of his memories of the Belfast City Marathon, explained his training philosophy, and reflected on why the overall standard of marathon running in Ireland and the UK has declined.

Q: What was your best race in the Belfast City Marathon?

A: My best race in the Belfast Marathon was probably the first year. The first year there were 60 mile an hour gale force winds and it was a two lap course. You’d be running along and you’d come across a gap between the houses [on the course] and then you could see the other runners. It was like a chess game. Do you go to the front? Do you hide? Do you try and break away? Do you wait till you turn a corner? Will the wind be behind you? Will it be in your face? It wasn’t just a race. There was a lot of strategy, there was a lot of thinking in it, and it was a real test of strength. It was an ordeal just to get around it, and I really enjoyed that! It was a very tough race and I think that’s what I enjoyed about it.

Q: What are your favourite memories of the Belfast City Marathon, including the most impressive performances?

A: The most impressive performance in Belfast was probably Marty Deane. [Deane set a course record in winning the 1985 Belfast City Marathon in 2.15.51, a mark that still stands.] The organisers had a habit of bringing outsiders in, big names in, and certainly the year that Marty won was no exception. They brought people in but Marty somehow found something and actually beat the outsiders. I can remember the Belfast Marathon where he won, he didn’t pass me till about ten mile. He stopped and he had a chat with me, and then he said he’d move on. I was absolutely amazed to find out that he’d won. But he had it totally under control, was calm, and knew what he would run. He had a plan, and the plan blew away everybody else. I would have a lot of respect for Marty and what Marty has done in the marathon. I think he has a lot of knowledge, and he’s a man that I would love to see involved in marathon running now.

Q: How has the Belfast City Marathon changed over the years?

A: In the early days the Belfast Marathon was a pure marathon. I’m not a great lover of running a marathon in the middle of relay runners. When you are running with people and you know they have the same distance as you to do, and they are going to pay the price for every silly move – the same as you will pay the price – well then that’s fine. But when you are running in the middle of relay runners who surge and drop out at 5 mile and say hey, good luck, I don’t like that. Nowadays the Belfast Marathon is really severely diluted by the relay. I know the relay brings the numbers, brings the revenue, keeps the event alive, and makes it everything that it is, but from a marathon runner’s point of view, I would rather run a genuine marathon.

The Belfast Marathon always has been hamstrung by politics in that they have to run through the various areas. It has to be part orange, part green, and it’s never been a case of sitting down and saying, what is the best course here for running 26 mile on? But Belfast is not a bad course, it’s a good enough course and it’s well enough run. It’s a good enough time of the year and usually the weather is kind enough.

Q: How did you train for the marathon?

A: When I joined Lisnagarvey, my coach was Jim Kennedy. Jim has remained my lifelong coach. Jim was one of the few people at that stage who was interested in marathon running and was knowledgeable about it. Most of what I preach or practice would be coming from Jim.

So we did mileage, but we didn’t necessarily do long. We didn’t necessarily do 3 and 3 ½ hour runs. We might have done things like 15 in the morning and 15 at night over the weekend, because it suited my job. I was an engineer working on sites doing quite a physical job so I tended to cram the mileage and a lot of the heavy work into the weekend. We might do a double 15 on Saturday and Sunday and maybe a late Friday night run as well.

The speed work was tempo runs and it was track work. The track work truthfully would have been a lot faster. I suppose relative to the times that I was running then it maybe wasn’t that fast as what I think it was now looking back at it. We were doing 400s in 68, 70 with short recovery, quite a lot of them. But then we were also running 10ks near 30 minutes. So it was one track work a week, it was probably one tempo a week, it was lots of variable pace running at the weekend in Belvoir and it was beyond that just miles.

The way it worked with races the club said, there’s a race in such and such we need you. Run. It wasn’t really a question. Everybody had to toe the line to give the club a chance. So basically if you didn’t race every week you raced every fortnight. I think the variation in pace and distance and terrain and the regular racing was a big part of the training. For example if you ask Tommy Hughes what speed work do you do? He says, I don’t do any, I just do races. His speed work in the past would have been doing races.

