IT’S the biggest women’s event of its kind anywhere in the world. An annual 10k road race which started in 1983, the Women’s Mini Marathon (WMM) has grown to a 40,000-strong sea of women taking to the streets of Dublin each year.
arking 40 years this year, the Vhi WMM has seen more than one million women pound the pavements of Dublin, raising in excess of €225m for charities on their way.
Now a huge cultural, sporting and fundraising fixture, it started out simply as a way of encouraging more women into running. After organising the first Dublin Marathon in 1980, Frank Slevin and a group of others heavily involved in athletics felt it would be a good idea to give women their own space to run a women-only event.
While organisers thought they’d only get a few thousand entries, they began to flood in once it was announced. Some 9,000 women lined up on the first start line in 1983, with numbers swelling every year since, peaking at a record attendance of 41,000 in 2014.
While the race does attract elites — Sonia O’Sullivan has clocked the fastest time running the race in 31m 28secs in 2003 and fellow athlete Catherina McKiernan has won numerous times — it was always about the everywoman, who crossed the finishing line red-faced and jubilant. According to organisers, two thirds of participants are walkers, with women of every ability welcome. From the very beginning, inclusivity was at the heart of the WMM and race organisers do make sure people with disabilities can make the race their own.
Its youngest ever participant was 14 years old — in keeping with rules that you have to be at least 4 to enter — and the oldest was 94, with women of all ages and generations taking part. One woman even got engaged to her partner after she crossed the finishing line in 2017.
Few participants have been more decorated than Paralympian Patrice Dockery, who won the wheelchair section nine years in a row. Throughout her racing career, wherever she was in the world, she’d always try to make it back to Dublin to take part in the WMM.
Patrice, who retired in 2008 after the Beijing Paralympics, believes there’s nothing quite like the WMM anywhere in the world. “When I was at the top of my game, competing in international events at the time, I’d make sure I’d come home. It was an indicator of how my season was going and I was proud to race around Dublin with the crowds shouting my name, feeling the adrenaline as I came over Leeson Street Bridge with the people willing me on. I just loved it,” she says.
For her, the camaraderie and chatting with the other women made it a very powerful event. “You could literally feel all those women’s individual stories. It was always very open and the organisers allowed my coach to race with me. She did it on her bike – that’s how she coached me. I knew all I had to do was concentrate on what my goal was. My sport was wheelchair racing and I was always treated as an elite athlete by the organisers,” she says.
For Frank Slevin (80), the event’s first race director, the WMM marked a change in how women socialised. For the first time they started forming groups to train together. This built up momentum in their own communities and a whole new community concept was born, he says.
He sees the WMM as a “gift to the women of Ireland” and one that they took to their hearts and held closely. His own wife Kathleen raced every year, missing one year when she was pregnant with their daughter Catherine. She passed away in 2017.
Frank recalls that in 1988 when race day was scheduled for June 19, he got wind of a Government plan to host a welcome home party for the Irish soccer team, who’d put in a legendary performance at the European Championships in Stuttgart.
Plans were underway to host the team at St Stephen’s Green, which would have resulted in a logistical nightmare for the WMM organisers. “We got in touch with as many female TDs in the Dáil as we could. The football welcome party went to Parnell Square and we won the day,” says Frank.
Trish Horgan was on the start line in 1983 and she’s lined up at every one since. For her, it’s the most special feeling in the world and one he wouldn’t miss. When she puts on her runners for this year’s event, she knows emotions will be running high.
Now in her late 60s, Trish, from Dublin’s Collins Avenue, was a young mum of four when she first got involved in training for the WMM. She remembers how she’d head out for her run as soon as her husband Paddy would come in from work, just to get an hour of headspace from the four kids under seven in the house.
That very first event was a day she’ll never forget. “It was just electric. There was someone there to warm us up and there was music and when we got to the finishing line all the husbands were there with the prams and the babies and the women running into the Shelbourne Hotel to use the loo,” she says.
She believes that the event was a massive step forward for women, allowing them to feel stronger in themselves. “It made me realise that anything is achievable. It doesn’t matter if you walk or if you run. You’re there and you’re in the whole of your health and you’re thinking of the people who don’t have the health you have,” she says.
When she had a health scare 14 years ago and needed to have a pacemaker fitted, which resulted in damage to her lung, she believes that her fitness was a game-changer in terms of her recovery. Thyroid removal surgery the following year didn’t stop her taking part, and Trish says every single doctor she spoke to told her that her fitness had a lot to do with her recovery.
That feeling of still being able to do it is what makes it special for her now. She leaves her leggings and runners out at night so she has no excuses not to get out for her half hour’s training in the morning. “I’ll be doing this as long as I can. If you don’t use it, you lose it. Life can be very tough on women. You can feel you’re not doing enough with the kids. But three or four times a week, if you can say ‘this is my time’, you’ll always feel much better coming back home from a run,” she says.
“The Women’s Mini Marathon is about what you can do. It’s not a competition. Of course, it’s great to see the elites in there, but it’s about the people who put in that two hours to cross the finish line — every single person is special,” adds Trish.
