The mighty Quinns: Record breaking Tyrone brothers return to NY marathon 35 years later

In 1980, the Quinn brothers from Tyrone were the first four brothers to ever run the New
York Marathon at the same time. Next month, they will do it again writes Sharon Ni Chonchúir

THE four Quinn brothers from Tyrone are currently preparing to make history by taking on the New York City Marathon next month 35 years after they ran it together for the first time.

Michael, Frank, Seán and Brian Quinn are all aged in their 50s and 60s and they are part of a growing number of people who run into middle age and beyond.

“We were born on a farm in Tyrone and we were all fit and hardy,” says Michael. “There wasn’t much else for us to do as children bar play football and hurling. Our older brother Frank ran the New York Marathon in 1979 and when I arrived in the city, he asked me to run the following year’s marathon with him. I didn’t even know what a marathon was but I agreed.” Their other brother Seán was also in New York and he too decided to run.

Then they rang their brother Brian who was at home in Tyrone and he came over to join them.

“The marathon was only a month away so we didn’t have much time for training,” says Michael.

The pressure on the brothers mounted as the media took an interest in their story. “We were the first set of brothers in the world to run a marathon together,” says Michael. “The TV news headlines were Russia invading Afghanistan followed by the Quinn brothers running the marathon. We had to do it then!”

They’ve all maintained a moderate level of fitness in the years since 1980 but Michael admits it’s far from perfect.

Sean, Brian, Frank and MichaelQuinn, running in the New York citymarathon in 1980. Picture Nick Bradshaw
Sean, Brian, Frank and Michael Quinn, running in the New York city marathon in 1980. Picture Nick Bradshaw

Michael Quinn’s approach to running the marathon now is also far different to what it was 35 years ago and that he is far more aware of pitfalls such as injury.

“All along, I’ve tried to keep in some sort of shape but it’s easier said than done,” he says. “Brian is the fittest of all of us and he’ll run all the marathon. The rest of us will jog and walk it and then sprint the last mile. The aim is for us all to be finished within six hours.”

Their marathon efforts may earn them a place in the record books but they are more interested in fundraising for MS Ireland. “We always raise funds for them and hope to raise €30,000 this time,” says Michael. “That’s what’s going to motivate us across the finishing line.”

That and the example they are setting to thousands of older people who have taken up running.

“The number of people aged 50-plus has increased significantly since 2008,” says Gina Johnson, Event Manager with the Cork City Marathon. “This year we had 120 men aged 50 and over, comprising 12% of the male field, and 43 women in the same age group, comprising 15% of all the women who took part.”

The Dublin City Marathon, which takes place on October 26, has also seen increased interest from older runners. Last year, 1,936 of the 14,591 who ran the marathon were aged over 50. 75 were over 70 and three were over 80.

But is running a good sport for older bodies? Can ageing joints take the impact of pounding the pavement?

Chartered physiotherapist Jenny Branigan thinks running definitely has advantages. “It reduces the risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancer,” she says. “It brings down blood pressure, increases bone mineral density and lean muscle mass and it helps with weight control, coordination and balance.”

Former record-breaking athlete and personal trainer Gillian O’Sullivan believes running is good for everyone, older people included. “It’s difficult to lose weight when you get older so it’s a great way of boosting the metabolism and getting a full-body workout,” she says. “It’s brilliant at reducing stress and building mental resilience. And it’s a new challenge that brings a great sense of achievement to people.”

However, Gillian and Jenny have some words of caution. Gillian urges people who are very overweight to make a gradual start. “Carrying a lot of weight makes running more difficult.”

Jenny advises people to bear their injury history in mind. “If you have a weak ankle from having sprained it playing GAA in your youth or if there’s a muscle in your leg that always tightens when you’re driving, make sure you deal with those things before you start,” she says. “They’ll end up causing trouble if you don’t.”

Wearing the right shoes is vital. “Whatever you do, don’t pull out a pair of runners you’ve had for 10 years,” warns Jenny. “Get a new pair. You’re supposed to change to a new pair every 400 miles or so to maintain their shock absorbency.

“If there’s any problem with your foot alignment, an Achilles heel, shin splints or knee pain in your past, you should be screened by a physiotherapist before you start training,” she adds. “You may need insoles or orthotics.”

Setting realistic goals and following a sensible training regime is another tip from these professionals. “Pick a 5K race and aim to be able to complete it after about 12 weeks,” suggests Gillian. “Get yourself a running buddy or join a running group to keep up the motivation. And pick a flat route and avoid hills until you are in better shape.”

You should also consider the surface you run on. Gillian recommends running on the treadmill or on grass at the beginning as it’s easier on the joints.

Jenny Branigan agrees. “Stay away from concrete to start,” she says. Run on grass or on a running track instead. If you’re going to run on the road in a race or marathon, incorporate that into your training at a later stage.”

Both Jenny and Gillian emphasise the importance of warming up before and cooling down after running sessions. And Jenny also urges people to listen to their bodies and not ignore persistent pain.

“Any pain that lasts beyond three or four days could be an injury in the making,” she says. “Don’t think you can run it off. That’s the worst thing you could do as it could cause damage. Get it checked out instead.”

A recent survey from the Irish Society of Chartered Physiotherapists shows how important that advice is. When asked about injuries they were receiving treatment for, 41% of patients said they were sports related.

Tips for older runners:

1: Get the balance right. “Do your exercise but don’t get injured and don’t tire yourself too much,” says Gillian O’Sullivan. “Build up slowly.

Start by training twice a week and then three times. That may be enough. You can always walk in between running sessions.” 2: Allow time for rest. “Don’t get so carried away and enthusiastic when you start that you neglect the rest and recovery element,” says Jenny Branigan. “Plan rest days.” 3: Warm up before running. Jenny recommends warming up with dynamic stretches, where you move through the muscle groups in a slow fashion, increasing the rate of movement as you go. Gillian suggests walking for five to ten minutes and stretching the body a little before you break into a full run.

4: Cool down afterwards. Jenny recommends static stretching, where you hold muscle groups in a stretch for a few moments before you move on to the next set of muscles. “You can try foam rolling, an ice bath or even paddling in the sea afterwards too,” she says. “It all reduces inflammation and post-training soreness.” 5: Be realistic. Consider your current level of fitness and work up to your goal gradually. “Bear in mind that you’re not supposed to increase your mileage beyond 10% a week,” says Jenny. “Don’t go at it hell for leather.”


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