The Challenge of Building and Sustaining an Athletics Club

December 21, 2023

The idea of founding and building an Athletics Club from scratch is one that really interests me. The time it takes to get these clubs off the ground and to build a community around it must be a gruelling task. Being captivated by the idea of it all and desperate to learn what goes into the process, Run Republic spoke to Brian Ahern of the Bweeng Trail Blazers, co-host of the Runners Diary Podcast, about the different challenges that come with starting and sustaining a successful Athletics Club.

'In 2015 Bweeng Trail Blazers (BTB) was set up in a small village in North Cork, like so many other towns and villages throughout Ireland Bweeng experienced a major growth in population following the Celtic Tiger years. With the growth in population came the need for a growth in facilities and clubs. At the time running seemed to be riding the crest of a wave and week on week and in particular in these growth areas new clubs were popping up. Like many of these clubs BTB was formed out of a Couch 2 5k programme. It originally was not meant to be anything more than that but after a few weeks it was so well supported that the club was formed.

'The first initial challenge for many and thankfully it was one our club did not face was a safe facility to train in. We had the use of the community part. A 700mtre tarmacadam walkway lit up in the winter. Without this facility then there was certainly no safe way our club with its numbers would have been able to continue. Other challenges surfaced soon after our couch to 5k programme finished. While that was running for the 8 to 9 weeks then the programme guided the training sessions each night and I just took the lead in telling people what they needed to do. Once the program finished then it was almost a case of what happens next.

'We were blessed at the time to build up some connections within the running community and runners like Tim Twomey from Leevale and Athletics Ireland coach Dave Lyons gave us some guidance and held a few sessions for us. This gave us the platform to continue and we learned a lot from them. Thankfully also a few members who had good knowledge stepped up and led the training sessions and did their best to bring variety with interval sessions, fartlek etc. The key thing also was to keep it fun. Attending races helped a lot also and we often organized runs where people no matter what their ability could meet up at an end location and a sociable cuppa and chat finished it off nicely.

'Another great challenge was having training sessions that could cater for all levels. We had runners who just want to come up and do a few laps leisurely and others who were super competitive and wanted to push on. Again thought was put into mapping out the session to suit all. Intervals session and fartlek sessions worked great as people applied themselves to their own levels. Again having the community park to train in was continuing to be a huge plus and people were in close proximity to each other at all times and nobody was running away down the road off into the distance.

'Change is another key challenge that needs to be met, the challenge that change brings and people being comfortable with it and also the challenge of not changing things up. Having laid the foundation at our club we felt it was time to improve our coaching and we brought in a qualified coach in Aoife Cooke. Aoife brought great variety to our sessions and a sense of professionalism, we also were lucky to have Aoife host Strength and conditioning sessions each week to which again helped in so many ways. At all times we always stressed that the sessions were there if people wanted to do them and nobody was forced to do anything. In other words there was a place for everyone.

Bweeng Trail Blazers
Bweeng Trail Blazers that took part in the 2016 Cork City Marathon

'Making feeling part of the club was also something that helped overcome challenges. It helped people interact more and get to know each other better. The biggest example of this was our involvement in the big races like the Cork City Marathon where we would have runners in marathon and half marathon distance but then made a place for all with entering relay teams. We even had people join in and walk the legs of the relay.

'The club quickly became the centre point for all that was good in the community. As well as the obvious positives it brought from training and racing we were able to host many fundraising events with local charities and the community centre itself. These were enjoyable events but what they also did was get the community to buy into the club and all the good it was doing. This helped incredibly when we host our award winning race each year when it truly is a community effort and the community comes to life and we welcome hundreds of runners and supporters and send them home happy.

'The biggest challenge faced by us and of course so many clubs however was covid. So many clubs have struggled to recover to the numbers they may have had pre covid. People became used to training on their own, or at their own times or in small groups. It has been a slow rebuild since covid and unfortunately some runners have not returned to club or others fell off the radar in terms of fitness as a priority for them.

'Couch to 5k attracts many started runners but it is a bit harder to attract more experienced or stronger runners. There generally is not a similar programme to open the doors to stronger runners. It is a kind of somebody knows someone approach or you meet someone and talk them into coming up. There must be so many people out there who have finished up sports like GAA and Soccer who could so benefit and enjoy the transition to running.

'Like all organizations of course attracting volunteers can be a challenge and continuing to come up with new ideas, training methods etc. Rotation of committee and coaches helps to keep things fresh.

'While running is a relatively cheap sport it does get more expensive the more you get into it. It is important that clubs keep membership fees and race fees in line also. There is so much help out there however. Athletics Ireland, your local athletics county board and even other clubs and runners are well worth talking too.'

Brian really gave us an insight into his world of running here, giving us an idea of just how much time, work, and planning must go into keeping an Athletics Club fresh and fun for all members. The challenge of Covid was a massive one for all clubs, and we really appreciate the honesty from Brian about the problems BTB faced in that period and since. 

You can check out the Bweeng Trail Blazers here, and make sure you listen to the Runners Diary podcast where Brian and his co-host Damian talk all things running and interview people in the space! We would like to give a massive thank you to Brian for his time. Stay tuned for more news and stories from the Bweeng Trail Blazers in the future!

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