NORMAN Mawhinney isn’t your regular retiree. One of the area’s best-known runners, the former business owner is hungrier than ever to build upon his already vast collection of achievements in the sport and help others to achieve the same – all at 65 years young. Norman’s running journey didn’t begin when you might have expected it to either, not tackling his first race until 2009. But what was to follow would have got a laugh out of the then 51 year-old.

    On the day of his 65th birthday, he sat down with the Spectator to reveal all. “It all started when somebody challenged me to a race when I was 51, explained the Comber native. “I played football until about the age of 49 and did a bit of cycling after that, but I hadn’t ran since my school days. “He thought that he was fitter than I was and said he was going to do the Ards Half Marathon. This was in June and the race was in September. I thought, ‘I’m fit, I’ll be able to do that.’ “I went out that night, ran 250 yards and collapsed. “The next morning, I got up and ran three miles. And then I ran every morning until the half marathon, the first race I had ever done. I ended up doing it in one hour and 51 minutes, which wasn’t a bad time for somebody of that age at that stage. “The guy who challenged me couldn’t compete because of an injury, so I actually won the race with him! That was the start of my running career. “It got me addicted to it, in a way,” he continued. “The following year, I did every half marathon in the series and got down to reasonable times. “By 2011, I decided I wanted to do my first marathon – Dublin Marathon. “At that stage, I was with East Down Athletic Club. They had a relay race a week before the marathon, which went really well. “But I hurt my knee there, went and did the marathon and actually ended up wrecking my knee which ruled me out for nearly a year. My time in Dublin was just under four and a half hours and two years later, I gave it another go. “I knew what time I should have been aiming for; three hours and 30 minutes. “I finished in 3:30:09. Nine seconds wouldn’t mean a lot to most people, but whenever you’re aiming for 3:30, it’s an absolute disaster,” he said. “I kept training hard and by the following year, I had been picked for Northern Ireland and got my first international vest running for the 55 plus age group in Cardiff. 2014 proved to be a year to remember for Norman and the love affair he has for running today. “That year, I began coaching and set up the first ever couch to 5k programme in the Ards and North Down area. “To ‘graduate’ from couch to 5k, you need somewhere to run a 5k but back then, the area had no parkruns. They hadn’t taken off here,” he added. “I started Comber parkrun on May 31, 2014 – which has grown to become a very popular parkrun. Things moved on from that and I did my third marathon, Berlin, in 2015 on a trip organised by Ballydrain Harriers, who I was a member of at the time.

    “Berlin is one of the ‘major’ marathons, along with London, Chicago, Boston, Tokyo and New York. I remember not knowing what a major marathon was and I now have all six of those ticked off. “I ran 2:59:14 at Berlin aged 57 – a big thing in marathons is to go under three hours. I got up the next morning and was talked into doing Dublin Marathon again, thinking that it was a year away or something. It was three weeks later! “I ran it in 3:01 and found out the following Wednesday I had won the Irish Championship for my age category,” a now familiar feat for the British Empire Medal recipient. “In 2016, we formed Scrabo Striders. That was the first adult running group in Newtownards. Before then, people would have run with Ballydrain or North Down. “The Berlin trip had got me addicted to marathons and in the time between it and now, I have run roughly 100 marathons. “I ran a new personal best of 2:58:12 at Dublin in 2017 and while that was happening, so was all the coaching,” he recalled. “Groups like Ward Park Runners, Dee Runners, Ballygalget, Portaferry, Dundonald and Saintfield have all been born out of couch to 5k programmes.”

    Norman’s passion and devotion to local running has seen him recognised with a host of accolades, including the Athletics NI Coach of the Year award and Volunteer of the Year at the annual Ards and North Down Borough Council Sports Awards. He is also part of the network of parkrun ambassadors. But most fittingly, exactly four years on from the formation of Comber parkrun in 2014 – on May 31, 2018 – Norman attended a garden party at Buckingham Palace having been awarded the British Empire Medal (BEM) for services to running and the community.

    While turning 65 would prompt many to start winding down, Norman has no such plans, and believes he’s in the best shape of his life. “The year just gone has been probably my most successful year yet,” he said, with a new marathon personal best of 2:53:31, a 10k PB (36:31) and victories at every Ulster and NI Championship event for 60+ to show for it. “I have used it as a preparatory year as I am now in the 65+ age category. The big bonus for me last year was winning Northern Ireland’s first ever international medal for the M60 team.” Just as invested in coaching others as he is his own success, Norman, whose latest win came as recently as last weekend at the Mallusk Cross Country, currently mentors over 80 people who he sends individual plans to each week and leads seventeen 45-minute strength and conditioning classes per week in addition to speed, tempo and long run sessions. “One thing about running is the people that you meet,” he continued. “We used to survey people who had come through the couch to 5k programmes to ask what they had got from it. “Number one was ‘I made new friends.’ Number two: ‘It really helped my head’. And then came fitness, weight loss and so on. But those first two are two things that you weren’t necessarily aiming for. “There are clubs that want everyone to run together and others that want to split into ability groups. But there’s no right or wrong. The most important thing is that we’re all running,” he said. “I’m as excited for somebody else getting a PB as I am myself. But I don’t feel old. I want to do more and I’m working as hard as I’ve ever worked. “If somebody were to say to me, ‘aren’t you taking a day off for your birthday?’ – why would you take a day off from doing something you love?”