Also, a lot of the training that has evolved in the various groups has actually evolved from training that started with Marty Deane. We copied Marty’s sessions. It worked for Marty so we started doing it. One of the sessions that would be done would be a fartlek lap of Belvoir. Marty used to go into Belvoir and do a minute on and a minute off. He’d run around for half an hour doing that, variable- pace running over hills. That’s still a session that’s carried forward and used by different groups.

Q: Why do you think there is no longer the quality at the top of the field in races like the Belfast City Marathon?

A: We’re basically the same people that we’ve always been. The people that are running about now have the same ancestors, all the same characteristics. The shoes, the equipment, the nutrition, the support have all improved. So what is it that has changed that means the quality’s no longer there? I feel it’s to do with the way children are reared nowadays. When a child is growing up, it goes through certain growth phases where the hormones within its body are presenting an opportunity that will never again be presented within its life. If when that child’s growing up it is reared in a certain way it will draw benefit from that [growth spurt and that will] enhance its capabilities in later life.

To compare, when I was a youngster growing up there was no drive to school. Living in the countryside, the town was 3 mile away. And we thought very little about quite often missing the last bus and running 3 mile home. You’d have run a mile and a half to get the bus, you’d have run a mile and a half home, you just were constantly active through the growth years. In addition to that my father was a part time farmer and a coal man. Weekends I was carrying bags of coal and on school holidays I was doing the same. So we were doing strength work, conditioning. I wasn’t actually doing athletics but I was laying a foundation for later life. The youngsters nowadays are reared in a sedate manner and they pass through development phases without picking up any benefit whatsoever. If you look at the countries that are still producing good marathon runners and good distance runners they are third world countries that are still reared in the manner that I’m talking about.

Q: Can we get the quality back?

A: Once you’ve passed that development phase the amount of development that you can achieve at a later stage is limited. You can still be the best you can be, but the best you can be is no longer as good as it could have been. In the future you can try to bring children in at an earlier phase. I don’t think there’s enough structured approach within the sport for realising that. I think there should be much more work and a much better club structure, where there is appreciation of this, a real groundswell of work bringing kids in and working with these kids on a ten year cycle. Clubs should be at the heart of that plan because the association (Athletics Northern Ireland) will need the clubs to deliver it. The association needs to be helping the clubs and the club structure. It will be a very big effort to do that but I think that’s the only thing that will turn it around.

Q: Finally, what makes for a good marathon runner?

A: A marathon runner is a different breed of a person. A good marathon runner in my mind is usually somebody who’s pretty calm, pretty quiet. They can actually take the energy of marathon day and can hold the energy and control it. Now that’s not to say you’re not going to be nervous. Everybody has to be nervous. But you are going to have to be able to manage and control the nerves. So if a marathon runner can’t do that, I think it’s going to be very hard for them to harness the big day.

Plus when you run the marathon you’re no longer there racing like another race. You’re no longer running with people around you. The people around you are on a journey. They are on a journey with you. You’re racing yourself. A good marathon runner will actually go deep and go quiet within themselves. They will not hear the crowd around them, they will be totally absorbed, and they will be listening to the rhythm of their own body. The other type of runner, say a 10k runner, will be excited. They will be out listening to people around them, responding to breaks. They will be doing all sorts of silly things that will eventually use up the energy and break them down. So there is a physical side of marathon running. But it is a certain mental makeup that makes a good marathon runner.

By Gladys Ganiel 

5-mile Road Race sponsored by Beechmount Harriers.

Left to right: Aidan Donaldson, Michael Dogherty, Tommy Hughes, Matt Shields, Jim Kennedy.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Teresa Duffy: NI's fastest ever female Marathon runner remembers her love of the long run

Teresa Duffy is the most-accomplished female marathon runner that Northern Ireland has produced. Duffy has recorded the fastest time ever for a woman from Northern Ireland, 2.35.27 at the 2001 London Marathon. She also competed for Ireland at the World Championships, finished fifth in the 2002 Commonwealth Games for Northern Ireland, and won the 1998 Dublin Marathon in her debut at the distance.

