BELFAST, Northern Ireland — When Gladys Ganiel began running the roads of her native Harrington, Maine, as a 13-year-old, it represented the same work ethic that already had led her to the arduous Down East vocation of raking blueberries for some spending money.
Little did Ganiel know where those training roads would lead two decades later.
Sure, her interest in politics had always run deep — on one occasion years ago she was seen reading a biography of former President Richard M. Nixon along press row during a break in the action at the Eastern Maine high school basketball tournament in the Bangor Auditorium.
But a college-age curiosity about life and strife in Northern Ireland has led the 1995 Narraguagus High School graduate to a job lecturing at Trinity College Dublin at Belfast, where she is an assistant professor and coordinator of the school’s Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation program.
In that role she works in the disciplines of anthropology, sociology and politics while conducting research in such areas as the Northern Ireland conflict, evangelicalism, Christianity in Ireland and charismatic Christianity in Zimbabwe and South Africa.
Ganiel also has written numerous journal articles and opinion pieces, and pens a regular blog for “Building a Church Without Walls,” a website for people interested in how Christianity is developing in the 21st century. She also has completed two books and has two more in the works.
Ganiel also attempts to maintain her relationship with the roads, as the former Narraguagus and Providence College track and field and cross country standout is now a competitive marathoner who not only represents her adopted land but also qualified to run in the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials in Houston.
“I had no hope to make the American team because to do that you really have to be a full-time runner, you have to devote your life to it,” said Ganiel, a dual U.S.-Irish citizen whose personal best time for the 26.2-mile distance is 2 hours, 40 minutes and 56 seconds, set at the Houston Marathon in January.
She hoped to finish that race in under 2:37, which would have met the Olympic “A” standard and made her eligible for the Irish Olympic team, but Ganiel is content with the balance in her life among work, running and family. She has been married for the last four years to Irish native Brian O’Neill, an Internet marketer and website developer.
“I think my family and my job are important,” she said. “Teaching is a calling, and running is not really my only path in life.”
The path to Northern Ireland
Ganiel’s interest in Northern Ireland and its political and religious history had its origin at Providence, where she majored in political science and was part of the Friars’ track and field and cross country teams.
Those teams were coached by Ray Treacy, a native of Waterford, Ireland, who recruited heavily in his native land, so much so that Ganiel jokingly described herself as “the token American” on those teams.
Yet Ganiel, who grew up with what she has described as an independent, evangelical Baptist background, was intrigued by the interactions among many of her teammates regarding centuries-old strife between the Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, as well as their reactions to more modern occurrences such as the 1998 Good Friday accord negotiated in part by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell of Maine that helped end sectarian violence in the region.
“As they talked it raised some hackles and it got me interested in the Northern Ireland conflict,” she said. “The guys on the team said it was all about religion, and to me it seemed systemic and in need of some more investigation.”
Ganiel went on to write her undergraduate thesis at Providence on “Religion and Politics in Northern Ireland” and later had the chance to pursue her master’s degree in Ireland at the University College Dublin after winning the 1999 Walter Byers Scholarship, the NCAA’s highest academic award that annually recognizes its top male and female scholar-athlete.
With that honor came two years of funded graduate work, and there was little doubt how Ganiel would use the award.
“I was interested in Ireland, so why not go there?” she said.
‘A normal life here if you want’
After earning her master’s, Ganiel returned to Maine in 2002 unsure of her next career move, working at both the Bangor Daily News and the University of Maine public affairs department.
“My aspiration was to be a sportswriter at the Bangor Daily News,” said Ganiel. “But working at the University of Maine I got to write articles on some of the research being done there and the researchers who were doing the work. I thought to myself, ‘I could cope with this kind of life,’ and it was always in the back of my mind from that point on.”
One of Ganiel’s professors back in Dublin eventually assisted her in securing funding to return to UCD to pursue her doctorate in politics, which she completed in 2005.
Ganiel subsequently spent time as a visiting scholar in Africa at the University of Cape Town and the University of Zimbabwe before settling in the home of her academic heart, Belfast.
Since her return, she has witnessed the 2007 power-sharing agreement between the political arms of Northern Ireland’s Protestant and and Catholic populations, a pact she describes as imperfect.
“There’s not as much overt physical violence now,” said Ganiel. “There’s systemic violence and tension, but in general the power-sharing arrangement they have has been set up so it’s dysfunctional.
“Still, you can live a normal life here if you want.”
Normalcy for Ganiel has included a return to competitive running, an athletic love that was diminished during the early and mid-2000s due to chronic pain issues.
By 2007 that pain finally did begin to dissipate, not through medical means but through her relationship and subsequent marriage to O’Neill.
“I think it turned out to be stress-related,” said Ganiel. “My husband has a huge family, and being around Brian and his large family structure seemed to help ease any issues I might have had.”
By 2008 Ganiel became a much more full-time presence in the Northern Ireland running community while representing the Abbey Athletic Club.
She began to focus more on the marathon distance a year later, competing at both London (2:47:53) and Rotterdam (2:46:46) with finishing times that moved her closer to the Olympic qualifying standard.
In 2010 she cut five minutes off her personal-best marathon, clocking with a 2:41:45 at London, then bettered that mark at the same race a year later with a 2:41:22 clocking.
She also ran the 2011 Dublin Marathon in 2:42:43, then returned to the United States
in January for the Houston Marathon, where she posted her best-ever time for the distance but felt it could have been faster.
“They run that race concurrently with a half-marathon, with all the runners together for the first nine miles,” said Ganiel. “Then the half-marathoners peel off. I ended up running alone from miles nine through 17. I was at a 2:37 pace, which is what I needed, but I fell off after that.
“I was glad I set a personal best, but I was still kind of disappointed.”
That turned out to be Ganiel’s closest call with Olympic qualification, as she followed Houston up with a 2:43:46 clocking in April at Rotterdam.
Ganiel, who was running 85 miles a week in preparation for the Houston Marathon, has scaled back to about 50 miles a week these days.
Still, there is much to look forward to on a competitive scale, including the IAAF World Cross Country Championships next March in Bydgoszcz, Poland, and the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Scotland.
There also are those two books to try to finish next year, one being co-authored with Geraldo Marti and titled “The Deconstructed Church: The Religious Identity and Negotiated Practices of Emerging Christianity.”
And likely her annual trip home to Maine, to visit family and perhaps take one more training run along those same roads that served as the starting line of her life’s journey across the Atlantic.
“It’s the first sabbatical I’ve taken,” said Ganiel. “I’m looking forward to it.”