GRAEME COUSINS tries to keep up with Gary Bell – a 53-year-old running enthusiast whose pursuit of marathon medals has taken him to Finaghy and beyond
Over the course of 36 years Gary Bell has taken part in 61 marathons, completing races in all seven continents as well as braving the extremities of cold to run for 26.2 miles at both the North and South Poles.
It all started when he was told he wasn’t allowed to run the first ever Belfast Marathon in 1982.
The 53-year-old Finaghy man told the News Letter: “I applied to run the first Belfast Marathon when I was 16 and got rejected because I was too young. You had to be 17.
“Since then I’ve run 36 consecutive Belfast Marathon. I’ve only missed the first one out of 37.”
He explained how are several years competing in his home town marathon his running shoes took him further afield: “After running the marathon for a few years I saw an advert for a charity event to raise money to go and run the Boston Marathon, the world’s oldest marathon.
“I thought it would be fantastic to do that. I raised part of the money and paid the rest of it myself. It was good enough to get me the guaranteed entry. That was in 1996, it’s was the 100th Boston Marathon.
“While I was running in Boston I heard guys talking about a new marathon in Antarctica. That was another one I wanted to do.
“I signed up for that and then started thinking about the Seven Continents, because once I’d done Antarctica that would be three out of seven.
“I completed the seven continents a few years ago. As far as I’m aware (and according to the Seven Continents website) I’m the only person from Northern Ireland to do that. I got invited to Belfast City Hall and met the Lord Mayor.”
Not one to rest on his laurels, Gary set himself a new running target: “The next goal I set myself was the Six Marathon Majors. These are the six most popular marathons in the world which attract huge crowds. For example the recent New York Marathon had over 50,000 runners.”
New York along with Boston, Chicago, London, Berlin and Toyko make up the biggest six marathons in the world.
Gary said: “I started with Boston in 1996 and since then it has taken me 22 years to complete the Seven Continents, Six World Marathon Majors and the two polar regions.”
Asked what his most memorable marathon was, he said: “The one that blew me away the most was the Boston Marathon.
“To be able to take part in the 100th marathon was amazing. At one point I ended up running with the American flag. There were so many runners taking part that it took 24 minutes to get to the start line. The elite runners were five miles ahead of us by the time we started.”
Gary’s most recent race saw him complete the Polar Circle (Arctic) Marathon.
He said: “I’d done the Antarctic as one of my Seven Continents, so I’d always wanted to do both polar regions.
“The marked difference would be there is absolutely no life or buildings on the Antarctic. I think the only thing that can survive in the winter when it hits minus 40 are the penguins.
“For the Arctic Marathon we went to Greenland and while it’s still remote there are 499 permanent inhabits.
“As regards training for the North and South Pole, it was the usual distance training I do, you just can’t really replicate those temperatures.
“One of the days we were there it was minus 24. I’ve never felt cold like it. Thankfully it warmed up for the race but it was still well into the minuses.
“We just had to wear a lot of extra layers. We ran with three layers, two sets of gloves, two sets of socks, a hat, and a scarf that covers right up to your eyes.”
Gary said the Antarctic Marathon was the most bizarre race he had ever taken part in.
“It was due to be run on one of four research bases they have down there,” he said.
“There was 120 runners from all over the world but on the day of the race there were 70mph winds so we couldn’t get off the ice cruiser – the Zodiac – to get onto the base where the course was flagged out.
“The tour organiser said we’d leave it for 24 hours and then come back the next day. When we came back the same time the next morning it was still 70mph winds.
“We were told the race would have to be cancelled. People had travelled all over the world to do the race, it was part of their seven continents. There was going to be uproar.”
At this point the organiser and ship’s captain got together and came up with a solution – to run the marathon on the ship.
Gary said: It was 433 laps of the ship. They padded up doorways with towels. Every time you came round you shouted out your number and it was scored off for another lap by friends and family who were there.
“We got our finishers medals and our certificate so it was all official.”
Of the Arctic Marathon which he completed on October 27 he said: “I actually had an injury before I went to do the race – a bio-overload on the fourth metatarsal plantar plate. I had to take painkillers. There was no way after all the organisation I was pulling out.”
He commented: “The thing that drives me is the challenge. I’m not an elite runner but I’m someone who likes to succeed in my challenges. It’s the satisfaction of not only getting round the course but of completing the likes of the Seven Continents which takes a bit of time and planning your itinerary, your finances, your training.
“I would do one marathon a year for charity. The reason for that is because I tend to ask the same people for money all the time and they are very generous. To ask more than once a year would be a bit much I would find it uncomfortable to ask.
“I tend to go for the cancer charities because I’ve a couple of people who have died from cancer.”
Of his future goals he said: “There’s two things that I really want to do. As a purist I would love to run my home city marathon 50 straight times.
“I’ve got to 36. I would love to do 50 in a row. I know injury is going to play a part so if I can’t get 50 straight, I’d still love to do 50 in total.
“I’d be 67 by that time, which is right on retirement age ironically.
“The other thing I’d love to do is join the 100 Marathon Club. I think it’s 61 I’m up to at the minute.
“They present you with a club vest on the day of your 100 marathon and you get a wee tot of whisky to toast the achievement at the end.”
In his younger days, Gary Bell used to combine his marathon training with an amateur football career.
The salesman, who was born and bred in Finaghy, but is now living in Newtownabbey, said: “I played centre forward for Sirocco Works in the amateur league for 10 seasons. It was a pretty good standard.
“I was able to mix both running and football. I’d go for a longer run then meet up with the guys for the training after.
The long run had loosened me up for the sprints.
“I was in a running club many, many years ago but now I train on my own because it’s much easier to go out and suit yourself with times, distances, indoor or outdoor.”
He commented: “I would say the two qualities of a marathon runner are time and discipline.
“If you’re coming back home in the evening – it’s dark, it’s raining, you’ve maybe had a bad day – it’s easy to say, ‘let’s see what’s on the TV, I’ll forget about it tonight, I’ll do it tomorrow night’.
“It’s the discipline of actually getting up and getting ready and getting out the door.
“You also need to have the time to put in the training.
“In my book the marathon is your reward for your training. It’s easy running the marathon when you’ve your training done.”
He added: “I really enjoy the half marathons too. I’ve ran probably 200 plus half marathons.
“They’re a great training run for the full marathon and you can really attack the course a lot more.
“With the marathon there’s a lot more survival attached to it. The marathon is the challenge purely because of the extra distance.”
Sharing some training tips he said: “I do it in steps when I’m doing my training. I’ll do 13 miles, then increase it to 16, then 18, then 20. It’s too much just to jump from 13 to 26. Doing a half marathon doesn’t mean you’re ready for a marathon.
“Even if you’re only up to 20 miles before a marathon, psychologically you’re going to get round. You’re running with a lot of other runners, you have company, you have the crowd. You’ll get over the line.
While Gary said completing the marathons was his primary target, he does like to keep an eye on his time: “My best time is around the three hours 20 minute mark. As you get older sparing the time to do the training is where it gets difficult and that’s why times get slower. You’re only as good as your last training session. You’ve no right to think you’re going to pick up where you left off.”