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The gateway drug to running addiction

Helen Carr delves into the history of the biggest all-female event of its kind in the world, the Vhi Dublin Women’s Mini Marathon, and explores the motivations behind partaking in this unique race, run and walk

Dublin Mini Marathon competitors putting the fun in run!

People are sometimes surprised when I say that the Mini Marathon got me into running. ‘Isn’t that a walk?’ ‘Isn’t that just for charity?’ ‘Is it a race, or is it more of a day out?’ they ask. In fact, it’s all of the above and more. The Vhi Women’s Mini Marathon the biggest all-female event of its kind in the world, a huge fundraiser for charity and a mass-participation event for women of all ages from every county and every walk of life. For some women, the challenge is in completing the 10km distance – whether running or walking – and for others it’s a race, hard-fought at the elite end of the field. And it can be a gateway drug to running addiction!

The Mini Marathon was set up to encourage more women to run road races. Back in the early 1980s, Frank Slevin and Brendan Price (race and course directors of the first three Dublin Marathons) noticed the increasing numbers of female entrants to the marathon and felt there was a market for a women-only race in Dublin – perhaps inspired by Frank Lebow who had started a women’s race around Central Park on the back of the NYC marathon. Lebow’s version – the Crazy Legs Mini Marathon – was sponsored by a women’s shaving gel brand, and it was hoped that participants would wear miniskirts for publicity, hence the name ‘mini marathon’. Dublin’s version was more successful than New York’s – there were only 72 runners in the inaugural Central Park run, compared to 9,000 in the first Dublin Mini Marathon! Brooks Shoes and the Evening Press were the first sponsors and Dundrum Athletic Club (now Dundrum South Dublin) were the organisers. Katy Schilly from the US won the race in 34:04, and a fixture on the Irish calendar was born.

Fascinating facts

- The Vhi Women’s Mini Marathon is the largest all-women’s event of its kind in the world.

- Over one million women have taken part since 1983, with over €217m raised for charity. 

- The winning time in 1983 was 34:04, achieved by Katy Schilly, US. In 2018, the winning time was 34:18, achieved by Lizzie Lee.

- The fastest winning time was by Sonia O’Sullivan – 31:28 in 2003.

- Catherina McKiernan has won the Mini Marathon four times (1997, 1998, 1999, 2004).

A run through history

The history of women’s running in Ireland is much shorter than men’s, partly because in the early days of the Irish State, the Catholic Church disapproved of women disporting themselves in ‘immodest dress’, which ruled out most sportswear. In the 1950s, Olympian Maeve Kyle was castigated for leaving her husband and child at home while she competed and, as Frances Mansfield of Clonliffe Harriers recalled in a 2013 interview with Lindie Naughton, even as late as the 1960s it was still ‘considered immoral, unladylike and immodest for women to be seen in shorts’. “A picture of some of the women in shorts appeared in a national newspaper and, as a consequence, one of the girls was told to leave the Children of Mary,” she added. But, said Mansfield who ran in the first Mini Marathon: “We had the support of each other and overcame the prejudices.”

Mansfield was also involved in setting up one of the first of the Meet & Train groups that were formed before the inaugural Mini Marathon, for women to train together and support one another. By 1983, women had a lot more freedom, but it was still unusual to see women running in the streets. Mary Carey, who read about the first mini marathon in the Evening Press and ‘decided to give it a go’, recalls these Meet & Train groups. “The paper gave a training programme, which I think was weekly. Initially, I was training on my own, but then I joined a group that met up beside St Anne’s Park. We always started with warm-ups and finished with stretching exercises. There were a few groups like this around the city, set up to prepare for the run.”

Raising money for charity is a massive motivation for participation in the Mini Marathon.

Another of the Meet & Train groups grew into a successful and well-known running club – Sportsworld in south Dublin. In 1983, ahead of the first Mini Marathon, Emily Dowling, winner of the 1981 Dublin Marathon, began training a group of women, most of whom had never run before. It grew from there, and several years later, Sportsworld AC was officially formed; in 2011, they had their first Mini Marathon winner, Caitriona Jennings.

Training tips for beginners

- Whether you’re walking or running, try to train three times a week: two short walks or runs, and a longer one where you gradually build up towards 10km.

- Don’t increase your distance by more than 10 per cent each week. If you don’t make it to 10km in training, don’t worry, adrenaline will carry you through on the day.

- Listen to your body and don’t go too fast. It’s more important to train consistently than to run or walk too fast and then be too sore or too tired to get out for the rest of the week.

- The Vhi Women’s Mini Marathon has some good training tips on its website.

Running boom

Thirty-six years on, things are very different: we’re in the middle of the latest running boom, over 40 per cent of Irish women take part in some sport or exercise, and tens of thousands of women take to the streets to cover 10km every June bank holiday – many of them running for charities. From the very first running of the Mini Marathon, women were encouraged to raise money for a charity of their choice, and that remains the case today – it’s estimated that the total raised since the event’s inception is over €217m.

Running for charity, especially when it has personal significance, can really add an extra layer of meaning to the day. I’ve run for many charities over the years, but the year that I ran for the Irish Cancer Society, running past St Vincent’s hospital where a good friend was an in-patient made me want to run harder, and try harder, for her. And the year I ran for Holles Street and was greeted at the finish line by my little cousin, who’d had such great treatment in their Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, was very special too. Steph Taylor has run the Mini Marathon, but she also has fond memories of walking it with a gang in support of Greystones Cancer Support, who had really helped her mother. “Walking together was about supporting each other and the charity,” she says.

Route to running

Charity is often the original motivation for those taking part, but the training and sense of achievement can become important too. Club-runner, Denise Kelleher, says: “I’d always thought of myself as a non-sporty person until I decided to kill two birds with one stone and sign up for the Mini Marathon; I’d have an incentive to get fit while collecting money for charity. Training was really difficult at first. I had never run before other than trying to catch a bus. By the time I did the Mini Marathon, the longest distance I had run was 7km, but I trusted that the adrenaline would get me through on the day. It did! I finished in 95 minutes, a time I’ve since almost halved – my Mini-Marathon PB is just over 47 minutes.”

At first, like Denise, I had no aspirations beyond finishing and supporting my chosen charity, but at the start line, I overheard some women saying they’d like to do it in under an hour. This sounded super-fast to me, and they were older than me, so I began to think that getting faster might be possible. Denise says the same: “After the Mini Marathon, I joined a club and ran regularly; the second time I did it, I managed to cut my time to an hour, then the next time it was 55 minutes, and finally under 50 minutes.”

Now, the Mini Marathon is a favourite in my race calendar: I love the challenge of racing other women, runners I see at other races throughout the year; the fact that it’s an all-women race means you see the competition clearly, rather than the women being spread out among the men as they are in a mixed race. I love the out-and-back route, which means I can watch Maria McCambridge, Siobhán O’Doherty, Lizzie Lee or Ann Marie McGlynn in full flight as they head back towards the finish. It’s a special race for the runners at the pointy end too – Annette Kealy, who won the race in 2008, says: “I used to like watching the Mini Marathon and when I saw Christine Kennedy winning it, I thought I’d love to do that – win it, I mean!”

It took several years of hard work, but she did win. “I was so happy,

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