Ballina native Norah Pieterse remains the last reigning champion of the West of Ireland Women’s Mini-Marathon, at least in its traditional, in-person format. Norah (nee Newcombe) broke the tape at the 2019 Mini-Marathon in Castlebar, covering the 10k in a blistering 37.39 in the colours of Mayo AC, a full 83 seconds ahead of the second-place finisher.
Little were any of us to know on that sunny Bank Holiday Sunday two years ago just how drastically life would have changed 24 months on. The 2021 Mini-Marathon will be a virtual event, just as the 2020 edition was, as Covid-19 restrictions continue to make in-person gatherings impossible. The ongoing vaccine rollout at least gives hope that by 2022 we will be able to congregate on The Mall again, but for now, participants in the Mini-Marathon will have to make do with the highways and byways of their own localities.
But the defending champion is undeterred. Norah won’t be chasing down any personal bests this weekend (she and her husband Elmer are expecting their second child, a sibling for Sophia, in September) but she is embracing the ‘Your Hero’ aspect of this year’s event, which encourages participants to run in honour of someone they consider their personal hero.
For Norah, that hero is her six-year-old nephew Alfie, and the charity she is supporting is the Mayo Branch of Down Syndrome Ireland.
“When they said that this year’s theme was ‘Your Hero’ I said there is nobody else!” said Norah this week. “I didn’t have to wrack my brain. Alfie is just so special.”
Alfie is the son of Norah’s brother Noel Newcombe. The family live in Loughrea, where Alfie is enrolled in mainstream school at St Ita’s NS.
“Alfie has such a positive outlook on life, he takes things in his stride with an infectious smile, it’s impossible not to feel uplifted by his kind nature,” continued Norah.
“His school was closed, and it was hard. Someone with special needs, they need their routine and they need to be doing the same things. He had an SNA coming to him once a week, but they’re all happy now that he’s back in school.”
Like his aunt, Alfie is a keen sportsperson. He is part of the Special Olympics’ Young Athletes Programme in Galway and was recently selected to be an ambassador for the Can’t Stop Now campaign, a fundraising appeal to support the continuing work of Special Olympics Ireland through the lockdown.
Norah explained how important being a part of the Special Olympics movement has been for Alfie.
“The programme exposes children to a wide variety of play activities in a supportive and fun environment where everyone has the opportunity to succeed. The benefits go beyond sports, setting these children up with skills that allow them to thrive in life and hopefully stay active into adulthood,” she said.
Alfie is a dab hand at most sports but one of his favourites is golf, and he is a regular down on the driving range at Loughrea with his grandad Murphy. Both of them were delighted with the courses reopening this week.
Down Syndrome Ireland, one of the 18 charities set to benefit from this year’s Mini-Marathon, does incredible work around the country in supporting people with Down Syndrome. They are involved in projects including art and movement groups, drama classes and Learn to Cycles programmes, to name but a few. A recent programme on RTE One highlighted the group’s exhibition, ‘Our Hands’ in the Ballina Arts Centre.
“I chose to fundraise for DS Mayo because I know how important it is to provide support and social opportunities for children and adults with Down Syndrome,” explained Norah.
“Many charity organisations have been hit hard by Covid-19 and it is vitally important that we continue to support them so they can carry on the good work and support heroes like Alfie, because we all can do with a hero like Alfie.”
Norah is one of the best-known and most successful runners of the local scene and has competed at national level wearing the green and red of Mayo AC. Her competitive running has been disrupted by Covid but she was able to compete in some events during the Level 3 lockdown last autumn.
“Towards the end of last year, a lot of races resumed with maybe 200 people. Athletics Ireland put on a national event at Santry, a closed-door meet, but we were just grateful for the chance to go up and race. One your race was done, you had to leave again, so it was very different.”
For the time being she’s happy enough to stay fit with some jogging.
“I would love to see races resume and everyone able to get back out there but from a personal perspective it’s not affecting me too much.”
Norah works as a personal trainer and instructor in The Gym in Ballina. Like gyms across the country their doors have been shut since New Years, and there is still no clear picture of when they will be allowed to reopen. Norah and her colleagues have been doing some virtual classes to keep their members engaged but they are eager to hear a date for when the gyms can properly return.
“We don’t know,” she said. “We’d be hoping for the summer, but who knows?”
In the meantime, the reigning Mini-Marathon champion is busy getting ready to (virtually) defend her crown. Norah is embracing the ‘Your Hero’ mindset of his year’s event, proudly running to honour her remarkable nephew and to raise important funds for Down Syndrome Ireland, who do such valuable work in our communities.