The explosive growth of the Dublin Marathon

Photo: Dublin Marathon

Race Director Jim Aughney discusses the boom of Ireland’s premier 26.2 mile event and the marathon mission that supports Irish distance running standards.

The 39th Dublin Marathon took place on October 28, and within five days, the first 7,000 ‘early bird entries’ for the 2019 event were already sold. Five days into November and that figure rose to 10,000 – and it’s now at 12,000 and counting.

“Because next year is the 40th anniversary race we knew there would be great excitement and that we would probably sell out early, but we didn’t expect it to sell out so quickly,” says race director Jim Aughney, who celebrated 21 years in the job this year.

In the past, the Dublin Marathon has taken a stand at the London Marathon in April to promote the race, but the extra promotion is no longer really needed for Ireland’s premier marathon.

“Entry for this year’s race had closed in last April and so we wondered whether we should go to London next year at all,” says Aughney. “In the end, we did book a stand.”

Now it is likely that all 20,000 places for the 40th Dublin Marathon, with new partner KBC Bank, could be gone by Christmas.

“We got 1,736 immediately from pre-sales to people who had run this year,” he explains. “Our record so far was 2,352 entries on November 2. “In the very first marathon of 1980, we had an entry of 2,997. It’s a nice complaint to have!”

Photo: Dublin Marathon

The flow has stemmed somewhat but with up to 600 entries coming in most days, it’s pretty obvious that the race will be another sell-out.

Anyone taking a walk around Dublin on Sunday, October 28 would appreciate the enormity of the task facing Aughney and the Dublin Marathon organisers every year.

The full board of the limited company which organises the marathon is chaired by Liam Ó Riain, with Dave Humphries as secretary.

Other members are Eugene Coppinger, who looks after the elite entry list and the baggage area; Paul Barnes, safety; May Tan, medical officer; Neil Kennedy, start/finish; Mick McCartan, course director; Gerry Carr, course; and Dave Hudson, logistics.

All members are volunteers and must stand for re-election at the annual meeting each year. They meet once a month. By comparison, the London Marathon has 19 full-time staff although, as an event, it is quite a different animal.

Carol McCabe, the office manager, is the only full-time employee of the marathon, although others come in to help with the race series.

Even Aughney, a 2:35 marathon man, is a part-timer, continuing to work four days a week with Eir, and keeping himself fit by running the three or four miles in and out to work each day. On Fridays, he works on the marathon, which also absorbs most of his evenings and weekends.

“We meet all the senior stewards during the year and go over plans,” he says. “We need to keep them on side; we don’t want them reading of new developments – for example, that KBC is our new title sponsors – in the media before we’ve told them.”

So how has the Dublin Marathon developed and grown?

“There were a number of catalysts down the years, some of them planned; others where we got lucky,” he says.

Although entries had increased to 11,076 by 1982, the event had many nervous years when sponsors were hard to attract and numbers fluctuated. In 1987, numbers fell to below 4,000 for the first time since the inaugural year.

A year later, Dublin’s Millennium celebrations saw a big increase in numbers to almost 9,000, but in 1989, that number dropped back to just over 3,000. Only in 1999, for the 20th edition of the race, did numbers recover and the upward trend would continue.

“Before the 1999 race, we had decided to approach the big American charities,” he explains. “They had approached Dave Bedford of the London Marathon and he had told them they weren’t welcome. Why not come to Dublin, we said?

“That year, we put on a special registration for them in the Gresham Hotel and I was standing there handing out numbers when my phone rang. It was Frank Greally ringing to tell me that Noel Carroll, one of the race founders, had passed on.”

In 2000, there were more American than Irish in the race – but that soon changed, with Aughney adding: “Then came 9/11 in 2001 – the charities were committed for that year, but we knew it was the last year they would come.”

Encouraging more Irish runners to take part

Around 2007, the board came up with the idea of the Races Series, involving three races already on the calendar which took place in the Phoenix Park in the summer and autumn – the Irish Runner 5-Mile, the Frank Duffy 10-Mile organised by the Civil Service club and the Business Houses Athletic Association Dublin Half Marathon.