Because of her demanding racing schedule as an international athlete, Duffy competed in the Belfast City Marathon just once, in 2002 when she finished second in 2.50.33. Scotland’s Trudi Thompson was the winner that year in 2.49.39.

Duffy was preparing for that summer’s Commonwealth Games in Manchester, so she treated the Belfast City Marathon as a ‘training run’ and says she was pleased with her finish.

‘I always wanted to do the Belfast Marathon,’ says Duffy, now 41. ‘In 2002 I was also running the Commonwealths that summer so I thought I would use it as a training run, as I wanted to do a long run that weekend. I led for a long time, probably up to 21 miles, but I just hadn’t done the work for it. I was pleased to get second.’

Duffy started running in secondary school at age 13 when her PE teacher noticed her potential and got her in touch with Belfast Olympic athletic club. She later joined Beechmount Harriers, the club she ran for during most of her career. Duffy says that she ‘loved athletics straight away’ and was ‘very competitive from the beginning.’

In 1984, at the age of 15, she had already run 4.46.4 for 1500 metres and within two years she was running at the World Cross Country Championships. Before turning to the marathon at age 29, Duffy posted personal bests of 4.21.59 for 1500 metres, 9.12.87 for 3,000 metres and 33.33.7 for 10,000 metres.

‘It was always in my heart to run a marathon,’ Duffy says. ‘There’s just something about that extra distance of the marathon, everyone wants to achieve it, whether you want to just finish or get a personal best.’

Duffy’s debut marathon was a spectacular win at the Dublin Marathon, where she clocked 2.39.56, at the time the second fastest ever for a woman from Northern Ireland and the fastest ever debut. Duffy says that this marathon remains her favourite. She says,

‘That was a fantastic day. Because it was my first marathon, there was the unknown factor. I had done the work and now it would come down to the day. It was a real confidence booster for me, and faster times came in a couple of years with more training.’

Duffy says that the change in her training from 10k to the marathon was ‘drastic to say the least.’ Before moving to the marathon, she says she ran 60-70 miles per week and really focused on her speed sessions. Marathon training involved stepping it up to 90-100 miles per week, which meant she very often ran twice a day. This was made more challenging by working full time as a leisure centre attendant.

Duffy admits that she found it ‘frustrating’ to lose her 10k speed as she added the miles during marathon training. ‘I’m glad I didn’t go to the marathon too soon, because I lost a lot of speed. I didn’t want to tackle the marathon too young. But the years were rolling on, and I thought I was at a perfect age when I started.’

Looking back, she now thinks she ran her best marathons when she kept her mileage lower, but retained her long runs at the weekend and a medium-long run in the middle of the week. ‘I now think 80 miles per week maybe would have been the ideal cut off point for me,’ she says.

Duffy says she also had a good strength foundation from doing pylometric exercises and weight training when she was focusing on shorter distances. She believes regular hill sessions, such as 12 X 400 metre length hills, were key sessions for toughening her body.

But for Duffy, the marathon was just as much mental as physical and she also relished that challenge. She says,

‘The marathon is all about using your head. You can’t get carried away with a fast pace. For the sake of 10-15 seconds per mile faster in the first half of the race, it will make all the difference at the end. You will pay the price. So you have to check your split times, run the right pace, don’t panic. Once you get through 21 miles you should be safe – your body will get you through then. It’s just a matter of getting through that bad patch before 21, keeping calm and working through it.’

Duffy says she also was spurred on by the quality of competition when she was racing, and notes that there has been a drop in the numbers of men and women running at a high standard in Ireland and the UK. She says, ‘When I was competing you were always guaranteed a good race, especially in championship races. People were trying to make teams, to run for the national team. The way I look at it now, with all the sports funding, in the late 1980s it was nothing like it is now. I think to myself, if only I’d had that then! But I don’t know the reason why the standard has dropped, maybe the interest is not there for female athletics. I couldn’t put my finger on it.’

