05 May 2009

36 Hours in Belfast, Northern Ireland

A lot has changed recently in Belfast, despite the unfortunate violence a few months ago against British soldiers. For those who find themselves with a day and a half to spare, there are a plethora of great restaurants, new shopping centers, and of course pubs to keep you busy. Additionally there are monuments, murals, and sites in abundance for those wishing to try to make sense of and reflect upon ‘the Troubles’ of the recent past. And for those who are willing there is even a marathon to throw into the middle of your visit!


9:00 AM
1) Dog Drop Off

First ‘to do’ for any dog-owning couple embarking on a journey is to make sure your bud will be well taken care of while you are gone. Kathleen and I had somehow managed to arrange for a colleague of mine look after Miller. What had started as a genuine inquiry about local kennels, eventually turned into my colleague’s two children bragging to all the neighbourhood about how they were getting a real American Dog for a couple of days. We had pre-arranged a meet up in the park last week to be sure that Miller got on with the other two dogs in residence, and all had gone smoothly. So we (almost tearfully) dropped Miller off to the open and very willing arms of my colleague’s family.

12:00 PM
2) Lady Dixon Park and Guinness Pies

We had no problems getting our flight over to Belfast and I would have to say it was one of the fastest flights I have been on. We were up and down in under 30 minutes. We hopped a cab into town where we met up with a shuttle bus to take us out to Lady Dixon Park to pick up my race number. The shuttle took almost as long as the flight and only ran every 40 minutes. This turned out to be my first experience with the poor race planning. When we eventually got back to the city we were starving.

Belfast has many places to sample the local food and drink and emerging from the shuttle bus, we stumbled into one that had actually been recommended. The Crown Liquor Saloon is a beautifully restored ‘Victorian Gin Palace’ that stands out by it’s ornate architecture from down the street.

Upon entering, you are immediately drawn to the series of private booths that line the right hand side. These are fully enclosed dining booths with doors on them to provide privacy. Apparently they were not originally designed for private dining, but were created so that folks could slip in and have a pint or two without the whole town being aware of it.

Unfortunately, these were full at the time, so we took our seats at the bar. One look at the menu and we both immediately ordered the Guinness and Steak Pies which were absolutely wonderful. Kathleen was able to accompany hers with Guinness proper while my ‘training’ dictated I abstain.

2:30 PM
3) The Falls Road Walk

After checking in and a quick sniff of our rooms unique aroma (as of March 31st, all rooms are non-smoking!), we decided to spend as much time out in the city as possible. There are not too many things to do and see in Belfast, but both Kathleen and I wanted to check out the Falls Road. This is a road that runs through the traditional Catholic and Republican centers of the city and was the focal point for a lot of the rioting and violence that occurred in the recent past. We walked about 15 minutes from our hotel and crossed over a large bridge. As we walked further on, we notice more and more graffiti. Some simply read ‘IRA’ whereas others were much more provocative and violent. One of the scariest things we saw were the words: ‘There is more to come – RIRA’. The RIRA or Real Irish Republican Army was one of the groups claiming responsibility for the killing of British soldiers a few weeks back.

We continued on up to the intersection of the Falls Road and Grosvenor Road where there was a park. This park was nicknamed Looney Park due to the fact that it faced an old insane asylum.

Taking a right on the Falls Road, we saw many buildings, monuments, and murals that all referenced ‘the Troubles.’ One of the most moving was a large mural on the side of the Sinn Fein headquarters of Bobby Sands who died leading a hunger strike in prison. On the side of this mural were the words ‘Our revenge will be the laughter of our children.’

Further down the road was the Garden of Remembrance, as well as various murals painted in solidarity with the Republican cause.

All of these juxtaposed a Loyalist Mural we saw earlier in the city of a masked man holding an AK-47 announcing: ‘You are now entering Loyalist Sandy Row, heartland of South Belfast Ulster - Freedom Fighters.’

All of this gave me a lot to think about over the next few hours. I was surprised to see so many of the emotions and views out in the open and on public display. Real or imagined there was a sense of eeriness in the air. Kathleen remarked how she felt like we were being stared at and on our walk over we watched some kids climb onto a shopping center roof and throw rocks down at a pedestrian. There was also a sense of sadness that seemed to pervade a lot of the city. Our walk reminded me in some ways of Pnomh Penh, which is another city I have been to that has experienced some absolutely miserable shit (albeit on a much grander scale). However despite the awfulness of what happened, there was clear logic to the feelings you experienced wandering the city. I mean the Khmer Rouge were real bad and I don’t think many people would argue you on that. Here your emotions were not as black and white. The murals and memorials brought forth a whole host of conflicting thoughts and notions. At a very base level our walk really showed us how fucked up things got over here and made me realize again how lucky I have been over the years.

