It was a typical wintry Saturday morning in Belfast, the forecast wasn't great and the grey sky toyed with rain while the wind blew in bursts to remind you it too hadn't gone away. Yet all over Belfast people rose from their slumber, vacated the comfort of their warm homes and put on trainers, tops and plenty of hi-viz to go out running...
By 10:15 487 people had completed one of the 5 parkruns (free 5km timed runs) spread throughout the city. Ormeau Park flooded? No bother, volunteers leave that section out and create a new 5km course for the 151 runners who turned up. Numbers are so big now, that the all-weather pitch has to be used as a temporary car-park. And this was no-one off, with an average 107 people at each of the 28 parkruns run since the start of the year. All free to enter, with refreshments after and managed by local volunteers.
At the 'Dub' (Queen's University Playing Fields), Una Short took over race director duties for the first day with her husband and son also volunteering on the day. Despite many of the University pitches being used and car-parks full, parkrun ran without a hitch with many staying behind to catch up on the weeks events and celebrate those who had received the stylish red t-shirts denoting participation in 50 parkruns.
Next up at 11am was the Minnowburn 10km starting from the Mary Peter's Track and running along the tow-path, Minnowburn and near the Giant's Ring. 338 finished the race, which is great numbers especially given its £23 on the day entry fee (there was a reduced fee for early online registration).
Whilst people raced 10km, many people across Belfast were learning to run 5km for the first time. By the end of the year many of these will be completing 10km runs themselves. Despite the weather there was over 30 at Ormeau Park and probably close to 100 across Belfast. This is the start of the 4th week of a 10 week JogBelfast programme which runs across Belfast. A Belfast wide JogBelfast Scheme during Autumn 2013 produced over 100 graduates and hopes were high that the new programme kick starting could attract 200 people.
To date there are over 530 registrations with more people registering. North and South Belfast have both had over 100 people turn up - in atrocious weather - for their mid week sessions. This is with very little advertising by organisers with most people hearing through word of mouth. Over 75% of the participants on JogBelfast are women, with people of all ages and abilities taking part week after week. (see evaluation of the previous programme).
Of course this excludes the elite runners competing in the national NI indoor championships or the UK Championships, and the best club runners competing in the final event of the NI cross-country league in Enniskillen. This also doesn't take into account regular club runs (Belfast has over 20 clubs) or the dozens (probably hundreds) of people who just go for a social run, some organised through Belfast Running's new meet-up service.
Is this a one-off?
On Thursday night, 164 people lined up in the dark for a run around Stormont estate. Incorporating two major hills and requiring head torches this was no dander and yet how did it attract such big numbers... last year it had less than 100. Before that the Christmas Cracker (Castlewellan) another testing 8-10 mile off road course known for its incessant inclines had a record 366 teams (292 teams in 2012) and the Seely Cup 10k race in November had over a 1,000... these are all record numbers
Belfast introduced a half-marathon in September for the first time, expecting 1,500 participants. Yet 3,256 people finished the race and they didn't have enough medals (although most people considered the race a great success). The full Belfast Marathon in May, is becoming better organised and had 2,542 finishers not including another 1,935 relay teams (9,675 runners). That's over 12,000 pairs of feet hitting the road on May Day.
...and this is not just in Belfast, there are so many races on the racing calendar is choc-a-block, so much so that Belfast and Derry (Walled City) half-marathon races are both scheduled for Sunday 14th September (some things don't change!). Derry held its first marathon in 2013 for over 20 years, which had 1,000 registered participants in the first few days and had to be ultimately capped at a symbolic 2013 runners (although only 1,290 finished the race, with reputedly a large fraction not even starting the race).
There are many more event organisers, for example @26extreme and Born2Run who organise well run interesting runs, normally off-road. There is even a 24hr race held annually in Belfast (Energia 24hr Race), which doubles as the Irish national 24hr championships and has attained European Athletics Silver Award status.
New clubs have been formed (e.g. Orangegrove AC in East Belfast) and become very active and ambitious, and keen to attract a wide spectrum of runners. Orangegrove is less than 5 years old and runs Sunday cinema nights, craft clubs and fancy dress runs. Running is being seen as fun, social and been reclaimed for everyone. Belfast Running Club was set up in the last 3 months mainly off the back of the JogBelfast pilot programme in South Belfast and is expected to have 100 members by the end of the year. These clubs are active on the web and social media whilst keen to invest time in training coaches, child protection and clubmark.
It's not just the new kids on the block either, Beechmount Harriers in the west have established a strong junior section in recent years and like other clubs are heavily involved in their local parkrun and JogBelfast. This is due to the commitment of coaches and volunteers, and a desire to accommodate runners of all ages whilst investing time in developing competitive runners. Increasingly on an informal and formal basis, runners from different clubs and parts of Belfast will meet up for long runs. This helps develop relationships, helps to keep the pace and discover new routes.