Duffy says that she still loves to run and even contemplated taking part in this year’s Belfast City Marathon, the 30th edition of the race. She says she went to the launch of the 30th anniversary of the marathon and that ‘this gave me a wee boost to start training more,’ though she feels now that she hasn’t put the necessary work in to get around the course in the way she would like. She says,

‘I’m out training four days a week now and enjoying it again. I’m fit to run, if not fit to compete. But it still is in my mind, to maybe do another marathon again before I really retire. I never really leaves you, the love of running. So you never know – maybe next year!’

By Gladys Ganiel

Monday, 25 April 2011

Belfast City Marathon will be Greg McClure's 50th!

When the 30th edition of the Belfast City Marathon gets underway on Bank Holiday Monday, one man among the crowd will be chasing his own significant milestone.

Greg McClure of North Belfast Harriers will be aiming to complete his 50th career marathon. The 54-year-old Lisburn man finishes most of his marathons in and around the 3-hour mark. He has a personal best of 2.57.35 from the 2007 Belfast City Marathon and has dipped under the 3-hour barrier ten times – all since he turned 50 years old. Just two weeks ago he chalked up another sub-3 hour clocking, cruising through the London Marathon in 2.59.14.

The Belfast City Marathon is McClure’s favourite race and he has carefully planned his schedule so that his 50th marathon will coincide with the event. McClure ran the inaugural edition of the marathon back in 1982 but in 1983 he gave up running and didn’t return to the sport until 1999. Watching the Belfast City Marathon in 2000 inspired him to rededicate himself to marathon running.

McClure says, ‘I was watching friends of mine run the Belfast Marathon in 2000. I remember standing on Balmoral Avenue and cheering them and thinking, I would love to be in this. The question was nagging me – could I finish a marathon again?’

McClure ran seven marathons between 1981 and 1983, his best coming in London in 1982 when he recorded a time of 3.06.55. He describes his training at the time as ‘ridiculous,’ and admits that he didn’t really know what he was doing in terms of training, diet or shoes.


But McClure had enjoyed running, and says that during the 18 years when he didn’t train he ‘always had pined for it.’ During that time he says he smoked and drank too much, and his health deteriorated. It was the desire to quit smoking that led him out the door to try and run his first mile all over again in 1999.

So when McClure lined up for the 2001 Belfast City Marathon, his goal was just to finish. He completed the course in 3.44.50. He ran Belfast the next two years in succession, gradually improving his times to 3.16.04 and 3.13.40. His sub-3.15 clocking in 2003 was significant because that guaranteed him an entry to the London Marathon as a ‘Good for Age’ category runner.

McClure says, ‘The obsession with London started to kick in after I ran 3.16. London had been the highlight of my running in the 1980s, because it was the fastest by far and that 3.06 almost sounded respectable. And it was done off no training, well, not no training, but ridiculous preparation in terms of what we would think about today. I had entered the ballot a couple of times for London, and hadn’t got in of course. Then I discovered their good for age entry system. So then the only way to get into this London Marathon was to break 3.15. So in 2003 Davy Wright and I ran to try and break 3.15 in Belfast and we did by about a minute and a half. And that was me into London and I’ve run London every year since that.’


As McClure got faster year on year, rolling back his years in terms of improving health and fitness, McClure began to set himself new goals. He wanted to run faster, and he wanted to run more marathons. So in 2004 he ran four: London, Belfast, Longford and Dublin. In 2005 and 2006 it was five: London, Belfast, Longford, Berlin and Dublin. In 2008 it was six: London, Belfast, Newry, Longford, Berlin and Dublin. In 2009 and 2010 the list expanded to seven: London, Belfast, Newry, Longford, Berlin, Dublin, Barcelona in 2009 and Cork in 2010. So far in 2011, he has Barcelona and London under his belt.

Somewhere along the way, McClure realised that he had run more than 30 marathons. He says, ‘I’d seen the 100 marathon club and thought, I’m never going to get to that. Maybe someday I will, I don’t know. But 50 just seemed a goal. And I thought, I’ll not think about 100 but I’ll do 50. I can do that in 3 or 4 more years if I keep going the way I am. And then I wanted to construct it so Belfast would be the 50th. So I had to work that out last year, and that was one of the reasons I went to Barcelona – to get another one this year so Belfast would work out. I thought 50 is another reason to keep going.’


