Time to reclaim the Belfast City Marathon for the people of Belfast

Numbers are up, but Marathon could be so much better

By Conor McLoughlin

The Belfast City Marathon organisers are looking forward to a bumper entry for the 32nd manifestation of the event to be held on the May Day Bank Holiday, 2013.

It was announced last week that entries were up 10 percent on this time last year.

I have to say, the news came as a bit of a surprise to me. In 2012 I competed in my first Belfast City Marathon, and I have to say the experience was underwhelming.

Don’t be fooled into thinking I plodded round the entire 26.2 miles but, like 11,000 others, I was part of a five-person relay team, but you need to start somewhere, right?

There were many things, some small and some pretty fundamental, that I felt organisers could do better to make the Marathon befitting of the biggest sporting event in the city’s calendar.

 

Empty assets

Last year, I ran the final ‘glory leg’ in an unimpressive time as part of the team relay. In fact, at one point I was passed by my boss, an elderly man with dodgy knees and a bad back.

What made it even more embarrassing was that he’d completed 23 of his 26.2 miles when he overtook me, just a mile into my leg.

Last year was unseasonably cold, and organisers will hope they never have a day like it again. It was more like a winter’s day than early summer, but the unsatisfactory transport arrangements meant I was bussed to my starting point in Corporation Street a full two hours before my run.

In freezing, wet Corporation Street there was virtually no provision for the thousands of waiting runners.

There was no water, and just two Portaloos with a constant queue. Such were the numbers that finding your teammate at the designated meeting points was unnecessarily difficult.

The event is organised in co-operation with Belfast City Council, who should be making conditions as comfortable as possible for competitors.

Less than half a mile from the changeover point we passed the empty Belfast Waterfront Hall. Would it have been too much to have the Waterfront and its ample and expensively assembled environs as a changeover point?

There are numerous Council-controlled properties  – including all the Council’s community centres – that the citizens of Belfast have paid for that lie vacant on Marathon day – including City Hall – that should be used as relay changeovers.

Runners could then warm up indoors in dry conditions, and those who have finished can cool down and recover in comfort.

 

Price of success

In these frugal times, the cost is quite high – coming in at £33 for an individual and £80 for a team of five. Now that compares favourably to marathons elsewhere on the island – Dublin costs a whopping €95 – but given the huge number of entries (my quick calculations tell me the Belfast City Marathon Ltd cleared over £250,000 in entry fees in 2012) and high-profile sponsorship deals, it’s hard to justify.

 

Crowd control

During the run, I felt the event was poorly stewarded. At one point, as runners came off the towpath and onto the Ormeau Road, spectators had formed a narrow channel just one person wide so runners had to slow down and pass in single file.

Unfortunately, that meant competitors had to splash through a significant puddle.

On the Ormeau Road itself, spectators crowded the pavements so runners stayed on the road where one lane had be coned off for the Marathon.

Unfortunately, many run the Marathon with a friend so groups of twos and threes meant faster runners had to scoot out onto the road and into the path of traffic to pass.

Belfast seemed to get by when a rag-tag bunch blocked the Ormeau Road three times a week for the past six weeks so surely for one morning cordoning off just one side of the road, allowing traffic to flow in both ways, but in one lane, is doable? Spectators trying to access the finish line down either the Ravenhill Road or Ormeau Road had to cross the path of the runners, which is both dangerous and disruptive.

Out at Dargan Road, near the docks, runners actually have to cross four lanes of traffic, a truly ridiculous scenario unique to Belfast City Marathon.

On my leg, I saw no stewards trying to help or manage the crowds of spectators.

The finish zone at Ormeau Park was also calamitous, with thousands of runners, teammates and their families struggling to meet up in a far too cramped, fenced-off area.

Those who had dropped bags at the City Hall pre-race had to queue in the rain, some for over half an hour, to collect them again at the Ozone.

 

Quality and legacy

And what about the quality of competitor at the front end of the race? Forget the second tier Kenyans and Ethiopians flown in for an easy pay day, but the local runners who are the heartbeat of the sport.

Unfortunately the standard has never been as bad. 1997 was the last time a Belfast man broke the tape first when North Belfast Harriers’ John Ferrin sealed the win. That’s a long time ago.

Looking elsewhere the London and Dublin Marathon organisers have proactively set out to reinvigorate the standard of local distance running in their races.

They are helping their own to be competitive. Aside from cash incentives there is also innovative support structures like the Dublin Marathon Mission squad, which is providing training, logistical and financial aid for athletes aiming to run fast.

Surely Belfast should look at doing something similar.  How refreshing would it be for a Belfast man to once again win the Belfast Marathon?

 

Route manoeuvre

The route has long been a bug bear of many local runners.

Belfast City Marathon makes a notional entry into West Belfast for less than two miles, yet spends threemiles outside the City in Newtownabbey taking in the Belfast Lough Foreshore and a solitary run along the reclaimed land adjacent to the M5 and M2 motorways, before winding its way back towards the city centre through the Duncrue Industrial Estate, close to the Belfast Sewage Works. The stink is atrocious and no other marathon in the developed world runs past the main city sewage works.

