From inner-city flat to 5k: ‘I feel we have a lot more energy’

Training for a park run has changed the lives of disadvantaged teenagers, both physically and mentally, for the better

The speaker and his audience lead lives that are poles apart, yet for a short time they connect in a securely fenced-off community centre behind the Dominick Street flats in Dublin 1.

David Gillick, the 35-year-old former elite athlete and father of two from south Dublin, who has travelled the world, is addressing a group of teenagers from the inner-city flats who are at risk of being constrained by socio-economic disadvantage. But one thing they have in common is the difference a single 5k run can make.

For Gillick, who admits he became so depressed he contemplated suicide as he struggled to adjust to a new life after injury ended his athletics career in 2013, a 5k park run in his local Marlay Park one Saturday morning three years ago was a turning point in his mental-health recovery.

For the teenagers, a Saturday morning 5k park run earlier this year, in Fairview Park on Dublin’s northside, was the culmination of an eight-week “Run for Fun” programme, which they say has changed their lives for the better, both physically and mentally.


Mind you, they probably were not saying that on the first occasion coach Derek Stanbridge had them puffing up the hill from Lower Dominick Street to the top of Dominick Street Upper.

One lad was “visibly shaking” at the end of the first two sessions, says Declan Keenan, co-ordinator of the Just Ask homework club that meets in this community centre run by Dublin City Council. But by the time that boy did the 5k “he wasn’t even out of breath”.

“At that age it doesn’t take long to get them back on track because they are young and they do have a level of fitness in them,” he points out. After just a few weeks, they were training up the Magazine Fort hill in the Phoenix Park.

Run for Fun, which is a collaboration between the VHI and the Irish Youth Foundation (IYF) to target youngsters living in disadvantaged areas, also weaves in nutritional advice. For example, the 15 participants here at Just Ask were encouraged to swap their high-sugar fizzy and energy drinks of choice for smoothies that they made in the centre.

Drop-off in physical activity

A significant drop-off in physical activity among children as they progress through secondary-level education is a concern throughout the country.

By the age of 16, some 34 per cent of girls and 41 per cent of boys do not meet the minimum level of fitness needed for optimal heart health, according to research findings released at the recent launch of this year's Irish Life Health Schools Fitness Challenge. These low levels of fitness increase the risk of developing other chronic diseases such as high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes.

The only outward sign of such health risks in young people is obesity, says Prof Niall Moyna, head of DCU's School of Health and Human Performance, who oversees the fitness challenge. With all the focus on the problems of excess weight, people may not realise that slim children can also be incubating lots of health issues that will have a serious impact on them in years to come if they can not be persuaded simply to move more in their daily lives, he warns.

“Part of the health issues for the inner city is actually being underweight and under height,” says Keenan. “Bringing kids to football matches, you’ll spot ours because they’re a foot smaller – you get the odd tall one of course and the odd small one on other teams but, on average, they’re underweight.”

That’s why a very important part of the after-school club is the hot, nutritious meal the children are given when they come in. Otherwise, “they tend to eat very unhealthily and erratically”.

The national trend for teenagers' lives to become more sedentary is magnified in the inner-city by economic, social and environmental factors. The IYF chose running as the core component of this health programme because, as its head of grants and programmes, Sabina Cotter, explains, they wanted to introduce something the young people could do in their spare time and for which they would not have to pay fees or membership levies.

Typically in the winter, the youngsters will stay in playing video games, says Keenan. “We will even get kids not coming to clubs here because they are playing Fortnite, which keeps them playing. In the past, with games like Fifa, they’d get bored after an hour.”

Mental-health issues

He sees so many young people struggling with mental-health issues. The roots of these are spending too long “sitting in dark, small flats, especially in winter”, he suggests. “And if they’re sitting in, they’re not feeling good about themselves. Social media, you can’t avoid it – people are constantly judging them – and then it becomes a spiral.”

Whereas getting out, exercising and having fun with a group builds up their endorphins and makes them feel better about themselves.

Keenan says they targeted mainly the 14-16 age group for Run for Fun, most of whom were doing little exercise. Up to the age of 12, many of the lads and some of the girls play on football teams but after that, when the teams are segregated by gender, the girls tend to drop out.

Once the boys start developing muscle mass, he sees those who are slower developers getting left behind, not making the team for matches and so they lose heart and also drop out.

While boxing is widely promoted as a sport for inner-city kids, not everyone is into it and it “has a lot of grey areas”, he comments. “A lot of the gyms, to be honest, you really don’t want to be sending them to.”

The community really got behind the Run for Fun too, says Keenan. A visit from this year's winner of RTÉ's Operation Transformation David Cryan, a community sergeant at the nearby Bridewell Garda Station, made quite an impact. He was able to talk about his experience of shedding 21kg within the same timescale of eight weeks as the teenagers had for this.

At the end, the 5k park run was definitely a challenge for the youngsters, Keenan explains, and some walked it but, all along, they had been told “you’re just competing against yourself, not each other” and it was a significant achievement that they all completed it.

However, the idea that perhaps they could continue to go out jogging together now to keep their fitness up is knocked on the head by a dose of inner-city realism from Keenan. He points out that if groups of kids are seen running in this area, it’s presumed “they’re up to something and they will be hauled out of it”. They need adults to accompany them in well-lit areas.

But still, the success of the programme means they will be doing it again here on Dominick Street in November, with similar ones planned for Galway, Cork and Kilkenny before the end of the year.

