‘You're never too old for an adventure,’ says Mary Nolan Hickey. To prove it, the 65-year-old ran a lap of the 'island of Ireland', raising over €60K for the RNLI.
‘I've worked hard all my life and wouldn’t usually have money to go off and do this kind of thing,' says Mary, from County Wicklow, who runs a coffee shop at her local leisure centre. 'But I thought, "I've been running for 50 years now: it's time to do something different."'
So, on January 1 2018, Mary headed off from her hometown of Arklow, with the hope of returning by June 25: ‘Just in time to pick up my first pension cheque.’
Having completed all 38 Dublin marathons – with a PB, set in 1981, of 2:58 – Mary is no stranger to an endurance challenge. But this, she believed, was her toughest test to date. First, there's the distance: nearly 4,000km. Then there's the navigation; 'I figure I’m running anticlockwise around an island: as long as the sea is always on my right, I'm doing grand.’
When it came to plotting the route, Mary stuck to the safest roads closest to the coast. ‘Before I headed off I said, “Listen, I won't be crawling over the rocks here; I‘m not going to be clinging on to the very edge like a limpet.”’
While Mary may have avoided any sea spray, she's had to battle her fair share of bracing Irish weather. In January, there was a particularly testing afternoon at the hands of Storm Eleanor. ‘After about an hour, I realised it was going to be dangerous to keep going, as it was the kind of wind and rain that whips right through you,’ she says. ‘So I went to the nearest garage and bought a bin bag and a pair of rubber kitchen gloves. I went into the toilets, changed into the one dry top I had in my rucksack, pulled the bin bag over my head, put my wet gear back on top, and headed out. Once I had all that on me, I warmed up again.’
With the wild Atlantic coast yet to be conquered, conditions aren't about to get easier. But Mary loved every minute of it. ‘When I told people about the challenge, a lot of them said, “Why don't you go off to a sunnier place?’ My response was, “Why don't I go to my own place and have proper look at it?’ Even in the winter, this island is beautiful. I‘m looking at scenes I never knew existed in Ireland. Yesterday I saw dolphins leaping out of the water – it was amazing.’
Along the way, Mary's infamous navigational skills have been called upon – with some amusing results. ‘I had an incident where there was a fella indulging in a little bit of road rage, doing doughnuts on the crossroads,’ she says. ‘So I phoned the local garda [Irish police]. Of course the first question they asked me was, “Where are you?” And I had to say, “I don't really know!”’
So Mary turned back and ran 400m down the road to see the closest road sign. ‘The people following me online saw I was going backwards and must have thought I’d lost my mind or something, because they contacted the people at the town I was headed to and told them to come and get me. By the time they found me, I was on great form, trotting along the road happy as Larry!’
That level of support had been in evidence all along the route. ‘From very early on, there was massive interest in what I was doing,’ she says. ‘I’ve had to pay for hardly any accommodation or food, which I didn’t envisage, and every day people were coming out to run some or all of the day’s route with me.’
The same has been true of all the RNLI stations Mary visited. ‘There was always tea and biscuits,’ she said. ‘And they all wanted a photo taken with me. It was really uplifting. I didn’t expect the RNLI to get on board like this. They’re busy people doing a difficult job, but they made the time to make me feel so, so welcome.’
Not that Mary has much time to enjoy the hospitality. She was covering between 13 and 30 miles a day, through a combination of ‘slow running and fast walking’. It was a mammoth effort but Mary believes anyone, at any age, can do something similar.
‘I'm just an average person,’ she says. ‘I’m no different to anybody else. I‘ve always kept fit and been a runner, but anyone can head out and do this kind of thing if they choose to. They just have to have a strong will and the right mental attitude.’
That, and a bin bag and pair of marigolds.
There's Something About Mary
Mary is the only woman to have completed all 38 Dublin marathons, one of which she ran while being over six months pregnant.
She has also completed the Marathon des Sables, a multi-day ultramarathon in the Sahara.
For more info, visit: rnlilapofthemap.com