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Opinion: Memories of my first Dublin City Marathon on the day the 2020 race was meant to happen

Mick Bourke has run several marathons and pays tribute to runners today as the Dublin City Marathon moves online.

Mick Bourke

I MADE A first-ever attempt at the marathon in the inaugural Dublin City event in 1980 and it resulted in my 15 minutes of fame. No, I didn’t win it, not even close, but a brief encounter during the race caused it.

While going up the main road of the Phoenix Park, shortly after the start, a car pulled over and drove alongside us. The front passenger’s side window rolled down and a young woman with an expensive-looking camera leaned out, took a picture and moved back in; and then the car drove on up the course passing the runners ahead.

The image that resulted featured widely a week or two later in an RTÉ television programme – a half-hour compilation of scenes from that marathon day.

My star ascended

For the programme, an animation technique was applied to the photo. Beginning with a small version at the bottom left of the screen, in a short, rapid series of increasingly larger versions it expanded to completely fill the screen.

This was used as a sort of visual separator or bridge, a number of times during the programme, to indicate a change of scene. This was the 1980s, after all, and a world away from today’s technology.

The frequent use of my photo meant I became somewhat the face of that first Dublin marathon, rather than that of the winners, Dick Hooper and Carey May. It was and remains, my 15 minutes of fame.

The photo was taken about three miles or so into the race. Having started off at a sensible pace I was feeling good, had settled into a rhythm and, barring unexpected catastrophe, was fairly confident about getting home in under three hours.

marathon image

In contrast to my internal feeling of quiet contentment when it was taken, the photo shows instead a figure who appears to be desperately trying to hold it together while struggling to reach the finish line after ‘hitting the wall’.

As an illustration of the inner turmoil and torment experienced undergoing a marathon, it was most appropriate, and probably why it was used in the programme.

Only marathon runners can understand how this moment feels. That point where you can’t stop but you feel if you don’t, you’ll be done for. All that keeps you going at this moment is your sheer will. It’s the point when all the training in the world seems to mean nothing and it’s just you and this mountain to climb.

The race started in 1980. Last year, to mark the 40th edition, the organisers held an exhibition of photographs and mementoes from the inaugural event. From RTÉ there was a filmed report of about two minutes duration that was used in the news bulletin that marathon night. But the photo was absent. It seems that neither now exists. 

I don’t know for sure what happened the programme. If it’s lost, it can perhaps be explained by what happened to some other material of historic value. Shortly after the death of musician Seán Ó Riada in 1971, it emerged that, as an economic measure, a number of his recorded performances for television had been – following their broadcast – recycled to record other different programmes.

The beginning of the Dublin City Marathon is a matter of historical significance, so maybe there’s a copy of the programme stored away in an attic or garden shed.

Dublin’s 2020 virtual City Marathon, #RunYourTown

As a tribute, for its 40th anniversary, I had planned to take part in the Dublin City Marathon for a very definite final time this year.

However, the algorithm that decides who gets to run, unimpressed by my completing on five occasions in the 1980s, said “NO”. Anyway, a few months later that refusal was academic when, after the pandemic struck, the event was cancelled.

It is lovely to see that this year, within our 5km limit, runners can still participate on some level with the 2020 #RunYourTown virtual event. It’s not an ideal time for so many, but the beauty of running is that we can find some decent routes within 5km.

This year, I came up with my own personal plan for a tribute. I was looking for something that would be kind to this 73-year-old body, rather than the marathon itself, which is tough.

Runners who took part on that first occasion can probably recall a last-minute change of route. To ensure the course was the correct length after a section near Finglas had to be omitted due to overnight flooding, a complete circuit of St Stephens Green after Lord Mayor, Fergus O’Brien, fired the starting gun was substituted to compensate.

And so my plan, in the shadow of this pandemic, was that starting across the street from Iveagh House at precisely noon on Monday I would complete a lap of a now somewhat changed St Stephen’s Green. And finishing that I would then continue on my marathon route.

I was then going to call to Bewley’s – a favourite post-race rendezvous spot – where I would raise cup of coffee and offer a silent toast to the Dublin City Marathon, all these years after I first ran it.

But a plan that was achievable two months ago when the country was at Level 2 became impossible for me recently after nonessential travel was restricted to a radius of 5km from home.

And so after being refused an entry to carry out Plan A; and now prevented from applying Plan B, I was forced to concede that I had run out of road. I was disappointed, but it’s hardly the end of the world – there are far, far greater tragedies.

So there is no Plan C. Or is there? Maybe I will grab my runners and venture out around my home today, within my 5km and enjoy the fresh air and that wonderful feeling that running gives us, no matter where we are.

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When I do so, I will think of all the runners out there, those hardy, focused and dedicated marathon runners who have climbed that hill every year for the past four decades. I have nothing but admiration for you all.

Dublin City Marathon – there is always next year. For now, thanks for the memories. See you in 2021!

Mick Bourke (73) is from Co Donegal and came to Dublin in 1965. Prior to the BHAA being officially established he had his first competitive road race, organised by RTÉ AC, at age 30. As well as competing in the first Dublin City Marathon, and on four other occasions, he ran in the first London event and the first three Derry City marathons, as well as eight other marathons including New York. He lives in Co Kildare and, when circumstances allow, takes part in parkruns and coaches with Donore Harriers.

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