Report by Padraic Moran
Siobhan, Ann, Eileen, Audrai and Phil had agreed to enter a Sportsworld Ladies’ team into the Cork Marathon relay on 3rd June, the Sunday of the June bank holiday weekend. Not having anything else to do, and faced with the prospect of minding five handbags on a Cork street for the day, I put the word out looking for a team of my own. As luck would have it, Eileen’s Killarney-based brother-in-law Mike had four runners ready to go, with one free slot remaining. Sign me up! My Masters status and slightly-less-than-elite athletic capabilities didn’t seem to matter to Mike; the team was part of the Cork Sanctuary Runners Cork Marathon Relay initiative so inclusion and diversity was the priority on the day.
The Sanctuary Runners initiative gets Irish people running with asylum seekers and refugees in the marathon as part of an initiative to show solidarity with those living in the direct provision system, and to build friendships and community. The Sanctuary Runners relay teams are mixed teams of Irish runners and residents of the direct provision centres from around county Cork, all with an interest in running as well as in establishing and building contacts in both communities. Some have run distances up to full marathons in their home countries; for others, this will be their first running event. Some assistance was provided to help with running shoes, training, transport and accommodation for the event. About 50 direct provision residents took part in the initiative, with an additional 100 people from the broader community.
The marathon course is divided into 5 convenient, if not equally-measured, sections, with each team member running one or more sections. The team members between them run the entire 42.2km marathon route. The legs vary in length from 7.4 to 9.3km with the shorter legs being slightly hillier than the longer ones. The first-leg runner starts with the main marathon group at 08:30, and the final-leg runner finishes with the elites, looking fresh as a daisy. In theory at least.
The relay sections were from St Patrick’s Street to Silversprings; to Ringmahon Road; to Victoria Road; to Model Farm Road; and back to the finish line on St Patrick’s Street.
Our team is from the Drishane Castle direct provision centre in Millstreet. In addition to Mike and me, we have two men and one lady from Africa, who while not actual Kenyan elite runners, have all the enthusiasm, fitness and drive to promise a very good race. Pierre (from Cameroon) is the leader and team coach; a fitness nut with the body to prove it, he is surely Millstreet’s Mr. Motivator. Reportedly an accomplished kick-boxer, he’s no slouch as a runner either. Zandille (from Zimbabe) is Pierre’s wife and, I suspect, his personal project for the Cork marathon relay. She’s a real charmer with a beaming smile. It’s her first real road race, and she’s super-excited; she has brought a Zimbabwean flag to carry to the finish line. Jimmy is from Burundi. He’s quiet and unassuming, but of all of us he’s the one who looks like a real distance runner. Slight, light and full of energy.
One of my challenges, and it’s an unfortunate oversight for someone about to run a relay race, is that I have never met any of my team mates. We’ve swapped mugshots on the WhatsApp Group; but Mike is coming over from Kerry on Sunday morning straight to the start line so I won’t meet him until transition. The rest of us are at race HQ on Albert Quay, where the relay shuttle busses will leave from. I trot on into City Hall, and as luck would have it I recognise my Millstreet team-mates pinning their race numbers onto their sky-blue Sanctuary Runners t-shirts. There’s not much chat at first; the usual pre-race mixture of excitement and nerves has set in and everyone is focused on the job at hand. But when the official duties are finished; numbers on, bags dropped etc. and everyone’s happy that they’re ready to go, we have more time for introductions and strategy.
Mike is on the first leg. I hop on the relay shuttle bus at 08:00 to the Silversprings Hotel, and bumped into Denis McCaul in a Sportsworld singlet. Out the road in a few minutes, and in plenty of time for warm-up and strides before the elites and the first of the first-leg runners arrived. Gary O’Hanlon, not content with running a marathon without a handicap, was giving Peter Somba a piggy-back at this early stage in the race. Maybe I’m wrong but Ann Henderson was close behind them and may have run a number of sub-4 minute miles to hand the wrist-band baton over to Phil in excellent time. I was keeping my eyes peeled for a tall, youthful-looking Kerryman in a blue shirt answering to the name of “Mike”; luckily I didn’t have long to wait, and also luckily I picked the right guy, as I didn’t have to mug him for his wrist-band. A quick hello and I’m off like a self-controlled version of the clappers.
