Future of Belfast City Marathon should be issue for runners, not just churches
THE issue of the Belfast marathon has been in the news in the last week as the organisers grapple with the thorny issue of how best to stage the event in the future. It is a question which needs to be addressed and being frank changes to both the route and the day on which the race takes place are long overdue.
I have written about this issue before and I do so again purely because I love the marathon, or rather the promise of the marathon, and I love Belfast and dearly want to see our city achieving all that is within its grasp.
I also freely acknowledge the positive intent and ambition of the marathon organisers and since this debate is now taking place and change is finally on the agenda it is clear that Belfast Marathon Limited are aware of the event's shortcomings.
Our marathon started in 1982, two years after the Dublin version of the 26.2 mile challenge first took place. Yet now in 2018 the Dublin marathon, which takes place on the final Sunday in October, will attract 22,000 marathon runners (no relay in Dublin) and will be sold out by June. Entrants will pay up to €80 to nab a place on the starting line. Almost half of the runners will be marathon tourists and will stay overnight in Dublin on the Saturday and the Sunday of the event, bringing a very significant spend to the capital city, estimated to be worth at least €20million to the Dublin economy.
In Belfast we will have around 2,000 brave participants taking part in the whole marathon, surrounded by around 15,000 relay runners, fun runners and even walkers. In Dublin tens of hundreds of thousands of spectators line the route, there isn't a stretch of road without a local person cheering on the runners, lifting spirits with vocal support, and even proffering jelly babies, water and pieces of fruit. The atmosphere is uplifting and the whole city buys into the event. Live bands dot the route, bars blast music and the occasion ranks right up alongside Berlin and London as one of the main European marathons of the year.
I'm sorry to say that, so far, Belfast is the poor relation. In a city with historical landmarks like the giant cranes, Titanic Belfast, the Waterfront, the Lagan, our route takes in an industrial estate, the sewers and the abandoned north Foreshore. Large parts of the course have no supporters and in fact only the Ormeau Road stretch bears any comparison with the Dublin event in terms of atmosphere. In fact last year the atmosphere on that Ormeau / Ravenhill stretch was magical, and should be built upon, not abandoned.
So how did Dublin make such great strides? Firstly it was always a marathon; no relays or fun runners, it's the whole 26 miles or nothing. Over the years the number of participants has steadily grown until in 2016 the event was moved from bank holiday Monday to the Sunday, and numbers exploded. It allows for tourists to run the race without taking a day off work and for indigenous marathoners to have the next day off to stay in Dublin and recover or refuel.
A mass participation event on a Sunday also makes it a lot easier to close roads, manage the traffic and claim the city for the event. On a bank holiday Monday the marathon at home is competing with retail traffic and day trippers. For this one day the marathon should own the city streets. The potential uplift for our hospitality sector is huge and the extra business done by pubs and coffee houses like Kaffe O on Ormeau on marathon day is a small example of what could be achieved.
There are complaints from some church goers that a Sunday event curtails their access to religious services. However, the Belfast half marathon, which started in 2013, has always been on a Sunday, as was the Giro and a host of other events. On the Ormeau Road church congregations join in the marathon celebrations, giving out water to spectators and coffee to supporters. I am sure that a route can be found which accommodates churches as well as runners. As a society we need to look after our bodies as well as our souls.
Belfast City Council doesn't control the marathon but has a say in the consultation currently under way. A sub committee last week was broadly supportive of the move to a Sunday but didn't buy into the suggested route change which removed the Ormeau Road stretch in favour of a Stormont finish. While it would be a welcome change to see something finally working at Stormont it would be a remote location to finish a race and start making your way back into the city.
Any discussion I have been part of among the running community on social media, in person and as a soundtrack to a few miles on the roads and trails has been strongly supportive of a Sunday marathon with a new route encompassing the whole city and finishing in Ormeau Park.
The marathon organisers say they will consult the churches. I hope they will consult the runners too.
:: Brendan Mulgrew (firstname.lastname@example.org) is managing partner at MW Advocate (www.mwadvocate.com). Follow on Twitter @brendanbelfast
:: Next week: Claire Aiken