5:00 PM
4) Dinner and a Movie (or vice-versa)

At this point both Kathleen and I were a bit tired (physically and perhaps emotionally as well). We had initially planned on going up to Shankill Road which is at the heart of the Loyalist sections of the city, but decided against it. Instead we went to catch a movie before having dinner. Our supreme sense of direction dictated that we see ‘State of Play’ rather than ‘Wolverine’ (we got lost and were too late for the latter) and we both enjoyed it. Afterwards we grabbed a quick pasta meal at Maggiono’s. Despite being a chain, the pasta was quite good and just thing to carbo-load for the next day’s activity. After dinner we had a leisurely walk back through the city to our hotel. The smell had not really dissipated and I was feeling a bit anxious about the next day, however a few Tylenol PM ensured a good night’s rest.


9:00 AM
5) 26.2 Mile City Tour

OK, so my sleep was not exactly ‘good.’ Despite the wonders of modern over-the-counter drugs, I still managed to get up and use the toilet about 8 times. I finally got out of bed around 7:00 AM to face the inevitable. It wasn’t that I was not excited about the marathon, but I hade been having some shin issues for the past month or so. It was nothing debilitating, but enough to cause me some anxiety and question things a bit. Additionally, a few days prior I had the bright idea of actually investigating reviews of the course online and let’s say I was not super amped on reading about chaotic relay check points, walkers starting in front of runners, industrial estate backdrops, and apparently some cobblestones at Mile 21. So it was with some trepidation that I slowly did all my pre-race rituals and we headed down to Starbucks for a quick dose of caffeine. Over coffee, we plotted out Kathleen’s best viewing options and then set out to the start.
True to the online reviews, the start was kind of a shit show. People seemed to be jammed in everywhere with walkers mixing with runners mixing with staff mixing with relay runners mixing with spectators. There were barriers up but these meant nothing. A quick kiss to Kathleen and I pressed my way towards the front. I never even heard a start but people began to move forward en masse so I threw on my headphones and was off.

The first six miles were essentially a run out to the airport and back to the city. On my way out I was a bit concerned as my shin starting hurting from the get go but these concerns gradually yielded to the more pressing matter of the auto traffic just feet away from the course. This was the first time I understood that they really did not close most of the roads on the course, just simply thinned them out a bit. Regardless, I came back into the city feeling strong and my shin mysteriously began to numb itself. I caught Kathleen right where she said she would be and then headed back out of the city. The next few miles were through various neighborhoods of Belfast, starting with the Falls Road from yesterday. Some areas were bleaker than others – mainly those that featured a few armored cars and cops with machine guns. Not sure if this was because they were the only personnel available, but they definitely served to remind you that you were indeed in Belfast and that last years race had to be diverted a bit due to a bomb scare.

The course continued outside of the city into the suburbs and along the slopes of Black Mountain. There were some great views of both the city and the Irish Sea below. Spectators were sparse out here and many seemed more interested in watching us idiots undergo our self-induced pain rather than cheering. However there were the odd few who were really into it and every so often a cute little kid holding out candy or high-fiving runners. At one point I saw one older man with an NYPD shirt on and got excited. However rather than making any sort of sense in my attempts at communication I simply made a few gestures and spat out “New York” with my fist in the air. The guy stopped clapping and just kind of stared at me wondering who the hell I was and what I was trying to say. Pretty funny.

Around mile 15, the course started to turn back towards the city. I was still feeling quite good at this point and my splits were looking just fine (in fact at one point I apparently did a 7 minute mile, but considering that this was followed by a 10 minute mile, I think the markers were a bit off). My shins were fine, I was amply hydrated, and ready for the second half of things. Unfortunately, at this point the course turned along the harbour. On paper this looked to be a great section of the race, but in reality it was awful. It was simply a bike path with a large hedge on one side and the M2 motorway on the other. People talk about hitting ‘the wall’ when running marathons and I guess this was mine. Around mile 18 I realized I was exhausted, hungry, thirsty, and actually just bored. There was no scenery, were no spectators, and nothing to do but keep moving forward. The only thing I kept on saying to myself was ‘this is why I have been training’ and ‘this is why I have been getting up at 5:30 every morning.’ I guess it was my way of guilting myself into running harder – I mean I am Irish after all.