Photo: Dublin Marathon

“The idea was to get the Irish up off their armchairs and out running,” he explains. “We didn’t include the marathon because we thought that might frighten people off. Our idea was to stop short at the half marathon knowing that if people got to that stage, they might then transfer over to the marathon. We were right – in 2008, the Irish entry for the marathon began to rise.

“This had two big impacts: local entries increased but also it got people out on to the streets to support the runners. We then added cheering zones to keep the kids entertained which helped create the atmosphere all along the route.”

Moving marathon day to a Sunday

The most recent catalyst for the race was the switch in 2016 from the traditional ‘Marathon Monday’ to a Sunday.

“It means we got more overseas visitors as well as runners from Northern Ireland and England, where they don’t have an October bank holiday,” he says. “We were also pleasantly surprised to get an increase in numbers from outside Dublin – entries from Cork, Limerick and Galway are all up substantially. People can run their marathon on the Sunday and then recover on Monday before returning to work.”

That year of 2016 was a sell-out at 19,000 entries.

“We weren’t sure whether it was the change to a Sunday or that the special medal for the 1916 centenary which was a big draw,” he ponders. “We have always had big entries on significant dates, with the numbers then dropping back a year later.”

That did not happen in 2017, with the limit increased to 20,000.

“We realised then that the numbers weren’t going to drop off and this year, we had to close entry at the end of April,” he happily explains. “In the first couple of weeks after, we had 1,386 queries.

“When they saw that entry had closed they would ring the office to see if by any chance they could get an entry. So we knew that there was a demand for at least 22,000 entries – maybe even 23,000 or 25,000.”

Of the 20,000 who won a coveted place this year, 16,246 finished; some dropped out but many more never got to the start line.

“We have changed a few things for next year,” he says. “If people enter now and then find they can’t run for any reason, we will give them their money back taking only a small administration fee. We will then open up entry again with those numbers.

“But we will have a cut-off date since we need to give people taking up the extra numbers time to train. It can’t be as late as September since we also have to order t-shirts and medals. We will decide on a cut-off date no later than January.”

Photo: Dublin Marathon

After six years with SSE Airtricity, the title sponsorship has moved seamlessly to KBC, unlike in 2013 when the event took place without a major sponsor and, with no budget for overseas athletes, threw up two Irish winners in Sean Hehir and Maria McCambridge.

“KBC already has experience of road racing through sponsoring the Night Run,” he says. “We hope they will help with the promotion of the race. We are not really looking for a sponsor; more a partner who will work with us and help us improve the race.”

In 1980, the first ever Dublin Marathon was sponsored by Radio 2 and televised live. That was soon reduced to a highlights programme screened later in the day; with RTE strapped for cash, that arrangement ended in 2011. Over the past two years, the race has been live streamed.

“TV would be nice, but we realised it probably wouldn’t happen,” he explains. “Televising the race is complicated – you have to film everything twice with a helicopter in the air and motorbikes on the route, so for us, live streaming was the way to go.

“In 2016, we live streamed for the first time but without much fanfare. This year we publicised it and we were on the air from 8.30am to 4.30 pm with five commentators. It’s now on our YouTube Channel forever and a day!”

So what are the major challenges facing the new and expanded Dublin Marathon?

The course itself is not a problem since the introduction of the wave system.

“This year, we changed the wave system starting them 15 minutes apart rather than ten minutes,” says the Race Director. “Also we didn’t allow people to pick their own waves because too many people were putting themselves down for wave 1. So we now have four separate races, which has alleviated problems on the course. We could take a lot more on the route.”

The big problem comes when the stream of at least 16,000 people approach the narrow finish area at Merrion Square North.

“We can have 177 runners coming in together and – for some reason! – they all stop running when they cross the finish line. We want them to keep moving, to pick up their t-shirt, go to the baggage area and then move away.

