Running in solidarity in the Cork City Marathon

Sanctuary Runners prepare for the Irish Examiner Cork City Marathon: From left: Noxolo Gumede, Graham Clifford, Sibusisiwe Mhlophe, Clare Keogh and Leonie Figlan run at the Marina, Cork. Pic: Larry Cummins

Crossing the finishing line of the Cork City Marathon will signal a sweet victory for Sanctuary Runners, with Irish people running alongside those in direct provision, writes Noel Baker.

Down on the banks of the River Lee the rowers scoot past by ones or twos and on the tree-lined road beside Páirc Uí Chaoimh, there’s the sound of laughter.

Asylum seekers South Africans Noxolo Gumede, 32, and Leonie Figlan, 43, and their Zimbabwean friend, 30-year-old Sibusisiwe Mhlophe are being put through their paces by Graham Clifford and Clare Keogh, all in preparation for the upcoming Cork City Marathon — a race that this year has an extra dimension.

Forget the famed “loneliness of the long distance runner” — as the giggles fill the air, it’s the opposite.

The aim is to have 200 runners take part in the marathon under the Sanctuary Runners’ banner and at the moment 135 people are on board, around two thirds of who are Irish and the remainder from direct provision.

The Sanctuary Runners’ concept is Graham Clifford’s, and it has boomed to such an extent that he admits he may try and reprise it next year. “It has been amazing,” he says.

Graham is a freelance journalist and a regular contributor to RTÉ radio, while Clare is a photographer and intends to finish her leg in the marathon and then race into position to capture some pictures of her fellow runners as they make their way around the course.

Chances are there will be some memorable images once the starting gun goes on the 2018 Irish Examiner Cork City Marathon. Participants take off from St Patrick’s Street at 8.30am on June 3 and among the throng will be 20 men and 34 women from different DP centres and their Irish running mates.

According to Graham, there will be 16 sanctuary relay teams, with each person running 7k or 9km, and the other runners will take on the full or half marathon.

Aside from the logistics of organising entry and then co-ordinating who runs where, there has been an overwhelmingly positive response to the initiative.

Graham explains how Togher Running Club have been helping, including taking some of the runners to the Mardyke for training, with a community bus also in use to ferry runners from the Kinsale Road DP centre to the Mardyke. 

The HSE has also funded a coach to help with training for residents of the Glenvera DP centre, while in other centres such as the Millstreet, Clonakilty and Ashbourne accommodation centres, locals have stepped in to assist.

Claire says the involvement of the running clubs has been key, particularly in helping to develop the “buddy system” so that no-one feels they are training or running on their own. There’s also another side to that interaction. “It’s just you are connecting people and breaking down some of the barriers.

“For the women, it’s great because they have grown in confidence, they are challenging each other,” she says. “Some days the places we have been running have been so beautiful — one guy was taking photos when he was running.”

Noxolo has had four running sessions in five weeks. “I had never run before,” she admits, displaying a tattoo on her right arm that says ‘Lady Peace’. She was told she has high cholesterol — “the running will help.

“Training is good,” she continues.”Everyone is very friendly. It’s also good for your health, including your mental health.”

This is something on which all three woman agree: life in direct provision can be lonely and isolating. In the case of the trio from Africa, the city of Cork sits on their doorstep, but in many ways it can go unexplored. 

Asylum seekers can retreat back into their rooms, through a mixture of apprehension about what is beyond the gate, uncertainty about their futures, and much else besides. Noxolo has been in the system for 15 months, Sibusisiwe for eight, and Leonie for 25.

Only Leonie has so far undergone a formal interview to determine her status. All three are complimentary about their current lodgings, the food, the church coffee mornings and the yoga classes, but there is also an unmistakable sense of separation, and of apprehension as to what the future holds.

From left: Noxolo Lady Peace Gumede; Leonie Figlan and Sibusisiwe Mhlophe at The Marina, Cork. Pic: Larry Cummins

“Sometimes it’s scary because you don’t know what is going to happen the following day,” Noxolo says.

They agree that running has benefitted their sleep patterns and helped to relax their minds, as well as allowing for interaction with Irish people.

“It helps you out of so many worries, like things that go around your head,” Noxolo explains.

“I was very afraid to interact with Irish people because of the questions they are asking you — where are you from? Why are you here? Sometimes you are not comfortable to open up. How are they going to respond? But with this group it’s a relief because they understand and they know how to talk to you.”

The HSE, University College Cork, Cork City Council and John Buckley Sports have all stepped in to help, while a glance at the Sanctuary Runners’ Twitter feed shows a growing number of people assisting in training, including professional boxer Gary ‘Spike’ O’Sullivan and former world and European indoor championship medallist Derval O’Rourke.

The groups will run in teams or “pods” along different sections of the course and according to Graham, “the real core is getting Irish people, giving them the opportunity to run alongside and in solidarity with people in direct provision”.

The running tops that will be worn by all the Sanctuary runners — and which will be delivered this week — will bear the words “solidarity, friendship, respect”.

According to Graham: “It’s about a human running with another human.”

Can anyone from the Sanctuary team pull a surprise and be first past the tape? “There is a guy, David, from Nigeria,” Graham says, weighing up the possibility. “He is fast. He could win the half marathon. Who knows?”

Former Kerry footballer Tomás Ó Sé running with fellow Sanctuary Runners at a training session at the Mardyke, UCC. Pic: Clare Keogh

According to Sibusisiwe, who used to play netball, “I am really trying to push myself to improve.” 

Away from Personal Bests and intense competition, there’s a sense that the group has already won through the simple act of taking part. Runners from 18 different countries running in the same colours, a collective effort that could have a positive individual impact for each member well into the future.

“Once the guys have started running,” Graham says, “I don’t think they’re just going to stop.”

The aura of positivity won’t stop there either. Kerry GAA star Tomás Ó Sé plans to run the first leg with the group before heading off to Dublin for his pundit duties on The Sunday Game, while athletics legend Sonia O’Sullivan has also weighed in with her support.

Due to Ramadan, Muslim participants won’t run on the day but will train and lend their voice to those gathered on the roadsides, cheering everyone on, and it’s hoped that music and food will amplify the party mood once the marathon is all over.

The race has yet to be run, but for Noxolo, it is about much more than throwing one leg in front of the other. She laughs and says: “It’s like I am somebody.”

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