Gerard Devlin is no ordinary former player. A championship winner with Coalisland, he is running 52 marathons in 52 weeks to put something back into the club he loves. Michael McMullan writes…
YOU don’t need to be talking to Gerard Devlin too long before his love for Coalisland Fianna oozes down the line.
From the age of eight, he soldiered in the famous blue and white. A no-nonsense defender, he wore the number five jersey on their back-to-back O’Neill Cup winning seasons of 1989 and 1990.
With the boots hung up, he satisfied the competitive edge with running. And the more the better. Some 56 marathons later – including 12 each in Belfast and Dublin – he was drawn into a new challenge.
“It has always been an itch to scratch,” Devlin said of the prospect of running 52 marathons in a calendar year.
At the age of 60, initially, he was deciding not to go through with it. With five of the major marathons clocked up, Tokyo next March was the major priority to complete the set.
He has earned the chance to run in Tokyo, but it’ll have to wait. Now it’s all about Coalisland.
Ten years ago, he was involved in setting up the Fianna Runners within the club. Once the few bob to keep the running wing of the club functional is aside, the rest is put back into the club.
Two “Fianna to Croker” relay events to Croke Park raised £25k a time for the club and Devlin’s latest venture should help put more into the coffers. Keeping GAA clubs afloat doesn’t come cheap.
Fianna Runners also gives non-playing members physical activity with the social side every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. From walkers to competitive runners, it caters for all levels.
The 80-strong membership grew from an initial plan of a Couch to 5K aimed at getting people active, while helping them trim down.
“When I got to bed at night, the Fianna is the last thing on my mind and the first thing in the morning,” he said.
“I just want to see if I can give something back. This was the obvious road to go down, to fulfil my own ambition and to gather funds for the club.
“The 52 would grab the public’s imagination because there are not a lot of people who do it.”
Having previously completed 50 half-marathons in 52 weeks, this is on a different scale and he sounded out someone who completed the one marathon per week challenge.
“He had a couple of dark days when he wanted to throw the towel in, but he eventually got around it…he is much faster than me, I’d need a bicycle to catch him,” Devlin found out.
Last Friday he chalked off his first marathon of the challenge. There was only going to be one place, Fr Campbell Park, home of the Fianna. The 112 laps made up the marathon distance.
“Three years ago, I got bored one Friday night and got up at midnight and ran 122 laps of the Fianna field. I always wanted to try the marathon on the field…it’s really 112 (laps), but I was working off the Sat Nav and did too many,” Devlin joked.
A painter by trade, he aims to run his weekly marathon on a Friday or Saturday, with Sunday ring fenced for recovery ahead of another week climbing ladders and sneaking into tight corners with the paintbrush.
If a back to back marathon comes up on a weekend, he aims to factor one or two in and bank a free weekend or two in case something crops up. The mathematics always remains the same, 52 marathons in 52 weeks. It sounds way easier that it is.
His football career fills him with pride, with his son Niall – last season’s All-Ireland u-20 winning captain – following in the tradition in the Fianna number five jersey.
“We had a good team at that time and I was right half-back for most of my life from underage football,” he sums up, regretting not winning an Ulster title.
“But we didn’t fulfill our potential. We lost Damian O’Hagan at a crucial stage and he was the leader of the team.”
Of Devlin’s 30-year football career, a hamstring injury in the 1984 season was his only time out of action and it didn’t keep him down long.
He decided to try his hand at the Dublin marathon with little training in the bank. After 18 miles, the diesel light began to flash, but his competitive edge ensured he unquestionably made it to the finish line.
“I threw the gutties out the window of the train on the way up,” he recalls, comparing his 4:15 time to that of current Tyrone joint-senior manager Brian Dooher who ran 3:20 last Sunday in Dublin, before driving to Omagh to run his eye over the county final.
“I just didn’t have the preparation done and thought it was one of those things I’d never do again,” Devlin said of his early running years.
Nothing was farther from the truth. He had the bug and began harvesting advice from all corners.
“I got talking to a few boys who knew more about marathons than me and I doubled my mileage.”
His new found love took him across the finish line in New York, Boston, London (twice) and Chicago.
Berlin was the best yet, with a personal best of 3:19. He targeted the flat course, but needed the help of two random strangers from Texas and Chicago.
“They brought me around,” he said of that extra encouragement needed to dig that bit deeper.
“I needed a sub 3:20 to qualify for Boston, so I crept in under and I wouldn’t have made it only for the two girls coming along and pushing me to keep the tempo up.”
He won’t be setting out to break any records this weekend or for the rest of the challenge. It’s all about getting across that finish line.
“I was chatting to a guy in Chicago (who completed 52 in 52 weeks) and he is a 2:48 man,” Devlin said.
“He said it’s about taking it easy for the first 30 and I will be doing the same. The marathon for me starts at 18 miles and I just wasn’t prepared enough,” he added, recalling his tough baptism in Dublin.
It will be a mixture of terrains. Get the homework done on the mileage, map out a route and “get lost” for a morning in the Sperrins, in Drum Manor Forest or across the roads of Ulster and beyond.
At some point, he’ll be back at Fr Peter Campbell Park for 112 laps of the pitch he made his name on. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Gerard is getting every marathon sponsored, with all funds going to the club. Anyone wishing to make a donation can do via www.gofundme.comfgerard-devlin-52-in-52