“We can have 8,000 in the baggage area and we need them to move on so others can move in. In 2016, it was a lovely day and we had a big problem because people came into the baggage area and sat down on the pavements – they were almost having a picnic!”

The Marathon Mission to support Irish distance running

A major innovation introduced by the Dublin Marathon board a decade ago was the Marathon Mission.

“We held our first Marathon Mission meeting in the West County Hotel, Chapelizod in January 2009,” explains Aughney. “In 2008, Pauline Curley had made it to the 2008 Olympics on a B standard. Martin Fagan got the men’s A standard but he didn’t travel. That was all.

“Winning times by Irish athletes in the marathon were deteriorating not only in our race but also in the Irish Championships and we wanted to see what we could do to improve standards and by extension to get far more Irish athletes qualifying for major championships. We said at the time that we wanted to give the selectors a headache – and I think we’ve succeeded there!”

The philosophy of the Marathon Mission is simple: gather qualifying athletes together and listen to what they have to say.

“Our approach is to ask what can we do for you today, not this is what you have to do: you have to run this race or that race,” he says. “We don’t claim to know anything – we’re not coaches.

“Athletes have different approaches and one cap does not fit all. What we do it to try and get athletes to race each other and if they can’t find the races here, we’ll try and find competition for them.

“For example, we brought in the Scottish lads who could break 50 minutes for the Frank Duffy 10-Mile. When Lizzie Lee was thinking of moving up to the marathon, we suggested that she go to Berlin and run the marathon for the experience and then go back a year later and race it.”

The approach has resonated well with athletes among them Lee and Mick Clohisey, who finished third and sixth overall and best of the Irish in this year’s marathon.

Photo: Dublin Marathon

RELATED: Mick Clohisey and Lizzie Lee win national titles at Dublin Marathon

The Marathon Mission also recruits previous champions to speak to the group, among them John Treacy, who remains the Irish record holder for the distance.

“We brought over Andy Hobdell from the UK who coaches Paul Pollock and Kevin Seaward,” he says. “Athletes and coaches can get new ideas from meeting up and listening to each other.”

For a second time this year, Pollock, the 2012 Irish champion, trained a team for Dublin, with the Marathon Mission giving him a number of free entries. Now Matt Shields has started a Marathon Mission in the North, with Eugene Coppinger attending the first meeting.

In a further incentive for Irish runners to take on Dublin, the prize fund was turned around to favour local athletes.

“We had the ambition to have the first such 2:10 marathon on the course and then we had a sub 2:09 minute time,” he says. “We achieved both those goals using time bonuses as an incentive to bring in international athletes.

“So then we thought let’s take out the time bonuses for international athletes and put in time bonuses for Irish athletes instead. It meant that this year Lizzie Lee probably got more than the winning man.”

It also changed the nature of the race.

“In the past, the athletes were eyeballs out going for a fast time, now they were bunching from the start and running the race, which made it a lot more interesting,” he explains. “For us, this year was almost the perfect race with Lizzie and Mick up there.”

The race organisers take care to pick the right athletes from abroad for the elite field and says: “There’s no point us bringing in, say, a woman who has run 2:25 and who will just demoralise the Irish because they can’t get anywhere near her.”

Finally, Aughney feels that, with standards rising, the Irish could snatch a medal at the next European team marathon championships.

“Most of the team selected for this year’s European Championships team marathon came from the Marathon Mission,” he proudly says. “We were very unlucky with Paul Pollock getting injured and having a bad run and Stephen Scullion deciding to run the 10,000m instead of the marathon.

“I would love to see us winning a European team medal – and I think we can do it.”

Aughney promises that next year’s 40th anniversary race will be special, especially for the 13 stalwarts who have run all 39 Dublin Marathons to date.

“We gave them all free entry for the 25th anniversary race so I’m not sure what we’ll do. But we’ll have to do something!” he adds.

RELATED: Mick Clohisey’s Zen-like approach to running is paying dividends

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