Northern Ireland news

Co Down man takes on world's largest and oldest ultra marathon race around Mourne Mountains

Damien Cunningham, pictured at the Great Wall of China Marathon last year

A CO Down man due to take on the world's largest and oldest ultra marathon race in South Africa before the Covid-19 crisis unfolded is bringing the challenge to the Mourne Mountains instead.

Damien Cunningham (54), who lives near Kilkeel, has spent the past six months undergoing a regimented training schedule in preparation for the 90km marathon in the KwaZulu-Natal province between the cities of Durban and Pietermaritzburg.

But when the annual event was cancelled, he decided to run the ultra marathon around the Mourne Mountains, in aid of the Southern Area Hospice.

"Having invested and lot of my own and others precious time plus effort with over six months of hard training and back to back long runs every weekend already done, I'm not putting this to waste," he said.

Mr Cunningham began training for the Comrades Marathon in December, running many miles under tough conditions.

But with the unfolding coronavirus pandemic, the race - which gives athletes 12 hours to complete the course - was cancelled.

Mr Cunningham, who has been running for 15 years, said he spent a "week of feeling a little disheartened" after the cancellation, but he knew he couldn't let his training go to waste.

"When I saw some of my fellow runners doing their virtual runs, for example, the London Marathon, Belfast and Paris I gave myself a kick up the backside and decided that I had already invested too much work into this feet and couldn't let it slip through my fingers due to something outside of my control, so I had to take back control," he said.

"Then, I stopped and looked around me and having been very lucky to have been brought up and actually reside in the Mourne Mountains I decided to run this ultra marathon here at home, in aid of the Southern Area Hospice.

"This was an easy decision, especially with charities really struggling to bring in funds with all fundraising events cancelled or severely reduced as they have little to no means of fundraising."

On Sunday - the same day as the event was due to take place in South Africa - Mr Cunningham will take to the roads of Co Down, completing loops around Kilkeel and the Mourne area, while fellow athletes will compete in all corners of the globe where they live.

"I will run the 56 miles (90km) around a course here in the Mournes," he said.

"It will consist of four legs of 14 miles starting and finishing at the Kilmorey Arms in Kilkeel except for the first leg, which will start at 5am from my home close to the Silent Valley.

"I am hoping to finish in between 10 and 11 hour as the time limit for the run is 12 hours dead.

"I will be joined along the course at different stages by many of my fellow running buddies but still keep within the local social distancing rules.

"When I upload my finish time this will be counted as having done the run for real only in a different location and the Comrades Marathon Association will issue me the finish medal and hopefully I can hand of a substantial cheque of funds to the hospice."

To support Mr Cunningham, please visit www.justgiving.com/fundraising/weedeesrun

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