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.