If anyone embodied the spirit of the WMM of women celebrating women, it was Betty Hand, who passed away in 2019 at the age of 84, having completed 37 events. This year her daughter Martina, who has also racked up more mini marathons than she can remember, will be carrying the photograph of her mother across the finish line.
Martina, now in her late 40s, remembers her mother taking up running in her 40s when she was only eight or ten years old. “She moved to Blanchardstown in the late 1970s and there was nothing to do. Coolmine Leisure Centre opened up and she joined a few other women in a meet-and-train group,” Martina explains.
As she grew, Martina, the only girl in a family of four, would join her mother at the start line of the WMM. She laughs that her mother was in the runners section while she was strictly with the walkers, and she’d find her mother waiting for her at the Shelbourne Hotel when it was all over. “I was like her shadow. I used to do them in my own time and Mammy would be competing with her friends,” says Martina.
In 2016 Betty suffered a stroke. She completed her 35th WMM in 2017 her wheelchair with Martina pushing her. For her 36th event, in 2018, Betty was also in her wheelchair but walked across the finishing line, with a photographer capturing her elation to step onto what was for her, hallowed ground.
By 2019, Betty had suffered another stroke and was in Cappagh Hospital in a recovery ward. On the morning of the WMM Martina signed her mother out of hospital under medical supervision and they did the event together for the last time. Betty died on February 22, 2020, and now Martina is assembling what she calls ‘Betty’s Army’ to help her marshal her strength to do the event this year.
“Mammy would say to me ‘there’s always hope’. She used to say that when you go out running, you leave your troubles on the road. I have to keep doing it,” she says.
Fundraising has always been a massive dimension of the WMM. According to this year’s race director David O’Leary, a stalwart of the event for many years, it’s estimated that over €225m has been raised by women for various charitable causes.
Leading a team of people that will swell to 1,000 on race day, he believes there is nothing quite like the WMM. “I get very emotional about it. I think it’s one of the most important cultural events in the country. There’s nothing like it anywhere else in the world,” he says.
As people line up to run or walk and to raise money for causes that have become dear to them, they recall lost children, siblings and parents. And as well as celebrating success, the WMM is for many women, a way of remembering loved ones and finding hope in the darkest of times.
For 43-year-old Lisa Kelleher, from the heart of Dublin’s Liberties, keeping her niece Shannon’s memory alive and raising money in her name is what makes her put on her runners and take part.
In 2012, at the age of 13, Shannon took her own life, plunging Lisa’s family and the entire community into shock. After her death, Lisa and Shannon’s mother Sandra, decided to try to raise money for a counselling service in her honour.
“Shannon’s Hope Line is only a small charity but we are growing every year, and if it only helps one person, that will be enough. It’s become so important to me. I’d been doing it since I was 23, but after Shannon passed away I became more serious about it. Now I’ve graduated to the runners section. Every year I bring Shannon with me. This is so close to my heart. When you see people out on the street supporting you, it means the world,” says Lisa.
It’s the sense of freedom in running and crossing the finish line that Rosemary Kunene will never forget. The first time she ran the WMM, it was in 2019 and the single mum of three was living in a direct provision centre.
Originall from Eswatini, formerly known as Swaziland, Rosemary came to Ireland in 2014 and lived for five years in a direct provision centre in Portlaoise, Co Laois. When the Irish Refugee Council (IRC) organised for a number of women to train and take part in the Women’s Mini Marathon, Rosemary jumped at the chance.
“It was a chance to meet up with other women from other direct provision centres. I wouldn’t say I was a runner, but I liked to go to the gym. Doing something physical was a way of maintaining my mental health,” she says.
“It’s the feeling of being with other women from all these different walks of life. I ran and jogged and walked a bit that first time. At the end I got a burst of energy and ran. It was the fresh air and the sense of freedom I had as I was running, seeing all the happy faces — I still have that feeling,” she says.
“Back then, I was still living in the direct provision centre and I rarely had that sense of freedom. Back then you were always told what to do. That sense of freedom wasn’t there,” says Rosemary, who has since moved into a house with her family and works part time as an education assistant with the IRC.
“For me, education is something that kept me going during my time in direct provision. Because of the way I felt in 2019, I felt I needed to do the WMM again,” says Rosemary, who is training with a friend for this year’s 10k.
General entries for this year’s Vhi Women’s Mini Marathon cost €30 plus postage and packing. For more information see www.vhiwomensminimarathon.ie This year the VhiWMM will host Dublin 10k Championships. Participants who are registered with Dublin athletics clubs can enter to compete in the county championship event once they select the category they wish to enter and provide a valid AAI registration number when they are registering for the 2022 Vhi Women’s Mini Marathon.
https://www.independent.ie/life/health-wellbeing/womens-mini-marathon/the-womens-mini-marathon-a-simple-idea-that-would-become-an-irish-phenomenon-41413189.html The Women’s Mini Marathon: a simple idea that would become an Irish phenomenon