Marathon followed by church for Northern Ireland’s top female runner

Belfast’s first Sunday marathon appeared to be well-received by residents of the city and by many Christians, either taking part in the race or cheering on the runners.

Elite runner Gladys Ganiel attended a church service staright after finishing the Belfast Marathon. Also pictured are Rev Steve Stockman of Fitzroy Presbyterian and her son Ronan.
Elite runner Gladys Ganiel attended a church service staright after finishing the Belfast Marathon. Also pictured are Rev Steve Stockman of Fitzroy Presbyterian and her son Ronan.

The News Letter learnt of some disruption to services for churches along the route while members of the Free Presbyterian Church continued their protest at the race’s switch to the Sabbath.

However many churches moved services to accommodate the race and allow members to either take part or support the runners. Some even provided musical accompaniment to the athletes.

The full extent of the disruption to Belfast churches is likely to become clearer over the next 24 hours.

Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 5th May 2019 - General view of the start of the Deep RiverRock Belfast City Marathon at the Stormont Estate, Belfast. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.

Dr Gladys Ganiel, an elite Christian runner who lives in NI, finished the race in time to pick her son up from church.

She completed the marathon in just over two hours 39 minutes, coming fourth overall in the women’s category, and the first NI women to finish.

Dr Ganiel said: “The course is a lot better. It goes through places where people actually live so there was a lot of crowd support. There were loads of churches who were out singing, you don’t get that on a Monday. You had some nice hymns to accompany you as you go along.

“After I finished I was able to walk to my church (Fitzroy Presbyterian in University Street)to pick my son up from Sunday School.”

Rev David McClay of Willowfield Church of Ireland would have preferred the Belfast Marathon to remain on a Monday, but nevertheless his church embraced the Sunday switch

Of the switch to a Sunday for Belfast Marathon, she said: “For me personally, I’m an athlete that has competed on Sundays many, many times. My belief is that the Christian principal of having a day of rest is a valid one but I don’t think it necessarily has to be followed egoistically.

“The idea of doing good on the Sabbath, going out for a run, particularly in the Belfast Marathon where a lot of people are going out to raise money, to me that is an example of doing good on the Sabbath, something that’s healthy and good for the community.

“I don’t have a personal conscience issue with it.”

Dr Ganiel said: “Most big marathons are on a Sunday. You don’t have to miss an opportunity to go to worship to compete in a Sunday event – if you’re in the Protestant tradition many churches have a Sunday evening service, if you’re in the Catholic tradition there will be a Saturday evening service.

Ray Wallace of First Presbyterian Church in Belfast city centre was unhappy the marathon was moved to Sunday

“There’s the argument that we live in a plural society so for Christians to try to force people who may not be Christian to do things or not do things on a Sunday is not appropriate either.”

As the race made its way through greater Belfast’s residential areas reasonable-sized crowds had gathered to cheer runners on, however along arterial routes into the city centre numbers thinned considerably.

One spectator at Custom House Square commented: “It’s even more quiet than usual for a Sunday morning. You wouldn’t think there was a marathon going on.”

However on the Castlereagh Road where runners high-fived young supporters on their way past during the early part of the race, one resident said: “It’s wonderful to see so many runners on a Sunday morning and so many people out cheering them on.”

A spectator from Kilkenny who had made the trip to Belfast to cheer on a friend said: “They moved the Dublin Marathon to a Sunday about three years ago. It’s far better to have it on a Sunday because then you have the bank holiday to recover.”

As runners passed a number of churches along the marathon route, congregations stood outside their places of worship to give their support to the competitors.

At Willowfield Church of Ireland, although not in favour of the decision to move the marathon, the church was more than flexible in accommodating the race.

Instead of its usual Sunday morning service, the church scheduled a later service at 12noon when the marathon had passed. They also had two evening services.

During the race, volunteers from the church provided drinks, snacks and encouragement for the runners.

Rev David McClay, speaking to the News Letter yesterday morning, said: “In truth we would have preferred that it was a Monday, some of my own denomination have raised questions about that and I would agree with them. There wasn’t a lot of consultation with churches in advance.

“But as it stands it’s on Sunday so therefore we decided to really embrace it.”

He added: “We’d be very strong on Sunday observance here as a church so there’s going to be three services today, with one slightly later after the end of the marathon has passed.”

“We did feel it was important, rather than batten down the hatches, to be here and encourage the runners.

“The runners are running for lots of great causes. It’s important to encourage that and do what we can to lift the atmosphere a wee bit.”

Music was playing from Willowfield Church while members – some in fancy dress – waved placards and cheered to motivate runners.

Rev McClay said: “We were giving away water and sweets. We actually ran out of cups. We started with 2,000 of them.”

In terms of Sunday recreation he said: “Where do you draw the line? Do you not allow your children to play on the swings on a Sunday. It’s not a straightforward one.

“I wouldn’t want to say for a moment that we’ve got it right and others have got it wrong.

“We’re going with what we feel is right, we’re a very conservative evangelical church. We feel this is the right thing to do.

“Some of our members are taking part. Our folks have loved being here on the road. They feel good to be able to be out here interacting with the community.

“We’re very committed to this community. We’re very committed to this city. The marathon is happening in this city. Some of the charities that are benefitting will effect people in this community, for that reason we felt it was important to be part of it.

“If there have been any negative voices about what we are doing they haven’t reached my ears.”

Free Presbyterians continued to voice their disapproval at Belfast Marathon’s organisers decision to move the race to a Sunday with another protest yesterday.

It took place facing Cooke Centenary Presbyterian Church, close to the entrance of Ormeau Park.

Rev Paul Hannah said: “We held a short open-air meeting / protest where we sang hymns, prayed, preached and gave out different Gospel tracts, entitled, ’Remember the Sabbath day to keep it Holy’.

He added: “We also plan to compile an impact report following the marathon.”

At Martyrs Memorial FPC Rev Dr Ian Brown said Sunday School had to be cancelled and the church bus could not do its usual Sunday pick up.

In the city centre numbers were down at several churches due to road closures.

Ray Wallace of First Presbyterian Church in Rosemary Street said yesterday: “The congregation is well down.

“I think it’s an absolutely terrible decision to move the marathon to a Sunday. I think it’s a mistake.

“The reason they had it on the Monday was that it was a public holiday, people were off. There’s a lot of church goers who would like to do the marathon or spectate and they’re torn now.”

Asked if the church had considered moving its service, Mr Wallace said: “We only have a 10.30 service on a Sunday. The congregation has been here for 375 years, we’re not going to let a marathon stop us.”

Organisers said it was “a record year for the event” which saw the highest numbers ever for the marathon (5,000) – a 60% increase from last year.

There was also an increase in team relay participants, with around 2,400 teams signed up this year.

Close to 18,000 overall participants took part in yesterday’s event.