Liz Kavanagh might never win a marathon but the 56-year-old with 27 marathons on three continents behind her says getting over the line is the goal. And this year she is hitting that tape 12 times, seven down and five to go.
She trains in the grounds of Kilkenny Castle, one lap is five km, then press repeat. Kavanagh jogs here and mixes jogging with walking for the races.
Watching her stride through the grounds quickly disabuses you of the thought walking is somehow easier. Colourful trainers hit the ground quickly, arms swing and she’s full steam ahead.
“It’s 26 miles whether you are walking or running. I’d be jogging for about the first half, then walking and jogging. This is my passion, I’m competing against myself so I’m not against anyone,” Kavanagh says.
She jokes she has no ambition to beat Paula Radcliffe and mentions how grateful she is not to have arthritis quite a few times as she talks.
“I have had problems at the end of a race. My feet get very sore. I don’t know if it is arthritis or what, I don’t really want to know what it’s about,” she says. “I don’t want to be told to finish running.”
And while she no longer trains with a club, Kavanagh has enough regular marathons on her list to have made a kind of running family. She first went to New York for the 1999 race and has been back nine times fundraising for the Children’s Hospital in Crumlin.
She says “it’s a great buzz” getting advice from the likes of Eamon Coughlan when the fund-raising compete.
“And one year when I was about six miles in, I heard that Paula Radcliffe has just won the women’s race, it’s brilliant knowing you are on the same route as someone like that,” Kavanagh says, dismissing any suggestion she herself might be an inspiration to anyone.
Dublin is another favourite route with six clocked up already, and one more planned as part of her 12 marathons in 12 months for 2012 campaign.
Choosing the races for this year was difficult. Kavanagh says she didn’t want to spend a lot of money on long flights – joking she doesn’t have it anyhow – and also wanted to run close to home for her family and friends.
Sitting inside for coffee, she perches lightly on the edge of the sofa and talks excitedly about the possibilities, the events she could have picked.
12 in 12 in 12
Finding a marathon to run in January and February was difficult Kavanagh says, as her budget meant running mostly in Europe.
So like many Irish people in January, she headed for the Canary Islands. But unlike most people, she ran two laps of Las Palmas with 472 other marathoners.
She says with a grin she hadn’t gone there to win, but finishing with a police escort for the final lap hadn’t been on the plan either.
“I finished it and I was last. I got more cheering than the winners, and I wasn’t even mortified,” she says.
In February she sensibly stayed indoors, and convinced her local leisure centre at the Kilkenny Hotel to set up two treadmills. One for her, and one for anyone who wanted to join in.
Kavanagh’s 82-year-old father was one. She did leave a toe-nail behind after over five hours on the treadmill, just like “a real athlete” she says.
The March marathon in Rome started off well, when she joined with the five and half hour pacer and setting off in a chatty group of runners. Maybe too chatty, she says ruefully, showing off a raised bump on her upper lip.
Turns out multi-tasking – running, talking and sight-seeing – doesn’t always work. She took a tumble at the Circo Massimo and finished the race with blood and tissue all over her face. But she did finish, leaving 131 runners trailing behind her … out of 12,679.
April was London and a jog with a 101 year-old-man, Fauja Singh, who has been described as the oldest marathon runner ever.
“He started running when he was 85, and he’s only a small man too. It’s clearly better than sitting on the couch and getting obese,” she says. She managed to overtake him.
Finishing in just under six hours, her Facebook page lists runners who passed her including rhinos, a Big Ben and a jar of marmite.
May’s marathon in Belfast doesn’t get quite the same glowing review.
“That was horrible, it didn’t stop raining the whole marathon. I didn’t enjoy it one bit,” she says, shuddering just a little. And that is all she has to say about six hours of misery.
A month later Kavanagh packed her bra and headed for The Moonwalk in Edinburgh – walking marathon distance under starter’s orders at midnight with everyone wearing pink Breast-Cancer-awareness bras. Boys too.
“They give you a bra and T-shirt but then the heavens opened up. So everyone got a cape too, I had the cape and a hat. People were just going hell-for-leather through the streets with people coming out from the pubs to cheer us on,” she says.
She subconsciously rubs her arms as she remembers hitting 4am and being tired, really tired and cold with only clouds for company.
UltraMarathon South Africa
Perhaps knowing she had done something much harder kept her going. In 2006 Kavanagh and a few friends ran The Two Oceans Ultra Marathon. That’s a small matter of 56 kms (35 miles) around Haut Bay and a few hills in Capetown.
“It was beautiful, and I was able to look around, I was going that slowly. It was really good. I enjoyed that one, no rain there,” she says.
“I was last into the stadium, it was a great buzz. The others were waiting on the track, holding the Irish flag for me. I crossed the line wrapped in the flag. That was the month I turned 50,” she says.
She tells the story like it’s no big deal, like anyone could do it except, of course, they don’t.
Finishing her coffee, she talks again about the buzz of planning marathons. You might think doing 12 this year would dampen her enthusiasm.
But as she lights up talking about the North Pole race, you know she’ll be wearing a groove in the castle gardens for some time yet.
This piece originally appeared in the Irish Independent’s FitMag.