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Belfast marathon in slow lane compared to Dublin counterpart

The Belfast Marathon takes place each year on the May Day Bank Holiday

LAST Saturday morning, as most reasonably minded people were taking a lie in I joined with a small but hardy group of runners, all preparing for a tilt at the Dublin marathon next month.

We met up at the Queen's complex at the Dub and ran into the city centre, down to the Titanic slipway where already, at 8.30am staff were setting up for that evening's Proms concert.

The weather was kind and as the sun glistened off the Lagan as we made the return journey along the towpath it was hard not to feel a bit of pride in our city, running with Titanic Belfast in our rear view mirror, past the new Waterfront conference centre and the other relatively new landmarks which now define the Belfast skyline.

Being in the centre of Belfast early on a Saturday morning, when it is almost totally car free, gives you a new sense of the city. Streets which will soon be host to shoppers, drivers, flag protesters and tourists, are mostly empty and welcoming, waiting for the day to start.

It feels like a big city waking up. It was exhilarating and helped the miles ease pass.

Our run finished with Queen's ParkRun, a volunteer led event which accommodates more than 120 runners most weeks, folks coming along with barcode in hand to record their latest weekly 5k time as the search for a new 'PB' (personal best) goes on.

As the organisers say every week, "without the volunteers there would be no parkrun". The Queen's run is no exception as the same event takes place in six other Belfast venues and dozens more across Northern Ireland.

Every one of those events will involve a race director and a host of volunteers either scanning and recording the finishing times, marshalling the route, making tea and coffee and generally ensuring each parkrun passes off without incident.

The number of parkrunners in Belfast each week is well over 1,000 and that goes to show that Belfast truly is a running city.

Next Sunday the Belfast half marathon takes place. The event is only in its fourth year and is already so well established that it is likely to be oversubscribed by the middle of this week, with more than 3,500 runners lacing up.

Every weekend across Northern Ireland there are a range of 10k and half marathon races and the occasional 'ultra' marathon for those more determined and energetic runners.

The demand is demonstrably there for quality running events and there is a large tourism opportunity in play here. That's what makes the main Belfast City Marathon all the more disappointing.

I am fully conscious that a lot of effort goes into staging the Belfast marathon but unfortunately there is still just too much wrong with the event to allow it to become a major international event in the running calendar.

The primary problems are the route, the day (Bank Hoiday Monday, when most major marathons have moved to a Sunday) and the confusing coupling of the relay and the main marathon.

Up until the middle of the 2000s the route of the marathon was contained within the city parameters and took in north, south, east and west Belfast.

Now, and for about the last 10 years, the route takes in the north Foreshore and Dargan Industrial Estate. The cynical will claim that route change is to do with money, and not having to pay to close main roads.

Whatever the reason, the affect is that runners as they hit the hardest stretch of the 26-mile course find themselves literally running alongside the city sewers and in the middle of an industrial estate, where there are zero supporters to give an encouraging cheer.

Having the race on a Monday makes it harder to close roads and doesn't allow people to plan to race one day while having the next day off work (it's a bank holiday weekend).

It seems straightforward and our Dublin neighbours have just made that exact change. From this year on the SSE Dublin Marathon takes place on the last Sunday in October, which is a holiday weekend down south.

The result? The Dublin marathon is now officially sold out, something which has never happened before. The organisers negotiated with the authorities and facilitated an additional 2,000 runners, bringing the total to just short of 20,000, with every place gone. Almost half the runners are visitors, bringing a tourism and economic boost to the city.

In terms of supporters, city participation, atmosphere and scenic route, Belfast simply doesn't compare to Dublin; we are miles behind. Considering both events started at roughly the same time (Dublin in 1980, Belfast two years later) that is a failing and a lost opportunity.

The last time serious consideration was given to moving the Belfast event was in 2011 when councillors from some main parties made it clear that moving to a Sunday wasn't going to happen.

Yet the Belfast half marathon has always been on a Sunday and it does show off many of our sights and much of our history. Ask any serious runner and they will say they would sooner run two laps of the half marathon course than the current full marathon route.

Dublin is now a top 10 European marathon event. Belfast is in stuck in the slow lane.

:: Brendan Mulgrew is managing partner of MW Advocate. Twitter: @brendanbelfast

:: Next week: Angela McGowan

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