Breege Connolly, one of the three women named earlier this week on the Irish Olympic Marathon team for this summer’s Olympics in Rio, only took up running for fun and to make new friends.
In what is a truly remarkable story, 38-year-old Breege from Kinlough, North Leitrim, did not take up running until she graduated from the National University in Maynooth.
She had received her early education at Kinlough NS and then at the Sacred Heart College, Ballyshannon.
It wasn’t a case either that she lived miles out in the country and that Breege either walked or cycled long miles to school and back every day.
“No, it wasn’t like that at all. We live about a mile outside the town and mum or dad would drive us to school every day and when we started to go to school in Ballyshannon, they used to drive us into Kinlough and we used to get the school bus to Ballyshannon.
Her father is Sean Connolly, Kinlough born and bred and her mother Maureen is from an adjoining parish. Matt, Donal, Cathriona and Cora are her siblings and complete the Connolly family.
“I didn’t do a day’s exercise in my life until after I left College and even then I only started to run when I went travelling and that was only to get places quicker and to catch busses and trains,” Breege told the Democrat this week.
She joined her first athletic club when she moved to live in Belfast and that was purely, she insists, to make new friends in a new city.
That was in 2003 and she did not run her first marathon for another nine years, in 2012 and that was only a few months after linking up with her current coaches and receiving proper coaching for the first time.
“When I moved to Belfast it was a strange city to me and I joined a running club, North Belfast Harriers, purely to run for fun and make friends.
“And I did that for a number of years, made many friends in the club and ran for fun and one night when I was on a night out I met my current coaches Martin Deane and Paul Elliot and they offered to coach me.
“They had been keeping an eye on my performances in 10ks and 5ks and in local races across the north and north west.
“I was taking a couple of minutes here and there off my times and obviously they saw some potential. In the first six months with the two boys I shaved six minutes off my time.”
Breege ran her first marathon, the Dublin City Marathon, in 2003 along with her cousin Finn Valley athlete Teresa McGloin, who is also a native of Kinlough.
“I was so naive, now when I look back on it that it was unreal. I did no training worth talking about for that first marathon. I had seen Teresa out running for it so I decided to join her and go for a few runs.
“I think I did two 18 mile runs and a couple of six mile runs but that was it.”
Breege ran Dublin and finished in a very respectable time of 4 hours and 1 minute flat.
She did not run a marathon again for nine years and after Martin Deane and Paul Elliott had taken her under their wing.
In April of last year she achieved the qualifying time for Rio in the London Marathon. She ran the London 2012 Olympic course in only her fifth ever marathon.
She ran her second in Rotterdam in 2012 which was her first serious attempt at the distance.
Her London time of 2.37:20 was well inside the Olympic Qualifying standard of 2.42.00 and just a little under three minutes inside her Rotterdam time of 2.40:25.
“It was brilliant to make the qualifying time and to do it so far out from the Olympics.
“I also took the decision that was it, I had done the time and I decided I wasn’t going to run another marathon to try and improve my time.
“I had made the time and it was a matter of waiting and hoping it was good enough and that I would be selected. My decision was that my next marathon was going to be in Rio.”
Breege was named along with Lizzie Lee, Leevale AC, and Fionnuala McCormack (nee Britton), Kilcoole AC on the Irish Marathon team for Rio, in August.
Fionnuala McCormick has strong family connections in the Ballintra-Cashelard area of south Donegal.
“I got the ‘phone call informing me that I had made team at 6.20 pm yesterday (Monday ) and being honest I don’t think it has sunk in yet.
“But the reaction has been great and they are delighted for me at home in Kinlough and at work here in Newry and in the club in Belfast though I think it means more to the people at home in Kinlough and in the parish than it does anywhere else.
“I know I’m attached to a club in Belfast and I have many great friends at the club and I’ll be representing Ireland at the Olympics but most of all I’ll be representing the parish in Rio and I’ll be running for my people and my own community.”
Breege lives in Belfast and commutes daily to Newry where she is a software tester with global logistic company eShopworld.
The Rio Olympics start on Friday August 5th and ends on Sunday, August 21st with the Women’s Marathon on the middle weekend, on Sunday August 14th.