Sunday, 30 December 2012

Philadelphia Dreaming

This final blog of 2012 comes from my good friend Mary, who gives us an insight into her journey towards last month's race in Philadelphia and becoming a fully-fledged marathoner. It's an inspiring story and shows the positive impact running can have, both among friends and within our communities.

The hard work ends here. Relaxing after the Philly Marathon on Bahia Honda beach, near the aptly titled Marathon, Florida.

Mary's blog means I can continue my lazy recuperation from the Philly Marathon, while I contemplate the Vienna Marathon in April 2013. I wish you a healthy and successful New Year.

After much contemplation about how to start this post-marathon blog, I thought about the words of the Footprints prayer I prayed in June 2010 during my first half marathon – the 1/2 Sauer 1/2 Kraut in Penny Pack Park, Philadelphia. I agreed to run only two weeks before the race as a favour to my friend, which was not my wisest decision! Although I had run the Broad Street 10 Miler (see, the half marathon was a huge step up and having to run in a forest park with no supporters, and not having trained (not to be advised!), made it one of the roughest runs of my life. I remember seeing the 3rd mile marker and reciting the lines of Footprints, where Jesus says, “During your times of trial and suffering, when you only see one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you”. Oh, how I believed those words when I eventually crossed the finish line and vowed that this was my first and last half marathon. How wrong I was! My Italian Broad Street Run partners, Tree and Laurie, were not going to let the Irish girl give up. They continued to call me during the week and wake me up on weekends for longer runs – and listen to my abuse along the way! A few months later, Dunk came to visit en route to New York and was full of fabulous stories from the fivemarathons and his recently run Vancouver Marathon. After spending the weekend with him and hearing these amazing stories, something clicked in my head. I wanted to join this elite group and Dunk was full of encouragement and advice.

With Dunk after his first Phillies baseball game, May 2010

That autumn, I went to teach in West Philly, in an area where the students needed positive role models. After some research I found “Students Run Philly Style” (see As Dunk explained in his last blog, Students Run is a group organised to support, mentor and encourage Philadelphia school kids to train for, and run, the Philadelphia Marathon and Half Marathon. After attending a day training with the organisation I was astonished to see how many kids had already run half and full marathons. After that, my life changed forever and I truly believed that my fellow mentors and I could really make a difference. Since 2010, it has been a privilege to get to know the Students Run leaders, staff, kids and mentors. Their tenacity and drive enabled me to believe that running a marathon was actually a possibility. Seeing a 13 year old who struggles in school, and yet is the first one to show up two or three times a week smiling and pumped for training, makes me believe in the power of running and the positive impact our determination has on each other.

Students Run summer camp - what a great experience

After receiving a message from Dunk during my summer hols in Yorkshire, telling me of his 40th birthday US travel plans with Jayne, and the possibility off a stop in Philly for us to run the marathon together, I thought, “Well McCullagh, it’s Philly 2012, or bust!”. BUST seemed like the best answer, but “YES” was the only one that came out! I honestly haven’t felt so nervous in my life as I never thought I would commit to another half marathon, let alone a full 26.2 miler. If there was any English sun that day, it must have gone to my head!

Olney Track Team at 5k Deb's Run For The Stripes (see

I returned to the USA in late August, armed with a marathon plan from Dunk, lots of great running advice and the worries of the world on my shoulders. Could this be done? I spoke with my South Philly running partner Laurie and we embarked on our first week of Dunk’s training plan in late August around the Art Museum (see “In Through The Out Door” at With 90 degree heat and a very out of shape Irish woman, I only made 3 miles. I would have been quite happy to have given up that day but, with the help of Laurie, Dunk and the stellar young people and mentors of Students Run, quitting wasn’t an option. My Students Run running partner Katie organised some excellent 5k races to keep us motivated and, more importantly, paced me throughout our bi-weekly team practices (and listened with a smile to all of my short stories longer).

With Laurie and Dunk, celebrating our marathon victory

With lots of coaching and advice from the other side of the Atlantic, runs with my Students Run kids and mentors and long Sunday runs with Laurie, I felt as ready as I ever would be. Having the support of Dunk, Jayne and my friends and family gave me the push I needed to wake up at an ungodly hour that cold November morning. Seeing our kids on the world-famous Rocky steps (see gave me all the reason in the world to run this thing and run it well. Their smiles and contagious energy raised the temperature and, after a very long wait, we were in our starting pen. Throughout the 26.2 miles, the support of the Philadelphians was overwhelming. The banners of encouragement, cowbells, horns, orange pieces and even FREE BEER in Manayunk (not accepting that almost surprised my mates more than me running a marathon!). Seeing fellow teachers, Students Run supporters, and my friends Jayne, Hans and Ryan, who ran with in from Mile 20 was so emotional. When I saw the Mile 25 marker, I really believed I could do it and hearing Dunk say, “I think you can get a sub 4.30 time. Now enjoy this last mile – it will be a big moment in your life” really made me capture the enormity of what we were achieving. Throngs of people flanked both sides of the marathon route and I felt like Katie Taylor when she lifted her Olympic Gold for Ireland. As we approached the finish line, Dunk held up my arm and we crossed it together. As Jayne handed me the tricolour, I was filled with emotion, what an honour to finish with my coach and running hero and accomplish a lifelong goal.

Students Run pasta party for the Philadelphia Marathon 2012

As I sit here, weeks later, I’m still smiling at the thought of the marathon accomplishments of my friends and running partners, Dunk, Laurie, Katie, Carlin, Sarah, Heather and our Students Run kids. I am humbled to have been, and continue to be, a part of this great journey. I know that the road to the 2012 Philly Marathon is only a part of our journey. The dream I mentioned at the start of this blog has come true and I surely have been carried. RUN STRONG!

With my fellow Students Run mentors: Heather, Sarah, Melissa and Katie
View fivemarathons photos at
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NYC Marathon, 2004

NYC Marathon, 2004
NYC Marathon, 2004