For Stanbridge as coach, "it was really good to see the kids changing", he says, while stressing the importance of the recognition and feedback they are getting through the presentation of completion medals, for which Gillick is doing the honours. Other visitors include VHI chief executive John O'Dwyer and the Chair of the Oireachtas Committee on Children and Youth Affairs, Fine Gael TD Alan Farrell.

Good-natured banter

Not that the locals stand on ceremony here. But Gillick is comfortable with the good-natured banter and is unperturbed that the disclosure he won Celebrity MasterChef straight after his retirement from athletics initially elicits more of a reaction among the mothers in the room than the fact that he raced his way to two European indoor gold medals, sixth place in a world championship and participation in the Beijing Olympics in 2008.

However, a few minutes later, after one woman asks him just how far from where they’re sitting would 400 metres be – the distance he became the first Irishman to run under 45 seconds – the scale of his achievements registers. His explanation that it’s the equivalent to going up and down a football pitch four times seriously impresses them.

Gillick shares his experience of his defining first park run before which, just like the teenagers, he had never actually run a 5k.

“I went off like a mad man; at 2k I blew up and had to stop and this guy pushing a double buggy passed me.” Yet despite that, he enjoyed the experience and from there gradually got back into running for pleasure – gaining most from the mental aspect. “It cleared my mind.”

The Saturday before we speak, despite having a five-week-old baby in the house, he was one of 7,576 people who completed park runs and junior park runs around the country, of which there is now a total of 100 every week.

Although people expect him to find such a run easy, he stresses that “for me, 5k is long, it is, it’s long”, which is why he likes to have the headphones in.

“That 2k-3k mark is where the voice goes ‘I’m knackered’ so sometimes if I have music in my ears, it drowns out that voice,” he laughs.

Gillick, whose latest book Back on Track is a four-part plan to "reset your lifestyle", tells the listening teenagers that having trained for and completed a 5k "you can coach yourself now, you know what to do".

While a programme such as Run for Fun or the School Fitness Challenge is short-term, the hope is that feeling the benefits of exercise will be a lesson for life – a life that should be all the longer and happier for it too.

What the teenagers say:

“At first I was, like, I don’t really want to do it,” admits Carys O’Connor (15) about the Run for Fun programme. “There was going to be boys there as well and I felt like they were going to judge us.”

The only exercise she was doing was PE at school, although she and her friend Chloe Hanna (14), who also trained for the run, enjoy football and like to kick a ball around on a pitch beside St Michan’s flats, where they both live.

On the first run, Carys thought she wouldn’t make it to the top of the hill. But as the weeks went on, “I was getting to the top of hill much faster than I was”.

On the morning of the 5k park run, she still had grave doubts about being able to complete it but she found people clapping them on was great encouragement.

What has she changed in her life since?  “Eating,” is her immediate answer, before also explaining that she and Chloe have joined a gym up in “The Bogies” – the Cabra Parkside Community Sports Centre, which caters for teenagers.

Chloe says she was looking forward to the programme but thought it would be very tiring as it was after school, starting at 6pm on Tuesday evenings.

“The training was tough but we enjoyed it,” she says. And it encouraged her to change her eating habits too.

“I was having smoothies and breakfast – I never used to eat breakfast. Dinners changed as well.” Before she ate “chippers” and now she has main dishes such as chicken paprika and pasta.

“Ever since we done the programme I feel we have a lot more energy playing football,” she says, adding that the exercise “relaxes you and makes you feel better”.

But while neither of them has been converted to regular running, they have definitely increased their physical activity by joining the gym and it has also spurred them to start making enquiries about girls’ football teams in the area.

Meanwhile, Jack Bates (13), who found the sessions hard at the start, says he goes for runs now on his own and is eating more vegetables and fruits.

What the parents say:

“The mammies” were an integral part of the Run for Fun programme as a couple of them were always on hand on Tuesday evenings to walk kids from the St Michan’s House flats on Greek Street to the sessions at the Dominick Street community centre.

“We’d pull them out of their houses,” says Lisa O’Connor, mother of Carys O’Connor. At first, “some of them were really shy, especially the girls”.

It’s been a real community effort, she says, describing the coach, Derek Stanbridge as “sound and on their level”. And having listened to some of the nutritional advice, “I want to start eating chicken and pasta”, she laughs.

“We’re all very proud of them,” says O’Connor who is just one of a large turnout of parents and grandparents at the presentation of medals. Having heard about the experience of others working with teenagers in the inner-city, such a high level of parental engagement is not a given.

Joanna Boylan says her daughter Skye (13) took “a bit of persuasion” to join Run for Fun back in April, when she wasn’t doing much exercise.

She was “on the phone continually” and doing very little PE at school, while chicken fillet rolls and Boost energy drinks were staples of her diet. But Boylan has seen “big changes” in Skye since completing the programme.

“She has more energy and is eating better,” she reports, “and she feels more comfortable in herself.” Skye and her friends regularly go out for a walk now after school but “there is nothing” in terms of recreational areas close to their flats.

“It’s very hard for the kids,” agrees O’Connor. “There are no green areas.” It’s all very well saying they should continue to do Saturday morning park runs “but how do you get to a park in the first place?”

While some of the older girls have been inspired by Run for Fun to join a gym in Phibsborough, Boylan adds, “Skye is still too young but might go when she’s older.”