Other Sports

Keep on running? Pints and pitfalls in the race to get fit for marathon effort

Runners, including myself, captured in full flight during the Belfast City Marathon earlier this month. Picture by Pacemaker
Neil Loughran

THERE were no great plans to run the marathon, not in recent months anyway. Back in April, maybe. Ah, now you’re talking. Life was different in April. In April, there was nothing else to do but run.

Looking back, I was knocking out a half-marathon most Saturday mornings, a couple of 10ks and an eight-miler through the week. Having barely done a tap in years pre-first lockdown, I had come full circle 12 months on.

People would comment that they’d seen me out on the road. Some provided less than complimentary descriptions of what they witnessed. I took no notice; I was in the zone.

You know how I know? Because when you’ve truly arrived at a heightened state of physical wellbeing, self-awareness drops off as quickly as the pounds around your midriff.

You become oblivious to the glazed look in peoples’ eyes as they are informed, in forensic detail, about your running routine. Perhaps how the weather conditions impacted your time on this particular day. You might even keep them abreast of the very latest regarding your choice of footwear, and the dilemmas that can cause. Hey, don’t even get me started!

Yeah, April was good alright. Everything was easy. Talk of the Belfast City Marathon, then scheduled for September 19, had cropped up a couple of times. My brother Gary, a fairly regular marathon runner, was already registered, so there was a partner in crime if I wanted one.

But then April turned to May. Life wasn’t so simple any more. A significant birthday at the start of the month coincided with the reopening of pubs in the north. A few weeks off won’t do any harm, sure haven’t I been living like a monk since Christmas?

Around the same time the GAA’s National Leagues finally got under way, bringing an end to five hellish months of inactivity. With the resumption of action came long drives to far flung places like… Omagh. Like Ballybofey. Dublin even.

With those long drives invariably comes Applegreen, and with Applegreen comes me wailing rubbish down my neck – the same rubbish that, just weeks earlier, I had been haughtily looking down my nose at others for consuming.

The start of the European Championships in June, and the heat-wave that seemed to engulf its entirety, led to more nights – nay, days - out. More pints. Less running. Nobody was saying they’d seen me out on the road any more.

Then, with the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions gathering pace, the marathon was rescheduled until October 3. An extra couple of weeks… maybe this was a sign?

The turning point came at the Lusk Applegreen on the evening of August 14, hours after myself and friend/colleague Andy Watters had witnessed Mayo’s magnificent ousting of Dublin at Croke Park.

As we sat down to the latest in an admittedly long line of summer Chopstix, the game was still being relived. Then, with a look, Andy asked a question, an entirely innocent question - to him.

“Well… are you still running?”

Ooft. It was a punch in the expanding gut. Two days later, with that same look, my mum followed a similarly subtle line of inquiry. Hello self-awareness my old friend.

With registration having sold out, on August 18 I messaged the Belfast City Marathon Facebook page asking whether there was a reserve list and, if so, could my name be added. Just under six weeks – I could get back into some kind of nick by then.

Then the phone dinged.

“I’m afraid not Neil, sorry”.

That was that. I was a fraud. A failure. Maybe next year, eh? Maybe not. Things settled down and I got back into a running routine of sorts, but it was a drag.

Then Gary hurt his knee. When I was told on September 22 I fired off a message asking if he wanted me to run in his place, should he be unable.

“Jaysus,” came the response, “the puppet thinks he’s a real boy.”

I upped the mileage just in case, though nothing major. The daily injury reports weren’t good, but Gary was going to give it until the Wednesday of marathon week before making a final call. Which was nice of him.

In the Pairc Esler press box the Sunday previous, Gareth McCullough – Newry Reporter sports editor and soon to be of Cool FM – was bristling like a boxer in the week of a world title fight.

Gareth’s marathon preparation had been fine-tuned to the nth degree, as it should be. Since the first lockdown, he had dropped four-and-a-half stone and was now in danger of slipping down drains. He has also raised over £2,500 for the Southern Area Hospice.

Counting down the days, Gareth told me how much he was looking forward to the beer and pizza afterwards. Stuck in no man’s land, I was still digesting the beer, sausage rolls and Doritos from the night before.

Yet, when confirmation came that Gary wouldn’t be entering, there was no stress. I’ll give it a go, if I make it round, so be it. If not, well at least the £50 entry fee hadn’t gone completely to waste and my dad would still be able to sleep at night.

But then I started reading up online. About tapering. About gels, and energy. Carb-loading. Christ - I’d been carb-loading all summer, surely that was enough?

Then there was gut rot. I hadn’t heard of that before. Soon visions of mid-flow evacuation in front of horrified children stood on the footpath, their warm applause shuddering to a slow clap, began to haunt my dreams.

Taking my position among the starters at Stormont - 10 per cent man, 90 per cent Vaseline – there was no going back. And you know what? It was class. The cheering, the music, the camaraderie. I found myself smiling a fair amount.

Until we hit the climb to Oldpark in north Belfast around the 18 mile mark (I think). Holy God. All of a sudden it felt like nobody else was there as the wind whistled straight into our faces.

But when you’ve the bulk of it behind you, you can’t stop. That was what kept me moving anyway, as much as my legs pleaded with me to call time on the way up the Ormeau Road. I must have driven that stretch a million times in my life and never before realised I was scaling Mount Everest.

Crossing the line at all was a relief, doing so in 3:51:36 a surprise given my low expectations beforehand (Gareth was halfway through his second pizza by that stage). Box ticked, one and done, never again.

Arriving home later, there was relief that I was alive rather than any kind of welcome party or celebration.

Then a young friend of my daughter asked how I got on.

“Good,” I said, “glad it’s over.”

“Where did you finish?”

“Well, I got in under four hou…”

“Were you in the top 10?”

“Erm, I came 1,203rd actually…”

Out of politeness, and to spare my assumed embarrassment, she left the inquisition there, but the look on her face said everything. I’d seen that look before. Maybe I’ll give it another crack next year after all.

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe now to get full access

Other Sports