A SMALL and dedicated group of amateur long distance runners have set themselves the ambitious target of completing a full marathon in a quick enough time to qualify for the prestigious Boston Marathon in 2019.
Twelve members of the ZE Run group have accepted a challenge from coach Russell Gair to tackle the Edinburgh Marathon in May – and, if they achieve the necessarily qualifying times, they are also setting their sights on the Massachusetts run 18 months from now.
Depending on the participants’ age and gender, that will mean running close to the three-hour mark for a 26-mile race. Having been through the history books and asked around, Russell reckons only six or seven Shetland runners have ever completed a marathon in a faster time than three hours.
“I’d been thinking for some time that the group that we’ve had running for just over two years had been working really well towards 5km, 10km and half marathon,” he said, “but we’ve never had anything working towards a marathon, which to me is just a whole different beast to any other kind of endurance challenge for a runner.”
Numerous runners had been completing half marathons in times of between one hour and 25 minutes and one hour and 40 minutes. A computer predictor estimated those runners could be looking at times a few minutes slower than three hours.
“If you take the elite runners out, about one per cent of the field will finish in three hours or less,” Russell said. “I mentioned that to the group and they said that sounded like a real challenge.”
The group he is working with contains runners with a wide range of ages - from early 20s to early 60s - and experiences.
“Some of the group only took up running in the last 18 months, some have run for nearly 18 years,” Russell said. “To progress from a 5K to marathon in less than a year is exceptional, and to run close to three hours would be impressive.
“The idea of running in a group on race day should enable us to get an extra three to five per cent out of each runner, sheltering the runners in the style of a cycling peloton.
“We’re all amateurs, running when we can fit it in. The support each member feels as part of the group is really important, ensuring they get through the tough long runs on a Sunday.”
That point comes across repeatedly when talking to members of the group, who say the group's togetherness is a huge help in providing the motivation to get off the sofa and train in the teeth of the long Shetland winter.
Bryan Garrick joined ZE Run last year and found himself completing a half marathon in Inverness by March.
He acknowledges that their latest goal is “ambitious”, but talks of “great camaraderie” helping everyone stay motivated, adding that to achieve a qualifying time for Boston “would be something else” and running under three hours would be “an amazing achievement”.
Tingwall resident Stuart Pearson, 35, began running this year to give himself something to focus on, and said the runners have had “so much success following Russell’s plans”.
“It’s a really good bunch that spurs each other on in a really positive, sporting way,” he said. “With Sunday morning get-togethers, doing long easy miles you can speak and it helps get the miles in rather than the monotony when you’re on your own sometimes.”
A marathon distance is roughly equivalent to running from Lerwick to Sumburgh. The next big milestone for the group is a three-quarter-length marathon between Tingwall and Brae, weather permitting, on 21 January.
“If we get the qualifying times in Edinburgh in 2018, it’ll open us up to entry into the major marathons of London, Berlin, Tokyo,” Russell explained.
“But the one everyone wants to qualify, the unofficial world championships, is the Boston Marathon.”
For under 40 males, that requires running faster than three hours and five minutes, but the group are “very much working towards our individual goals” and for someone into their fifties to be able to run three hours and 40 minutes is “a ridiculous feat”.
With a regular park run in Bressay setting up next year, Russell – who recently gave up his role as a drum instructor to pursue his own personal fitness venture GymGair – said islanders’ growing interest in the pastime mirrored a global rise in the popularity of running.
“When I first started running in the mid to late 1990s, if you were out for a run – I’d quite often run Quarff to Cunningsburgh – people would be pulling their cars over asking if you were wanting a lift!” he recalled.
“Now, you’ll see lots of runners out, and with the park run starting up in Bressay, that’s going to help with participation as well.”
He said the wider ZE Run group were looking at their individual goals for 2018.
For this specific challenge, Russell says: “To be able to take a team of runners to Boston would be fantastic, or even a team of runners to the London Marathon next year as qualifiers, which very rarely happens.
“If we got a team of 8-10 out of 12 – that’s setting the bar quite high, but I definitely think , if the runners follow the programmes and really dedicate themselves, they’ve shown [they have] the ability already.”