I’ve got 8.9km ahead of me and I might have volunteered to do it at 4:30 pace. I have a 09:50 appointment with Jimmy at the Ringmahon Road and I don’t want to keep him waiting. Someone told me that the only hill was coming out of the Jack Lynch tunnel. Someone else said “don’t forget the Mahon on-ramp”. I’m not very familiar with Cork, so I thought the Mahon on-ramp was out at the Dunkettle roundabout. Not so, apparently, and it’s a pity no one told me those other hills either. Nonetheless, I made it to the hand-over point more or less at the appointed time, and picked Jimmy out from the crowd on the side of the road, among about a dozen other Sanctuary third-leggers. Job done! Time to relax. I looked around. “So, who’s finished and who still has to run?” I asked. There were a few giggles. “You’re the first Sanctuary Runner home so far!”. Not bad!
Denis had arrived; and Phil had passed the baton to Audrai. We were a few miles from HQ and it was a beautiful, hot sunny day. Given that it was still early in the day, showers and breakfast beckoned to the other two and they hopped on the bus, but I felt like cutting across through Mahon and the Blackrock Road to the next transition point and meeting up with Jimmy again. By the time I arrived at Victoria Road, Jimmy had already passed the wrist-band to Pierre. Eileen and Ann were watching out for Audrai, all on good time. The half-marathon runners had just joined the marathoners so the crowds had really swelled out, with about 16km left to go. Jimmy looked anything but tired, so we decided we’d re-join the route for another few miles. We were fairly shortly heading back out the South Link Road. I was back at race pace and Jimmy was ambling along beside me; but with 14km already done, I was nearly out of range, out of fuel, and in danger of crash-landing in The Lough like one of those RAF fighter-planes in Dunkirk. I turned back to City Hall for a change and a cuppa. Jimmy continued on to meet Pierre at the next transition point. The next time he was seen was 10 miles later crossing the finish line, having run three of the five relay legs at about 3:20:00 marathon pace!
Meanwhile, Pierre had finished his 9.2km leg to the final transition point and handed the wrist-band to Zandille. Pierre said afterwards it was that he wanted to share the excitement of the finish line with his beloved; Zandille said it was because he knew she wouldn’t run as fast if he wasn’t around; either way, they ran the last leg together, and crossed the finish line to a cheering crowd, with huge smiles and fist pumps. Funnily enough it was Pierre who had the Zimbabwean flag draped around his shoulders.
Ann, Audrai and Phil are back at the finish line by now; Eileen is on her way back from the final transition point. I finally get to properly meet my team-mate Mike; and we spread out along the route to cheer Siobhan over the finish line.
Our multi-national team has finished the marathon relay with an official time of 3:21:44; we’re 38th overall of 617 relay teams; and we’re the first Sanctuary Runners team to cross the line.
RocketMan HQ on Prince’s St. is hosting post-race refreshments for the Sanctuary Runners. A barbeque is provided courtesy of the OurTable pop-up restaurant – an inspiring initiative by Ellie Kisyombe, herself living in direct provision for eight years, and working to highlight the need for asylum seekers to be able to select and cook food for their families. The Lord Mayor of Cork visits, to say a few words, and to present some race medals.
All team members make it safely back to HQ with back-slaps and high-fives all round, team photographs and chat until it’s time for us to move on; back to Dublin for me, Killarney for Mike, and Millstreet for Jimmy, Pierre and Zandille. We all agreed that we had a thoroughly enjoyable and invigorating day, meeting people from different backgrounds and sharing an uplifting experience with them.
We didn’t discuss doing it again next year, because, well, who knows where we’ll be in twelve months’ time?