After 23 miles weary runners swing onto the Lagan towpath at the disused Maysfield Leisure Centre to be confronted, across the water, with the sights and sounds of the finish line. However, they have a further three miles still to go before they reach it.

Belfast City Marathon flirts with the city centre, but the impression is that organisers are keen to shove the route away from town and out of the way.

On many parts of the route – such as on the Sydenham Bypass, the Foreshore, and the Duncrue Industrial Estate (19 miles in, and where most runners hit the notorious ‘wall’) spectators completely disappear.

The route needs to go where people – not vermin or birdlife such as on the North Foreshore – populate the locality.

There is a huge list of areas we should be proud of and proud to show off.

The Newtownards Road, the Lisburn Road, Botanic Gardens, the Lagan Towpath, the Falls Road and the Titanic Quarter are all either completely disregarded or make up only a fleeting part of the route.

Why not actually engage the city’s communities. Let’s have bunting, banners, diverse styles of music. If you think of all the Council-funded playgroups and centres, we could have the route thronged with well-wishers. It would  be a people’s marathon.

 

Bottle it

Throughout the race, runners are supplied with water by event sponsors Deep RiverRock, but the drinks are served in plastic cups rather than in bottles.

While this may sound like a small grievance, try drinking from a cup while running and you’ll soon find the contents flowing down your shirt rather than your throat.

 

Listen up

It has to be asked why a first-time runner like myself – and my views have been corroborated by much more experienced athletes – can identify these problems after just one marathon experience.

Any time I raise the question of the Belfast Marathon on Twitter, I am inundated with responses from people dissatisfied with the event, yet the organisers don’t seem to have any formal process for acknowledging or addressing these concerns.

The Belfast City Marathon Ltd should hold a forum, even an online message board would suffice, so competitors can have their say on the shortcomings of the event, and how it can be improved in the future.

 

Sunday morning call

Then there is the biggest problem of all. Most of the major marathons in the world are run on a Sunday. New York, London, Chicago – you name it, the race is on a Sunday. In Belfast?

Yes, it’s a Monday morning, and a Monday morning when local businesses should be enjoying a boosting Bank Holiday trade, only to have the city shut down for half the day.

It has never been clear to me why Belfast persists with the old aversion to a Sunday race. The days when swings were tied up on the Sabbath have gone and will never return, so why do we take a Dark Ages approach to the biggest sporting event in our city’s calendar?

The Marathon has limited economic impact on the city because so few marathon tourists exist. Why are we not attracting the American and European runners and spectators that flock to Dublin and other cities’ marathons? Belfast has aimed high for an international crowd in the past – such as for the Titanic Centenary, the MTV Awards, but the levels of international competitors are mediocre at best. Good enough in 1981 but not in 2013. A Sunday morning race on a Bank Holiday weekend would allow the City to be closed appropriately without significantly disrupting trade and traffic, and could be a huge tourism fillip for the city.

 

We asked Belfast City Marathon Ltd and Belfast City Council for a response to some of the ideas and suggested changes outlined above.

In regard to opening Council-owned properties as relay changeover points, the council said: “Belfast City Council does not open all its leisure centres on the May Day Bank Holiday, as lack of demand makes it financially unviable to do so.  It should be pointed out that the current Marathon relay changeover points are not located at, or close to, any of the Council’s centres.

“However, if there are specific centres which people would like to suggest as offering appropriate facilities to Marathon runners, then the Council is happy to consider such suggestions when deciding which centres will open this coming May Day.”

We asked the Belfast City Marathon Ltd why mid-level Kenyan and English competitors are flown in and what this does to encourage participation of elite local athletes.

Belfast City Marathon Ltd said: “The Belfast City Marathon offers a prize fund of almost £3,000 exclusively for Northern Ireland athletes.  This prize fund is in addition to any other prize money which may be earned by NI athletes.

“The marathon organisers are also announcing, in the near future, an additional prize fund which will again be available exclusively to Northern Ireland athletes.”

We also asked why the route did not include Belfast landmarks, such as the Titanic Quarter, and why it went to Newtownabbey.

“It is always difficult to design a route in an urban environment – especially in a context where there is no legal mechanism for the roads to be closed,” read a statement from BCM Ltd.

“However, the Marathon’s Technical Director is constantly reviewing the route, and we are always grateful for feedback from participants in this regard.”

The contentious issue of  a lack of bottled water was also put to the organisers, who said: “It is common practice for marathons to distribute water in plastic cups rather than bottles.

“Bottles can pose a hazard to other runners, and make it more difficult for the Council’s street cleaning teams to clean up after the event (especially as current legislation does not allow the closure of all roads along the Marathon route for the duration of the event).

“It should be pointed out that the Belfast City Marathon has 15 water stations, located every 2 – 2.5 miles along the route, which is considerably more than many comparable events”

Finally, we asked why the event was not held on a Sunday morning.

“The Board of Directors of the Belfast City Marathon has considered the question of switching the event to a Sunday morning, and undertook extensive consultation on this subject in 2010,” read the statement.

“The proposal met with opposition from many religious groups, as well as Belfast City Council.”

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