North Belfast Harriers (est 1896) is one of the oldest clubs in Belfast and currently Athletics NI club of the year with a Gold standard in Clubmark. On Thursday night they run four separate kids sessions to meet demand and provide tailored training. They pioneered JogBelfast and parkrun within Belfast, and are regularly asked to lead community initiatives given their unique neutral position and credibility in North Belfast. And this is not at the expense of competition - as North Belfast athletes and teams regularly adorn podiums across NI - but part of a long term plan to promote running and remain competitive.
A New approach?
North Belfast have also created a new satellite system with running groups beyond North Belfast (e.g. Ballymena, 30 miles from Belfast) becoming a form of sub-group of NBH with members wearing NBH club colours and availing of club structures without having to form their own clubs. Is this the future?
Is this just MAMIL's converting from 2 wheels to 2 feet?
No. Most JogBelfast participants are female, so there is a new wave of female runners. Experience has also shown that these females will then bring in their friends and families, with many families now training and running together. Overall most runners and race participants are male but that is changing and there are now female only races (runher) to help facilitate further female take-up. Runher has over 3,000 signed up to it's distribution list and can easily attract several hundred runners to an event.
Is it the Media?
Not sure, Belfast Telegraph helps support Runher and there are new sites dedicated to NI running e.g. NI Running and Belfast Running, not to mention the various club sites, and larger running sites. A quick search on google will reveal plenty of NI related conversations on forums, and there is an ever expanding range of running material online. However, the media is probably more in response to the growth in running than any form of catalyst.
Is it Investment?
Belfast City Council recently completed a £2.3m refurbishment of the Mary Peter's Track, which has one of the most scenic track settings anywhere in the world. Further investment in School facilities (e.g. Boy's Model) has also helped but most clubs and vast majority of runners don't run on tracks. Even North Belfast, who can attract 100 to their own club training, train on a track without proper floodlights. Orangegrove have also had 100 at training, with many other clubs across Belfast without facilities. Belfast Running Club trains one night a week on a gravel often waterlogged pitch. Belfast has no shortage of hills, parks, and roads which can make brilliant training runs, so its probably not facilities.
In addition to public investment, there are now a number of commercial operations focusing on the running sector. Apart from the new race event companies, dedicated shops such @purerunningshop and Podium for Sport have helped to feed and supply this new demand. Sadly, we've also lost Athletic Stores and there still seems few places with knowledgeable staff able to advise on the correct running shoe. Then again, @barefootni will argue we shouldn't be wearing running shoes at all!
Is it down to PR?
Running has come on from the days of silver shadow training shoes and short shorts on beanpole runners. However, for all today's fast wick fibres, £100 running shoes, fitness apps and GPS watches... most of the current crop would struggle to compete with the runners of 20-30 years ago. Maybe it is the hype, the constant 'motivational' ads (just do it, impossible is nothing, etc) but its probably just that running can be done at any age, started at any time and is probably the easiest sport/activity to start beyond walking. Seeing other people, word of mouth and increasing opportunities all play their part. Being perceived as neutral, and open to all ages also helps.
We even have a Lord Mayor who encourages people to join him once a week for a 5 mile run, so we certainly have some unique characters and circumstances in Belfast :-)
So why are more people running?
In my opinion, it's a combination of many things:
- People's desire to get fitter and appreciation of benefits of healthier life style
- Pro-active work of good people, volunteers, clubs and coaches
- Clubs, and club members being increasingly open to help non-club members and offering regular free run opportunities making it easier to engage with clubs
- Successful adoption of UK programmes to NI (e.g. JogBelfast, parkrun)
- An increasing choice of interesting & well organised races with chipped timing
- Races are becoming events with a social angle, with organisers providing soup and/or communal refreshments afterwards, and suggesting places for people to stay
- More publicity, more technology, and dare I suggest 'running is becoming fashionable'
- Good old fashioned word of mouth and increasing people willing to consider running. Seeing other people running also acts as a constant reminder
- New running fitness qualifications (e.g. 1 day Leader in Running Fitness course)
- Social aspects of meeting people to run with and share running experiences
- People who stop playing sports in their 30s look to running to retain the fitness and social aspects of sport. Conversely those who never played sport, see running as something they can try without too much pressure. The rise of work relay teams (Belfast Marathon), parkruns and sponsored charitable runs have all helped.
If you're not running, consider starting and if you're not sure how give us a buzz at BelfastRunning@gmail.com or via @BelfastRunning or check out belfastrunning.com for advice. Either way, note that despite Belfast's stereotypical reputation for boozing, bombs, belligerence, and Ulster Fries, increasingly every morning and evening, rain or shine, people across the city are choosing to get on their feet; and taking it to the streets one step at a time. For no matter who you are, how fast you go or where you run to... we can only ever take it one step at a time. Long may it continue!