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