Thanks to Game of Thrones, Derry Girls and Brexit, Northern Ireland has enjoyed more media attention recently than it has done for years. But far away from the border (sixteen miles to be precise), there was something very different on people’s minds in early April 2019 as one of the most popular half-marathon races on the local circuit celebrated its thirtieth anniversary.
Shielding my eyes from the glare of unexpected sun overhead, I shuffled through the twitchy sea of nerves and bleeping Garmins at the start line and worked my way into prime position like a festival goer squirming into a mosh pit. I tried to stifle a yawn as I stretched out my hamstrings. It had been an early start for us, and I’m not a morning person. I never have been. The same couldn’t be said, however, for the man standing a few metres away from us posing for photos dressed as Superman.
Me and my running buddy, Takashi, had already taken on board a nutritious pre-race bacon bap from a greasy roadside deli counter less than an hour before the race. As we stood waiting for the starter’s orders it felt like if we made it past mile six without seeing our breakfast again it would be a miracle. Before I knew exactly what was going on, a countdown echoed through the speakers and an airhorn blast sent us on our way.
As almost two and a half thousand brightly-attired punters set off under the arch and down the opening hill, the atmosphere for the first mile through the winding town centre roads was something else. Yes, the weather might have played a part in bringing the crowds out, but everywhere you looked you could see faces young and old lining the streets. We were swept through a wall of noise as butchers, bakers, hairdressers and greengrocers spilled on to Market Street to offer vocal support from their doorsteps. Even when we crossed the bridge and climbed out of town the cheering was still ringing in our ears.
Having spent the past year training for an ultra I’d grown used to churning out long slow miles, meaning I’d kind of forgotten how to pace myself over this distance. It had been three years since my last proper half-marathon race. Back then I was fairly handy over thirteen miles, but now I didn’t feel so sure if my legs could still turn at pace for so long. I settled on aiming for seven-minute miles, and waited to see how long it would take for that plan to go up in smoke.
We weren’t even two miles into the race when the hills arrived. A few weeks previously, we had chatted to some members of the local running club who had reliably informed us that this year’s course was “flatter”. What we didn’t realise at the time was that “flatter” did not in any way mean flat. As we rolled from one awkward uphill stretch to the next, I tried to lock myself into a rhythm and forget about how much my quads were howling at me.
A handful of nurses stood outside the hospital shouting words of encouragement at us as we passed and did their very best to make it look like they weren’t just taking an extended break from work. Even right out in the sticks, families sat perched on deckchairs outside their homes and little children held out hands for high fives. Just after the half way point we cut through the busy urban streets once more and were given a guard of honour from what now seemed like the entire population of the town. One girl held up a sign saying “ALL THIS WORK JUST TO GET A FREE BANANA!” To be fair, as she stood there in her sunglasses with an ice-cream in her other hand, she probably had a point.
Plastic cups half-full of water at the aid stations became more precious as the race wore on and the heat refused to let up. As we scampered past the impromptu rave being facilitated by race volunteers outside Cappagh Parish Church at mile 11 the countryside opened up and suddenly there were a lot less buildings and bushes to hide in the shade of. I started passing exhausted athletes, reduced to a walk by a combination of the red-hot temperature and their own overambitious pacing.
The seven minute miles were beginning to take their toll on me too as my legs grew heavier. Thankfully the town crowds reappeared not long after and the leisure centre came into view through the trees on Old Mountfield Road. We bounded onto the gravel track and made our bid for home. I couldn’t actually remember the last time I’d set foot on a running track, and did my utmost to channel my inner Usain Bolt as I lumbered past three fellow athletes in my lunge for the line.
With a medal draped around my neck, I joined the finishers in steadily moving towards the sports hall in the leisure centre, where the mother of all post-race feeds was being dished out courtesy of the race sponsors. What seemed like a neverending stream of people then came over and patted me on the back, congratulating me simply for finishing, making me more than a little concerned about just how wrecked I must have looked at that moment in time. I grabbed a sandwich and headed for the showers.
As I took off my socks in the changing rooms, a grey-haired man sitting opposite me wearing nothing but a heart-rate monitor shouted over in his thick as treacle Tyrone accent, “What’d you think of that then, big fella?” I smiled and explained that more than anything else I was just glad to survive to the end considering the heat. “Aye sure now,” he replied, “another couple of years and you’ll find it a walk in the park.” It turned out he had done this race since its very early days and he wasn’t the first person I met to enthuse about his countless fond memories of it.
Freshly preened, I wandered back to join some pals from my own running club for a second go at the buffet lunch. The warm buzz of old friends catching up with one another and new friends being made continued in the hall long after the last runner had come in. We hung around to applaud the race winners on stage for their prizes, before sauntering back around the sun-soaked lake to our cars. All the while replenishing our energy stores by eating whatever we could lay our hands on.
Never has a free banana tasted so good.
This year’s Omagh Half Marathon is on Saturday 28/3/2020 and entries (£30) are still open. register online at https://athleticsni.org/Fixtures/Spar-Omagh-Half-Marathon