Whether you are a seasoned or a novice runner, everyone knows the effort it takes to run a marathon. For many people this is the ultimate goal but while some are happy to take things a little easier when they have completed a 26.2-mile challenge, others are bitten by a bug which spurs them on to take part again and again.
Mary Nolan Hickey knows exactly what this is like as she began running in the 1960s and when it started, she decided to take part in the first ever Dublin Marathon in 1980. Since then, she has participated every year.
“I started running as a sprinter in 1968 and did track and country for about 12 years,” said the mother-of-three. “Then when the Dublin Marathon was established, I was interested in giving it a go, even though I had only really done one not-so-good 18-mile race. But before I knew it, I was on the starting line, wondering what was going to happen.
“I remember being full of mixed emotions as I could see so many people getting into trouble quite early on. I also had some issues when I hit 16 miles as my calf muscles were in a very bad way. But I had to find a way to keep going, so I started running on my heels to stop my legs from cramping completely. I remember that from 18 miles to the finish, it was a really tough struggle. But I made it and finished up well in the women’s race at a time of 3 hours and 38 minutes.”
After completing her first marathon, Mary began to improve on her times and quickly became hooked on the sport – and along with the Dublin Marathon becoming an annual event for her, she has also travelled all over the world to participate in various races, including the Marathon de Sable in the Sahara Desert, which took six days to complete.
For the past two years, the Wicklow woman, who runs with Sli Cualann Athletics Club, has been helping people to promote their health and fitness through exercise as she says it is vital for positive mental health.
And not only does she spend her time running and keeping in shape for the next Dublin Marathon, but she also engages in other physical activities including rowing with Arklow Rowing Club, which saw her rowing with an all-female team to Wales.
She also came up with the idea of running the entire coast of Ireland from one RNLI station to the next in order to raise funds – and raised over €70,000 for the RNLI.
“Running marathons is not for everyone but almost anyone could get it done,” she insists. “Over the years I have helped hundreds of people get to the start line and more importantly get over the finish line, so it can be done. But if people are thinking of running a marathon purely in terms of general fitness, then in my opinion a 5k or 10k run or up to 10 miles or a half marathon would probably be better as it takes less hours of training and commitment.”
Exercising in the fresh air is one of the few activities we have been able to keep doing for the almost two years since lockdowns were introduced. But even someone as fit and determined as Mary is not immune to becoming unwell and although she didn’t get tested, she believes she had Covid-19 at the beginning of the pandemic.
However, she didn’t let that stop her and although it took a long time for her to recover, she made sure to take part in the Dublin Marathon, albeit in an unusual fashion – and within the government-mandated 5k radius from her home.
“Early last year, I found it really difficult to run as my breathing was very bad and I spent about a month or so only being able to walk and was falling asleep every time I sat down,” she says. “But, despite this, I kept just trying and eventually I could run a very slow 5k and made the decision to do the Marathon virtually – and on the day itself (October 2020), I ran it on my own, leaving the house at 7am with a small rucksack containing two mobile phones and one watch.
“Getting through it took lots of imagination as I was obviously missing the super support of the Dublin crowds. But when I finished my 26.2 miles at the local branch of Tesco, a few running buddies turned up to cheer me on at the finish line.”
Mary ran the Dublin Marathon in Kildare (again, due to restrictions) a few months ago – and has no intention of hanging up her trainers any time soon.
“I was put on inhalers by the GP (after the episode in March 2020) and the impact of running for over 50 years has taken its toll on my body,” she admits. “But running is a way of life for me and like life itself, it is sometimes very hard, but it is also sometimes full of joy. I have met lifelong friends through sport and have travelled all over the world, always paying my own way and always enjoying the simple amateur athlete life.
“So when the Dublin Marathon comes around again, whether in real life or virtually and I am lucky enough to still be healthy, I will trot around it again.”
Defying the odds on the road to glory