Within five days of the 39th Dublin Marathon finishing on October 28, the first 7,000 ‘early bird entries’ for the 2019 marathon were already sold out – and by the time you read this, all 20,000 places on offer are likely to be gone.
“Because next year is the 40th anniversary race, we knew there would be great excitement, but we didn’t expect it to sell out so quickly,” says race director Jim Aughney, who celebrated 21 years in the job this year.
“In the very first marathon of 1980, we had an entry of 2,997. It’s a nice complaint to have!”
Anyone walking around Dublin on Sunday, October 28, would appreciate the enormity of the job facing Aughney and the Dublin Marathon organisers every year. The board is chaired by Liam Ó Riain, with Dave Humphries as secretary. Other members are: Eugene Coppinger, who looks after the elite entry list and the baggage area; Paul Barnes, safety; May Tan, medical officer; Neil Kennedy, start/finish; Mick McCartan course director; Gerry Carr, course; and Dave Hudson, logistics. Carol McCabe, the office manager, is the only full-time employee of the marathon, although others come in to help with the race series.
Even Aughney, a 2:35 marathon man, is a part-timer, continuing to work four days a week with eir, and running the three to four miles in and out to work each day. On Fridays, he works on the marathon, which also absorbs most of his evenings and weekends.
The early years
He began working on the marathon though his involvement with the Business Houses Athletic Association over 30 years ago and he has seen the lean years at first hand.
Although entries had increased to 11,076 by 1982, the event had many nervous years when sponsors were hard to attract, and numbers fluctuated. In 1987, numbers fell below 4,000 for the first time since the inaugural year. A year later, Dublin’s Millennium celebrations saw a big increase in numbers to almost 9,000, but in 1989, that number dropped back to just over 3,000. Only in 1999, for the 20th edition of the race, did numbers recover and, since then, the upward trend has continued.
“There were a number of catalysts down the years: some of them planned; others where we got lucky,” says Aughney.
“Before the 1999 race, we decided to approach the big American charities. They had approached Dave Bedford of the London Marathon, who told them they weren’t welcome to participate in London. ‘Why not come to Dublin?’ we said.”
They did. In 2000, there were more American than Irish runners in the race. “Then came 9/11 in 2001 – the charities were committed for that year, but we knew it was the last year they would come.”
Getting Ireland running
To encourage more local runners to run, the board came up with the idea of the Races Series, involving three races already on the calendar: the Irish Runner 5-Mile; the Frank Duffy 10-Mile, organised by the Civil Service club; and the Business Houses Athletic Association Dublin Half Marathon, all of them taking place in the Phoenix Park.
“The idea was to get the Irish off their armchairs and out running. We didn’t include the marathon because we thought that might frighten people off. Our idea was to stop short at the half marathon knowing that if people got to that stage, they might then transfer over to the marathon. We were right. In 2008, the Irish entry for the marathon began to rise.
“This had two big impacts: local entries increased but also it got people out on to the streets to support the runners, which helped create the atmosphere along the route.”
The most recent catalyst was the 2016 switch to a Sunday from the traditional ‘Marathon Monday’.
“It meant we got more overseas visitors as well as runners from Northern Ireland and England, where they don’t have an October bank holiday. We were also pleasantly surprised to get an increase in numbers from outside Dublin – entries from Cork, Limerick and Galway are all up substantially. People can run their marathon on the Sunday and then recover on Monday before returning to work.”
In that year of 2016, the 19,000 entries sold out. “We weren’t sure whether it was the change to a Sunday or the special medal for the 1916 centenary that was the big draw. We have always had big entries on significant dates, with the numbers then dropping back a year later.”
That did not happen in 2017, with the limit increased to 20,000. “We realised then that the numbers weren’t going to drop off and, this year, we had to close entry at the end of April.”
This year, the Dublin Marathon coincided with the centenary of women getting the vote in these islands and with Constance Markievicz becoming the first woman elected to the British House of Commons. In honour of the occasion, an image of Markievicz appeared on the Dublin Marathon finisher’s medal.
“The number of female entries has grown from 70 in 1980 to 7,000 in 2018. I’m proud that we celebrated female runners this year, with a special mention for Mary Hickey, who has competed in every marathon since we started back in 1980,” said Aughney.
Of the 20,000 who won a coveted place, 16,246 finished; some dropped out, but many never got to the start line.
“We have changed a few things for next year. If people enter now and then find they can’t run for any reason, we will give them their money back, taking only a small administration fee. We will then open entry again with those numbers. But we will have a cut-off date since we need to give people taking up the extra numbers time to train. It can’t be as late as September, since we also have to order t-shirts and medals. We will decide on a cut-off date no later than January.”
After six years with SSE Airtricity, the title sponsorship has moved seamlessly to KBC for the next three years.
“KBC already has experience of road racing through sponsoring the Night Run. We are not really looking for a sponsor; more a partner who will work with us and help us improve the race.”
So, what are the major challenges facing the new and expanded Dublin Marathon? The course itself is not a problem since the introduction of the wave system. “This year, we changed the wave system starting them 15 minutes apart rather 10 ten minutes. We now have four separate races, which has alleviated problems on the course. We could take a lot more on the route.”
The big problem comes when the stream of at least 16,000 people approach the narrow finish area at Merrion Square North. “We can have 177 runners coming in together and – for some reason – they all stop running when they cross the finish line. We can have 8,000 in the baggage area and we need them to move on so others can move in.”
Aughney promises that next year’s 40th anniversary race will be special, particularly for the 13 stalwarts who have run all 39 Dublin Marathons to date. “We gave them all free entry for the 25th anniversary race so I’m not sure what we’ll do for this one. But we’ll have to do something!” he says.