Laura Graham: Once you've done a marathon you just want to keep on running
Kilkeel woman Laura Graham is making a name for herself in marathon running. The mum-of-four tells Joanne Sweeney how addictive the challenge of running over 26 miles is
WHEN marathon runner Laura Graham came over the finish line in Dublin recently as the fastest Irish woman home, she was promptly whisked away to have her first doping test done. The fact of how the sport's stringent cheating precautions were applied to her on her sixth ever marathon was something of a rude awakening for the Co Down woman, bringing home the fact that she's now a potentially world-class runner.
But Laura might have a hard job believing that of herself, since taking part in her first marathon in 2010, she has become a mother of four children.
The 30-year-old was the tenth woman home overall in Dublin on October 30 and for a few moments could not believe the fuss that awaited her.
"I was just handed this bottle by an official who seemed to think I would know what to do with it but I hadn't a clue," recalls Laura from her home just outside Kilkeel. "But he did apologise to me once he found out that I had never been tested before. When I was told that I was the fastest Irish woman home, I argued with them that I wasn't but it turned out I was.
"I didn't realise I was running as fast as I did. I still don't believe it really. People would say that it was really good, but I don't believe it."
Laura ran the 26 miles, 385 yards in 2:41:54. To put that in context, had she achieved the same time in the Rio Olympics last July, she would have come in 65th place, with over 60 other highly trained, and probably more experienced runners behind her.
She's the fourth fastest woman in Ireland over the distance this year and while Paula Radcliffe’s 2:15 hours world record is still safe, the fact that a relative newcomer, let alone a mother-of-four, can achieve such a time is highly promising.
However, there are four very good reasons why Laura so far has not been able to devote more time to her training – well, perhaps five, as the down-to-earth woman admits to having a real weakness for chocolate.
The four reasons are her gorgeous children, three daughters and a son – Payten (6), Jaydon (5), Layla (4) and Darcy (2) – who she parents along with her husband Thomas.
And after being named as the Irish Times Sports Woman of the Month for October, people in the running world both north and south are looking to her as a real prospect for the future.
"Yes, people have been telling me that I have the ability to do better," admits Laura. "But at the same time I have to think that the kids come first. My family has to come first regardless of anything else.
"And I also don't want to take away the fun of it as the fun is the biggest part of it as I still look at it as a hobby. I'm eating chocolate and I know I shouldn't be doing it and eating a better diet, so I need to sort that out before the next marathon."
When we meet at her home, which is surrounded by stunning views of the Mournes, Laura greets me in her sports gear, having just finished a short run on a treadmill in the garage, with no make-up on and her hair scrapped back in a ponytail.
Her home is tastefully decorated with Christmas decorations amid the children's toys and she has a ham cooking in the slow cooker for the dinner later on. At five feet seven inches, she is whippet-thin and looks barely old enough to have one child, never mind four.
Always sporty growing up in Kilkeel, she played competitive hockey, enjoyed cross-country running and got into running to raise money for a charity.
"My father had a bad heart attack in March 2009 which was a real shock, although he has recovered, and then Thomas and I went to Australia for six months but came home after I knew I was pregnant," says Laura. "I had my daughter three days before Christmas and three months after that I just started running and I loved it.
"It was just for fun but I thought I would do the Belfast Marathon for NI Chest, Heart and Stroke as my dad was really helped by them and Thomas and I both have relatives who have had strokes."
Laura ran that race in 3:45; she went on to do the Belfast Marathon last year and again this year, London once, in 2015 – just before that year's Belfast race – and Dublin twice.
Even though having her children – with only 12 months between the middle two – intervened, she has knocked over an hour off her time, thanks in most part, she says, to her coach Ryan Maxwell from NI Running who has been working with her over the last year.
"He's been a big help as I had no training before Dublin last year. Up to then I just literally just went and did whatever race I entered," she admits. "I never did speed before London and that made a big difference as speed training is a big part of long distance running as it helps you quicken your times.
"I never thought I would get under the three hours but it's a mystery to me, really. I think the more training that you do and the more running you do, the more you expect of yourself – though I would never be happy with my times."
Laura now runs four or five days a week, mostly on a treadmill, with two rest days, but knows that to really reduce her time, she would need to make changes with her training.
Her next marathon is likely to be London next April but she has some fears, saying she just about made it over the finish line there this year, even though she managed her best time to date.
"London  was definitely my toughest marathon as I had put too much pressure on myself before," she says. "I pushed really hard at the start and didn't take enough water on and that was the real problem. I felt really funny after 23 miles but I just kept on going. Those last three miles felt like two days.
So what's her secret? "[Running] is mental – it's in here," Laura says, pointing to her brain. "It's just a matter of telling yourself that you can do it. After all the training, it will be over in two hours.
"I'm more competitive with myself than anything. I love it, I really do. There's just something about it; it's a feel-good thing and it de-stresses me. Once you have done a marathon, you want to keeping doing it. It's tough on the body – don't get me wrong – but you have to challenge yourself with something."