McClure explains why the Belfast City Marathon is special for him: ‘Belfast is no doubt my favourite marathon. I love the whole Belfast experience. Belfast is the home marathon. And it’s always been a tough course, even when the courses were different. But you’re at home, the support is local people, people you know. So you start and finish chatting to people that you know. I think logistically it’s easiest. You can get your diet right, your sleep right, you don’t have to travel. And it’s been good to me. I did a PB (personal best) in it oddly enough, despite running Berlin and London umpteen times. The PB is still in Belfast.’

McClure recalls the first Belfast Marathon, and the ‘razzamatazz’ that accompanied the inaugural event. His abiding memories are of running into a strong wind on the Boucher Road, and being given half pints of Guinness after finishing. He says, ‘They were giving out Guinness free at the end out of a caravan, so you got these wee plastic cups of Guinness. It made me feel awful but I think I took two half pints. At least you felt better for a couple of minutes!’

McClure’s personal best was also the first time he dipped under 3-hours. He describes that day: ‘It was windy but I was going well and I felt strong. At the bottom of the Shore Road, I was feeling I was going well and I was starting to think, I am strong today. This could be my day. And that was about 15 miles. And Steven Harkens shouted at me, you’re flying, Greg, you’re flying! And I thought, yes, he’s right. I am. The pace, the time I am at this point in this race is in advance of where I’ve ever been before. I think I felt strong all of the way. I hit some sort of a wall but I didn’t lose much pace. Weather, temperature, all the factors conspired to make it a good day. Two weeks before that year, I’d missed sub-3 hours in London by 24 seconds. The previous London I’d missed it by 12 seconds. And I said to coach Matt Shields, that run in London was the run that set it up. The body had recovered well and then was ready for another goal.’

Aspiring marathon runners can learn a lot from McClure’s extensive experience. He emphasises variety in his training, making it a point to include weekly long runs of 2 to 2 ½ hours and attending a speed work session with the North Belfast Harriers at least one evening a week. McClure races often over various distances to test his body in new ways. He also builds running into his lifestyle, running in and out to work several days a week. McClure is a systems development manager at Queen’s University in Belfast, which means his two-legged commute from Lisburn is about nine miles each way. He sometimes even runs to the shops with his rucksack on his back, buys his groceries, and then runs home again. McClure says he runs about 70 miles per week, and has totalled as much as 90-100 per week.

As for the Belfast City Marathon course, McClure says that the toughness of its terrain, such as the long hill on the Antrim Road, appeals to him. His strategy for managing the course is breaking it up into chunks, racing himself to see what time he will arrive at familiar landmarks. He says, ‘The current course is a good challenge and I enjoy it. I think the good thing about it is you can break it up and that’s how I deal with it. You don’t break it up by mile, you break it up by place. There’s the Antrim Road bit, the downhill bit after 14 miles, the Loughshore, the Duncrue, the Odyssey, the Ormeau Road, the Ravenhill Road down to the finish. So the Antrim Road I know it is going to be tough but once I get to the top I have two very fast miles. So don’t worry about the time, it will come back. When you know the course well you can use those kinds of tricks.’

When asked what sort of goals he’ll pursue after achieving his 50th marathon, M
cClure laughs and says he’s been considering that. He would like to try ultra-marathoning, although he is anxious that the long recovery periods from ultra marathons could interfere with his regular road racing schedule. Apart from his multiple marathons, McClure is a familiar face at half marathons, 10ks, and other shorter events throughout Northern Ireland.

McClure also says that he’ll just keep on running marathons. He says that he remains motivated by trying to break 3-hours every time out, and enjoys the physical and mental challenge of every marathon. McClure says, ‘every marathon I run I realise there is no such thing as an easy one. There are no gimmees in marathons. So it’s a worthwhile challenge, it’s not a walk in the park. Even to run it at 4 hour pace still isn’t a walk in the park. So it is always a worthy thing to take on. Even if I was to run it slower than I thought I could it is still worthy to take it on and finish it.’

By Gladys Ganiel

(Left London & right- Belfast)