Collette O’Hagan could claim to be a real-life wonder woman. On the eve of her 600th marathon, the 69-year-old tells Aileen C O’Reilly how much she enjoys her long-distance running.
Like most of us, Collette O’Hagan loves nothing better than catching up with friends at the weekend. She admits it’s what her Saturdays and Sundays are all about.
However, unlike most of us, this catching up is cross country, up hill and down dale, and involves muck, dirt, sweat and miles and miles of running.
You see, Collette is a seasoned marathon runner — in fact, this Saturday, the Dundalk native will complete her 600th marathon, and her husband and five children (the oldest of whom is 47) will be cheering her across the finish line.
Did I forget to mention that she turns 70 next September? Did I also forget to mention that, apart from raising their own family, Collette and her husband Larry have fostered 85 kids to date and worked with both the children of Chernobyl and Romanian children too?
So perhaps what’s most amazing is not the fact that she is now an international marathon runner, but that she ever found the time to get started at this “marathon malarkey” in the first place.
But then again the phrase “how can I do that?“ just doesn’t seem to be part of this lady’s vocabulary.
Collette was a complete novice in the discipline which to date has taken her around the world and which she plans to use to get her to Cape Town in South Africa in the near future for the IAAF Gold Label status marathon — one she hasn’t managed to add to her list as yet.
“I did my first marathon in 1990 at the age of 41,” she recalls with a wry laugh. “Like the majority of people, I had started out doing a bit of jogging before I even thought about getting involved in park runs. Then I remember someone saying — ‘oh, you should give the Dublin City Marathon a try’ and I instantly thought, ‘no way, I can’t do that. That’s for serious runners’.
“Obviously there was no Internet or social media so I was on my own completely and unaware of any running community as such. I just bought the running magazines and learned from them how to put a training schedule together. I still kept thinking I wasn’t good enough and I was mad to be even trying.
“To this day I remember that feeling when I crossed the finish line. It was just amazing. I realised there and then there was no reason why I couldn’t run more.”
For most of us that would mean dining out on the “I ran the Dublin City Marathon” line for the ensuing 12 months while secretly trying to muster the enthusiasm to run it again the following year. But for Colette, it meant tackling the Belfast City Marathon seven months later before hooking up with Martin Joyce Sports Travel and taking on Boston and then New York.
“I was sure they wouldn’t let me run the Boston one,” she laughs. “I mean, you have to apply for that. I thought they’d just laugh at me getting notions about my abilities — but they didn’t, and when I got that under my belt the New York one was kind of the obvious follow-up.”
To date, she’s run the Boston Marathon a jaw-dropping 11 times, the New York Marathon six times, as well as adding on the Berlin, London, Chicago and Tokyo marathons in between — the acknowledged Big Six in marathon running circles. Oh, and New Zealand too because that’s just what you do when you’re visiting the grandkids.
“I’m lucky I guess,” she explains, laughing at my amazement. “I acclimatise very easily, plus, to be honest, it’s something I absolutely love — I just wouldn’t be doing it otherwise.”
And then the conversation goes from the sublime to the ridiculous as she tells me how she decided to “notch things up a bit” in 2012 with her first stab at back-to-back marathons.
“I’ll admit I was scared” she says candidly “but I really wanted to do it so I wasn’t going to be happy until I did but, yes, it was extremely difficult. It was Belfast to Dublin. It was on main roads against traffic, it was non-stop and it took me 30 hours. I’ve only done it twice to be honest.”
What I quickly notice is there’s no talk of “hard work” or “sacrifice” or the level of tough training she must undertake on a weekly basis to stay marathon fit — this woman genuinely just loves running.
“It’s my therapy if I’m honest. Back in the 1990s when I started out, I did try and set PBs (personal bests) and I was getting across the finish line in three hours 45 minutes. But these days I’m happy if I complete it within four or five hours. It’s relaxing. You meet up with friends, chat, have the craic, look at beautiful scenery, plus it keeps your mind strong and your body super fit and years younger too,” she laughs, “so there actually is some method in my madness.”
The therapeutic benefits of running have held her in good stead particularly over the past few years when both her husband Larry and her little grandson Charlie had cancer — both are healthy and well again, but it was touch-and-go with Charlie, who had a large tumour on his kidney, and developed a very bad reaction to the morphine which he was unable to tolerate.
“Charlie was in Crumlin and the morphine nearly killed him” she explains quietly. “It made him so sick.
“In the end, after a series of operations, he had to have the kidney removed but he’s thriving now, thank God — cheeky as anything,” she smiles. “I remember running several marathons at that stage to raise money and awareness for the North Louth Hospice — they were absolutely fantastic as they transport people up to Dublin for treatment and then back. It’s such a vital service. I think you only fully appreciate it when it hits your own family and you’re depending on it.”
Collette freely admits that she and Larry, who are still actively fostering, are very much a well-oiled team — even though he doesn’t share her passion for 27- or 50-mile runs.
I’m still finding it hard to believe Collette will be celebrating her 70th birthday next year — an event which she is quite oblivious to herself.
“Thanks to all this running I just don’t feel my age so it’s irrelevant really” she shrugs, sounding more 30-something than 69. “I aim to be the oldest marathon runner in Ireland some day when I’m well into my 80s.
“As long as I have the desire to run I’ll just keep going. Sure why not?“
Considering she’s just notched up another two marathons in the past 48 hours, I’m gathering that’ll be a pass on the cocoa then.