Belfast Turns Out for a Run

PERHAPS it's only in Ireland that a four-mile jog through Belfast could be labeled a ``Fun Run.'' In international terms it would appear to be the equivalent of a race through Beirut or, in earlier days, a canter around Berlin. The world's trouble spots, which have long lodged in the headlines, generate images of their own. The international image of Belfast is largely that of a beleaguered city, torn apart by conflict between terrorists and security forces and soured by politically intransigent Protestants and Roman Catholics, with its inhabitants living in a twilight zone of industrial deprivation and decay. From afar it might appear to be a city whose people are more used to running the gantlet than to the spring-time eccentricities of a Fun Run.

In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Belfast is a lively and surprisingly ``normal'' city, with a beautiful setting and a stout heart which beats strongly and reassuringly despite the constant struggles. Of course there are trouble spots, and widely-reported incidents of violence as well as political deadlock, but the rumor of the city's demise is greatly exaggerated.

Each springtime its citizens, and hundreds of visitors, enjoy a communal jog-cum-stroll through the city center, and this Fun Run is followed by the Belfast Marathon, which like those of London, New York, Boston, and elsewhere, attract the kind of athlete to whom pounding on concrete is as agreeable as a cold shower at dawn or an icy dip in the ocean. This kind of dedication I admire, from afar, but my frame is built for contentment rather than for physical confrontation with the elements - which is why this year's Fun Run appealed to me. And, as a bonus, my 12-year-old son Matthew offered to be my guide, provided I would not embarrass him by not finishing the course.

Matthew and I assembled at the starting line with about 1,500 others, on a cool and bracing May morning in downtown Belfast. The Lord Mayor saw us off with a starting pistol, which, on reflection, must have been the one cheerful gun in Belfast in recent times. After the first 600 yards of jogging elbow to elbow, and avoiding being run over by prams and buggies, I gave Matthew a wink and he diplomatically stopped to tie his laces while I helpfully looked on, and surreptitiously took a breather. Early on, we established a good running relationship - each time one of us needed a rest, the other would tie a shoelace or point to a significant item on the skyline, just in case anyone might have thought we were weakening. The McCrearys were going to finish.

There was plenty of time, however, to reflect on the beauty and indeed the spirit of Belfast. As we ran, people lined the streets and cheered us on - with a special encouragement for the very young and the rather elderly, and for those in wheelchairs. It was enlightening to notice how parents waited patiently for young children, and how groups of what could only be termed ``mature'' ladies encouraged one another as they padded along with abundant good humor.

There was also time to look with fresh eyes on Belfast, the city of so many headlines. Somehow it seemed different as we ran along the main streets, which were free of traffic. We skirted the River Lagan, which flows through the heart of the city and which is the center of imaginative new waterside developments; on past the beautifully majestic City Hall, the scene of mammoth political rallies and many vigils for peace; then to the Ulster Hall and memories of concerts by such visitors as the Moscow Radio Symphony Orchestra, the Halle Orchestra from Manchester and our own Ulster Orchestra.

Our breath held out, and so did our legs and feet, and we moved through Shaftesbury Square - sometimes paralyzed in the past by bomb scares - and on past the elegant and beautiful Queen's University, in its leafy suburb; then down by the Lyric Theatre with its memories of the fine cultural life which Belfast has to offer, including some excellent plays arising out of the Ulster troubles.

The course than led us back across the Lagan, with its magnificent view of Irish landscapes, and the beautiful outcrop of Belfast's Cave Hill in the far distance.

The scene reminded me of a quotation from the celebrated Dublin actor and writer Micheal MacLiammoir: ``Everything possible is done to hide up the fact that you are in Ireland at all: the Irish Language is seldom heard and never seen.... `Ulster is British' is the motto everywhere, and but for the blue mountains at the end of the streets, the quality of the light, the sigh of the wind, certain faces and voices, certain hints of melancholy and of magic lightly touching you as day passes into night, you might easily believe yourself to be in Bradford or Manchester.'' Without doubt, however, this was Belfast with its vivid green grass and bushes, and rust-red buildings and the blue Lagan.

Amazingly soon, Matthew and I approached the finishing line, a little puffed but triumphant, and crossed the line like a couple of Olympic champions, with another 1,500 people in tow! The run really had been fun not only for itself but for what it demonstrated about Belfast and its people.

There is a spirit, a creativity and a matter-of-fact order about this city, as well as a sense of fun, which is infectious. It's surprising what goes on, despite the headlines, on such a day in Belfast.

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