Marathon Legend Mary Nolan Reflects on Running the Lap of the Map at 65, Completing Every Dublin Marathon, and How Much Athletics has Changed in 50 Years

Marathon Legend Mary Nolan Reflects on Running the Lap of the Map at 65, Completing Every Dublin Marathon, and How Much Athletics has Changed in 50 Years Marathon Legend Mary Nolan Reflects on Running the Lap of the Map at 65, Completing Every Dublin Marathon, and How Much Athletics has Changed in 50 Years
Grace Fisher

Mary Nolan's been running for a long time: since 1968, in fact, when she started as a sprinter. Since then the 70-year-old has run the infamous Marathon Des Sables in the Sahara desert, ran the entire coast of Ireland at 65, and completed over 70 marathons, including every Dublin marathon since the race's inception in 1980.

Ahead of her 41st Dublin Marathon on Oct. 30th, Her Sport caught up with Nolan to hear her reflections and how much athletics has changed.

Nolan began running in 1968. She explained to Her Sport how there were no athletics for women or girls in her native town Arklow until two women, Nancy Quinn and Brenda Sinnot, came together and founded St. Benedict's AC.

Nolan herself joined the club almost accidentally:

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"My brother John was running in an all-male club and I said to him, 'What goes on out there?' And he said, 'Why don't you go out and find out?' So I wandered out in a mohair jumper and a pair of jeans, and I was looking at all these people running around and I was very shy — I was about to turn on my heel and go, and I got a tap on my shoulder, and it was Nancy Quinn, and she just said to me, 'Who are you?'"

On hearing that Mary was John Nolan's brother, Quinn set her in a race right away. Although the 16-year-old lost out "to a little one elbowing out ahead of me," destiny had struck; Nolan was hooked.

She ran everything; sprints, cross-country, track, and did shotputt, long jump, and high jump.

"I had reasonable success, I did reasonably well at the Leinster level" Nolan explains, "and then someone invented the Dublin City Marathon twelve years later."

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Nolan had only started running road races that year; at a half-marathon in Kilmacow in Waterford she discovered that she was more suited for long-distance running – although she and other female runners met with some skepticism.

"When we started to run half-marathons and marathons, the chaps would look at us to say 'What are you still doing here on the start-line?'" Nolan says with a laugh, but adds "We were kind of looked down on, I have to be honest... You'd be in a race, trying to keep up with whatever women were running in it, but the chaps hated being passed by a girl."

"But I noticed over the years the chaps started to respect the fact that women could actually run and run endurance races. I remember one race, a 15-miler, and I was winning it, I was struggling but I was winning it, and there were a couple of chaps running near me and I remember one who was really giving out saying to the other 'We're just trying to finish this damn thing, this girl here is trying to win the race!' It was a nice moment, a bit of respect."

As for now, Nolan says the culture has totally changed.

"Guys are so respectful now, because they know the women can totally pace in the races... It went from being you were treated like an alien in the beginning, there were only 14 women in the first Dublin Marathon, and you sort of feel 'oh, maybe I shouldn't be here.' It was tough in the first years, trying to get yourself established in those races with predominantly men in them, but that all changed. It's different now. It's come such a long way in a short time, but it still has a long way to go."

But Nolan kept going through it all. Oct. 30th will be her 41st Dublin Marathon — 43rd if you count 2020 and 2021's virtual marathons. Nolan has struggled with injuries this year, and says "I'll get myself to the starting line, and do my best to get myself to the finish line. It'll be a mystery tour." She says she plans to back off a bit after the race to give herself time to recover — although it's clear that, to Mary Nolan, 'backing off' may not mean what it does to the rest of us: she mentions swimming, the gym, classes, and 'other sports' as her next plans.

"We all have to give up at some point, but this isn't the year I want to end... I have a target in my mind of how many I want to do, but I don't want to say. People are asking me 'Why are you going, Mary, if you're injured?' and my answer to that is that Dublin will be my last marathon. If I don't go to the start line this year, it's gone, I'll never do it  again. I don't want to miss one year and then go back, I'm not there to compete, I'm just trying to hold on to this crazy record."

Nolan has of course faced lots of injuries during the years — she lightly mentions a broken shoulder, among other things — but she speaks with special frustration of her current struggle: "I hate Achilles injuries, they're horrible. I had my last physio session yesterday, and it's okay — let's put it this way, there'll be no records broken by me in Dublin. I'll use every minute that I'm allowed to have."

Nolan's certainly done the remarkable before; in 2018 she ran the entire coast of Ireland to raise money for the RNLI. She explains that the idea came to her because  "people in my hometown all said 'are you finished with all that running now Mary?' And it just kind of annoyed me! Just because you're getting older! You know, it's my sport, and I love it. So I started thinking, can I do a lap of the map?"

One challenge she faced was simply not getting lost; Nolan admits to having no sense of direction. "And then I thought I'll go around the whole coast of Ireland, North, South, East, and West. Literally by the coast, keeping the sea on my right, so I can't get lost. Go far enough, I'll end up back in Arklow eventually."

"And then I thought, 'but why would you do that?' I didn't know the coast — it's hilly on the coast, let me tell you — I didn't know the distance, I didn't know how long it would take me... but I decided I'm going to try to do this."

She planned the route with a map of Ireland and a pencil, collected a backup team from friends in her running group, and decided to do the trip for the RNLI, because of their association with the coast.

"It went like a dream. It was hard, but I met the nicest people... every morning I just had to get up and run. And I started on the first of January, I met all the storms, snow, everything, but my mindset was so strong. I had no doubts in my mind. You have to think 'I'm going to get this done,' no 'what if this happens' or 'what if that happens,' I'm going to mind myself, I'm going to look after myself, I'm going to keep going all day, until I get to my destination every night. And it worked! It worked a dream, it was amazing, I met the most wonderful people."

At times Nolan ran alone and at times was joined by friends and strangers. Some of those whose first long-distance running experience was running beside Nolan went on to complete marathons alongside her.

Nolan recalls the hardest days were those she was stuck in a hotel while the "Beast from the East" anticyclone Hartmut raged outside, because she was worried she wouldn't be able to resume running once she got out of the groove — but, as Nolan says, "it all comes back to you" and she was soon making good progress again.

The entire trip was over 2,400 km — about the equivalent of 57 marathons; it took 104 days, with around 80 days of actual running and the rest for recovery and publicity. In total Nolan raised over €80,000. Perhaps what Nolan remembers most is the physical landscape:

"Ireland is the most beautiful country, and the coast of Ireland is stunning. I was gobsmacked by the scenery... It was an amazing experience, uplifting although very hard work!"

Nolan faced a different sort of challenge in 2020 running the Dublin Marathon virtually. She ran by herself on a course she plotted out, at one point having to talk her way around a Garda checkpoint (stopping to get a photo) and finishing out in a Tesco car park, which she ended up running laps around to make sure she finished the full 26.2 miles before getting a cup of coffee.

"It was emotional, it was strange, but it was fantastic just to get it done... I could feel the atmosphere that there were loads of other people around the country doing the same thing. Even though you were running on your own, it didn't feel like you were running on your own."

Nolan will face a tough run Oct. 30th, but her determination is truly inspirational: "I'll keep running as long as this body holds up, until all the wheels fall off."

If you're running in the Dublin Marathon, keep an eye out for Mary Nolan and read her tips for newcomers here. Don't forget to stop by Her Sport at Stand 44!

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