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