To top all of this, I came around a bend to read a sign ‘Marathoners Caution: Controlled Crossing Ahead.’ It seems they thought it might make sense to allow an open road to cut through the race at intervals. All of a sudden we were about 40 runners backed up, running in place, and waiting for a traffic cop to let us through. Well runners are kind of pig-headed and really self-important (me being the exception of course) so when we waited about a minute without being let through we simply ran out into traffic en-masse. The crowds that were there burst into cheers as we all flooded out and back into the race.

Kathleen chose mile 21 to wait for me and I could not have been happier. I had been through the worst part of the race and had just gotten through the deadly cobblestones. On top of everything, she even chose to trade me a nice dry headband for a dirty, sweaty hat on the spot! It must be said now that she pretty much rules for putting up with all my bitching and moaning while I train for these things, and then actually coming out and spending an entire morning trying to catch a fleeting glimpse of me while I run by.

The next five miles were back through the city and around Ormeau Park. For the most part they were incident free, but there is still something scary about running right next to road traffic so late in a marathon. At mile 25 or so I finally allowed myself to start believing that I might do pretty well in this race. As I said my splits were looking really good throughout the race, but my superstitious self would not allow me to actually envision beating my best time of 3:54. However when I saw the finish line I knew it was certain and pushed on the last few yards to cross in 3 hours and 46 minutes! The next 15 minutes were a blur as I drank everything in sight and stumbled into the Tennis Center to pick up my bag. It was standing there unpacking my dry clothes that I realized how psyched I was. The past five months had been a real pain in the ass training wise which meant I was not feeling super confident about this race. However, I managed to get myself through it and do better than I had allowed my self to consider. It is kind of crazy. Here is my amazing medal:

3:00 PM
9) Guinness, Powers and George Best

After the race, Kathleen and I hobbled home to our hotel. I was taking it slow and Kathleen was delighted at the opportunity to break into ‘Lean on Me’ whenever I staggered or slowed down. I iced down my knee and showered, and then headed out to lunch (the room still had that smell to it). We grabbed lunch at a noodle shop and planned on heading back to the Crown for some victory brew. I had snuck a taste of Kathleen’s Guinness the day prior and she had promised to buy me some post marathon. Unfortunately, the pub was closed so we went to a place that looked like it had the right combination of authenticity and sketchiness: ‘The Beaten Docket.’ Sure enough we were right. There were horses on the TV’s and our bartender was a young man who was missing his front tooth (presumably in a fight) and served us pint after pint of thick black stuff that Kathleen thought tasted reminiscent of vanilla ice-cream. Additionally, she even sprung for a few shots of Powers to celebrate (yet another reason why I have chosen to marry this girl). We ended up getting in a multitude of conversations with our bartender and the few locals seated around us. All were very friendly and talkative. Kathleen impressed them all with her knowledge of beer at which point they rightfully guessed she was Irish. They were suitably impressed with my morning’s activities, and were very interested in what brought us to this side of the pond. We learned that although they might love the football none of them really enjoy the city of Liverpool that much. One of the guys spoke briefly to Kathleen about growing up in Belfast (said the violence did not affect him to much) and we told them all how much kinder on the ears their accents were compared to the Scousers in Liverpool. However, I think the most important thing we learned was how much they all hated George Best. Apparently he was a football star who got cirrhosis of the liver at which point his notoriety enabled him to get a liver transplant. Afterwards he never quit the drink and died two years later. Now the Belfast City airport is named after him much to the chagrin of all our new drinking friends.

Finally we realized that we had better get to the airport as we thought our flight left at 8:00. Turns out we were wrong and spent an extra hour sitting at the airport reflecting on what a great weekend was had.

Final Thoughts

All in all, it was a pretty fun adventure. We got to travel somewhere neither of us had ever thought of going to and I think we were both moved by what we saw and the people we interacted with. My race was pretty much amazing despite the all the logistical issues and I am already plotting my next one (even though I said no less than a week ago that this was my last). Miller was amazing and the envy of the neighbourhood and has a standing invitation to return to my colleague’s house. It is Monday and I have been working from home and hobbling around the house. Miller is a bit peeved since I walk so slowly when we go out, but we’ll be back running again soon. However before I start training for another marathon I have a lot of skating to do…