DERRY MAN, Paul Craig’s presence at the Walled City Marathon finish line at Guildhall Square on Sunday was a throwback to a golden era for local distance runners in the early 1980s.
The Walled City Marathon has had six Kenyan winners in the past seven years as Eric Koech became the latest when he clinched his second victory in the Maiden City at the weekend, adding to his 2016 success.
Since its return as part of the 2013 City of Culture celebrations following a 28 year absence, the 26.2 mile endurance race has been won just once by a local man with Co. Derry veteran runner, Tommy Hughes winning the inaugural event to add to his 1984 and 1985 titles.
And before Hughes, the last Derry man to win the event was Creggan man, Craig who, alongside his brother Gerry, was at the forefront of the sport during the 1980’s athletics boom in the city.
Indeed, the Malin Gardens siblings had won back-to-back Waterside Half Marathon victories in 1984 and ‘85 but it was Paul’s spectacular double marathon triumphs in Belfast and Derry in the space of three weeks which stood the test of time.
Kenyan runner, Freddy Sittuk matched Paul’s incredible feat when winning both Derry and Belfast marathons in 2014 while Sunday’s Walled City Marathon champion, Koech had come up short as runner-up in Belfast last month.
Paul, who retired from the sport after injury in his late 20s, had earned running scholarships to Southern Illinois University in the USA in the 1970s and represented Ireland all the way up to senior level.
He went on to settle in Boston in the mid-80s and has been living in the US for the past 35 years. However, he returned in 1983 to win both his marathon ‘double’ in the space of three weeks - an achievement he’s still very proud of to this day.
Now residing in North Carolina, Paul, who celebrates his 62nd birthday this week, returned to his hometown along with his wife, Mary just in time to take in the city’s spectacular 26.2 mile race along the banks of the River Foyle on Sunday.
There’s been significant changes to the course since he won in ‘83 but it brought back fond memories of an exciting period for athletics in the North West.
“Well, now you have the three bridges,” he pointed out. “You have the Peace Bridge and you can actually run over that so that’s the big change.
“We ran over Craigavon Bridge over to the Caw roundabout. We ran down the Lecky Road and all the way out to Slievemore, down the Buncrana Road and out around Shantallow, so it was more of a loop around there. This is a big flatter.
“It’s a special course,” he observed. “It’s a great thing for the city. Back in the day when I was running we had the Troubles. My brother Gerry and Gerry Lynch were the main guys trying to organise it and it brought a bit of normality to the town in a situation which was far from normal with the Troubles going on.
“I’m just back for a visit and it happened to line up with the marathon this time,” he explained. “Gerry (Lynch) found out I was coming over and asked me to come over to the race.”
Reminiscing about his historic marathon double win 36 years ago, Paul recalled how his strategy of reserving energy paid dividends.
“It was a very good time,” he recalled. “I had made the goal of doing both Belfast and Derry marathons and when I won Belfast I had something like three weeks to go until the Derry one.
“I ran the two with the idea of running to win,” he insisted. “I stayed in with the pack as much as I could and only made my effort when it came near the end so I could do both.”
Paul has swapped his running shoes for a bike and is a member of the Cape Fear Cycling Club in North Carolina. He’s also an avid golfer and while his running days are firmly in the past, he thoroughly enjoyed reminiscing about his past glories on Sunday afternoon.