Sunday’s 39th Belfast City Marathon didn’t go exactly as planned for Gladys Ganiel.
The 44-year-old Harrington native, who settled in the Northern Ireland capital some 15 years ago after studying for both her master’s and doctorate degrees at University College Dublin, finished third in the women’s field with a time of 2 hours, 45 minutes and 3 seconds.
That was a little over a minute behind race winner Fionnuala Ross (2:43:42), but she might have been much faster save for the severe stitch she endured during much of the race. The abdominal pain forced her to stop once and prompted her to collapse briefly after crossing the finish line.
“That’s an awful long way to run with a painful stitch, not to mention the fact that stitches affect your form and make you inefficient and therefore slower,” Ganiel said.
“When I stopped it was less than a mile from where I live, and a few friends who were in the race or spectating encouraged me to get going again so I kept running, just slower. The stitch eased a bit the last 4 or 5 miles but by then the damage was done — I had lost too much to catch the two women ahead of me and I was drained as well.”
Not all was lost. The race, which was canceled in 2020 and moved from May to October this year, served as the Irish national marathon championship, and Ganiel earned the bronze medal in that event for the third time in her career. She also helped her running club, the North Belfast Harriers, capture the Northern Ireland team championship.
But much as her running career had its origin in Down East Maine, Ganiel believes her recent battle with stitches — which also bothered her during an April marathon in Pulford, England — may be traced to a rite of summer work in Washington County.
“I have a theory that this goes back to the position my body was in raking blueberries all those years ago,” she said. “If you are a right-handed raker that part of your body gets scrunched up in a weird way and it may have had some physical development consequences, since I started raking at age 8.”
Ganiel began running at age 13 and became a three-time Class C cross country state champion at Narraguagus High School who finished sixth at the 1994 Foot Locker national championship. She also won three state titles in the 3,200 and two in the 1,600 for the Knights’ outdoor track team.
She then helped Providence College win the 1995 NCAA Division I cross country title and was an ECAC 10,000-meter track champion for the Friars before winning the 1999 Walter Byers Scholarship, the NCAA’s highest annual academic award.
Much of her academic work at Providence was focused on Northern Ireland and its political and religious history, which she was introduced to by her many Irish teammates recruited to Providence at the time. Ganiel wrote her undergraduate thesis on “Religion and Politics in Northern Ireland” and later used the Byers scholarship to pursue her master’s at the University College Dublin.
She earned her doctorate in politics from UCD in 2005, and soon after that moved to Belfast full time where she and husband Brian O’Neill now are raising their 6-year-old son Ronan and life is a blend of family, academia and marathoning.
Ganiel works as a reader — or just below the rank of professor — in sociology at the Queen’s University School of Social Sciences, Education and Social Work in Belfast.
She’s also been a prolific author, with most of her writing these days in academic journals on such topics as “From Pulpit to Public: Church Leaders on a Post-Brexit Ireland,” “Pope Francis versus Mary McAleese and Marie Collins: The 2018 Papal Visit to Ireland and the Role of Abuse in the Decline of the Catholic Church,” and “The Churches, Reconciliation and Addressing the Legacy of Intercommunal Violence In North Ireland.”
Ganiel has ranked among the top Irish marathoners for more than a decade, with the dual U.S.-Irish citizen qualifying for the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials and placing 12th for Northern Ireland at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Scotland. She also was an alternate for Ireland’s 2016 Olympic marathon team.
The 2020 Maine Running Hall of Fame inductee established her current personal-best marathon time at age 42 with a 2:36:42 effort at the 2019 Dublin Marathon.
Ganiel said access to competition hasn’t been affected by the pandemic, as races resumed in Northern Ireland in July 2020. But lack of access to medical support during the first few months of the coronavirus led to problems around her left hip, lower back and left hamstring attachment that she believes prompted the pain she’s endured during her two marathons this year.
“This has always been a tight, problem area for me,” she said.
Yet she described her training for this year’s Belfast City Marathon as similar to 2019 when she ran her two fastest marathons, with training between 80 and 85 miles a week including runs of as long as 20 to 25 miles.
Ganiel ran with Ross for part of the Belfast race, and at the midpoint they were a minute behind leader and eventual runner-up Ciara Hickey amid the field of more than 4,000 runners.
That’s when the stitch kicked in, leaving Ganiel in a personal battle just to reach the finish line.
“I will need to work harder on my physio and probably take a few more easy weeks than I normally would after a marathon to get this sorted out if I hope to run one more good one before I get too old,” she said.