Top 10 Races in NI (part 1)

With almost 100 races a year in NI how do you choose which ones to do? Increasingly they’re not cheap and with so many options, what are the must do races…

I’ve chosen races that I’ve ran previously myself and that are interesting, challenging, well organised and with a good sense of fun & community spirit. For me a big issue is what makes the race special that you wouldn’t get out on a normal run or that you wouldn’t get just running the same course in training. I’m not interested in goodie bags or shiny medals, though if you’ve a cup of tea with a biccie at the end… or maybe even a shower that is amazing, plus a cool t-shirt for the longer races never hurts!

In alphabetical order:


Belfast Hills 10km

Date: Saturday May 24th @ 11am

Price: £10 (Athletics NI registered)/ £12

Image courtesy of North Belfast Harriers

Nutshell: Off-road race full of ups & downs, but what amazing ups & downs!

Why Top 10: Belfast is surrounded by hills, and this is a great way to see some of them, to climb up – and race down – Cavehill. Vast majority of race is off-road, and unless you’re lucky enough to go over the ‘trail’ all the time, this will be a totally new experience. You pass Belfast Castle, and the views at the top of Cavehill are terrific. If you’re used to running the roads around Belfast then you’ll be amazed at the variety of running routes and scenery so close to Belfast.

Logistics: The race starts and ends close to Boy’s Model, where registration takes place. You can register on the day or in advance online. It’s relatively cheap, very well organised (by North Belfast Harriers) with plenty of parking. There are plenty of refreshments after the race, and a low-key but friendly feel to the whole event, which encourages people to stay and meet other runners. The route is clearly signposted with plenty of race stewards throughout the race. 

Causeway Coast Ultra

Date: Sat 27th September 2014 @ 7:15am

Price: Ultra: £55 (other races vary from £25)

Part of the route around, just past the Giant's Causeway, which the Causeway Coast Ultra runs past

Nutshell: Giant’s Causeway, pales into comparison to rest of the race

Why Top 10: Firstly ‘the Causeway’ encompasses a 10km, half-marathon, marathon and Ultra all on the same morning so there is something for everyone. Ultra starts in Portrush, and from there you straddle the coast as far as possible, passing the Giant’s Causeway and many other scenic spots. You are very rarely on road, and will go over hills, grass paths, trails, beach and rocks… and then repeat most of them on the way back to Portballintrae! As with all Ultra’s the camaraderie is great with no shortage of support or competition among the various distance runners. No better 39miler in NI and it’s the perfect opportunity for anyone looking to move up from marathon and try their first Ultra… plus the Ultra t-shirt is brilliant looking

Logistics: Main base is in Portballintrae, so you park there and they will bus Ultra runners out to the start in Portrush. You then run to Portballintrae (marathon start) and then run out to Ballintoy (half-marathon start) and turn back. It is well organised with drink stops and a drop bag service. Chip timed with 5 mats across the course. You need trail shoes and to be able to carry liquids. Parking can get tight, so avoid the field (nightmare if it gets mucky) and arrive early. There’s a shop near the finish and most of the racers finish around the same time, which makes things easier to co-ordinate.

Christmas Cracker

Date: Sat 27th December @ 1pm

Cost: £25 per pair (2013 prices)

Castlewellan Christmas Cracker, when the race went through the forest. Centre is Gary Keenan (president of Athletics NI)

Nutshell: Run over hills, through fields and in pairs. Tough, fun but what a run!

Why Top 10: This has got increasingly popular over the last few years as the secret has got out and must be near capacity, so get to see it quick. Run a few days after Christmas, this is a great way to test any new running gear and catch up with other runners. It had always a sense of community, and increasingly you are seeing clubs making a day out of the race, coming in fancy dress and staying after. Runners were given soup & a roll afterwards. That aside it’s the route which makes this race, mainly off-road, through mucky fields, along narrow trails between hedgerows and with the threat of one or two hurting hills before you finish. It’s impossible to replicate the race, route or occasion.

Logistics: Race is in Castlewellan and centred on the GAA Club within the town. With the larger crowds, car-parking is becoming harder (as always arriving earlier makes things easier) and queues for toilets will be an issue. There are showers and changing facilities post-race, with soup provided after last year’s race. As with all races come as prepared as possible, and definitely consider making it a Christmas club day out. Trail shoes advised but most importantly prepare for hills. Course is well marshalled and sign-posted.

Dundrum 8m

Date: Sat in October (Date TBC) @ 1pm

Price: £14/16 (2013 prices)

Nutshell: nice distance, no hills, good atmosphere & amazing Mournes backdrop

Why Top 10: Good to have races that the whole village seems to rally round, especially where it’s organised by the local club and funds will support the local club/good cause. Running a race near the Mournes without a tough trail or hill section is also great for a change. There is a good atmosphere from the start and gentle road run, then on to the magnificent Murlough Bay (beach), before race gets competitive on final stretch home, with the Mourne Mountains an ever present backdrop.

Logistics: Only one busy through road through the town, so come earlier if you want better parking options. On the day registration is in local church hall, and is efficient and well managed. Not a lot to do afterwards, so most just head back. Not as many toilet options, more awkward for ladies than gents (lots of fields). Course is well marshalled and with this distance you don’t really need drinks during race.

Energia 24hr Race

Date: 5:45pm Friday 18th July - Saturday 19th July

Price: £60 for 12 & 24hr Races


Nutshell: Be part of a national championship & share track with top class runners on your door step

Liam taking part in the Energia 2013 24hr race, the new Mary Peter's Track is designed for speed not endurance!

Why Top 10: Massive congrats to Ed & Energia this race is becoming increasingly popular and is sold out already for July. Yes, you will run round a track a few hundred times but when else would you even get to see such a race near Belfast, especially within the panoramic setting of Mary Peter’s Track. You get to witness high class athletes such as Eoin Keith, John O Reagan and supreme female athletes such as Ruthann Sheehan… and you see them on a track first hand, giving & receiving encouragement.

 You will see some familiar faces every year with a real community spirit embraced among runners and supporters. Great to see people like Susan McCartney and her brother improve so much year by year. Bar the elite end, you do really get the sense that it is mind over matter, with 100 mile the landmark for many with each person having their own strategy. There are 12 hour and relay options, but this is something every regular marathoner should try at least once… how far can you go?

Logistics: there is plenty of parking at MPT, and competitors put up tents in the middle of the centre field, with supporters putting up a stand/station along the track near the start line. This makes it very easy to store and provide trackside support, food and supplements. If entering this race, you should try to have support there and definitely plan on staying in Belfast on the Sat night. Portable toilets are provided by the side of the track, with additional toilets/changing area in Athletics House about 60m from the track. Located in Belfast means much easier preparation, safer journey home and greater chance of visitors/supporters coming than if it was anywhere else… for a 24hr race logistically it’s brilliant and also not that expensive. Some food is provided and there are physios / massage tent there. Even if not entering the race, it’s definitely worth checking out as a visitor or volunteer. 

These are just the first 5, with the remaining 5 being published next week...