Ann Marie Grall
The woman walking ‘500 Miles’ for a brother and sister lost to cancer
For most of us thoughts of walking 500 miles stretch only as far as the famous Proclaimers song, but for Meath woman Ann Marie Grall that goal is all too real as she resumes a journey that began a decade ago.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Moylagh JFK 50 Mile Challenge. What started out as a small community event – based on a challenge laid down by the renowned US president to his military – has gone on to capture the hearts of people all over the country and become the biggest event of its kind anywhere in the world.
Ann Marie is one of a select group with the distinct honour of having completed every one of the nine events so far, including a virtual version last year when the pandemic put paid to the usual gathering, and on 7 August she is planning to become ‘the woman who walked 500 miles’.
With this achievement in mind, it might seem all the more remarkable that Ann Marie was initially skeptical about the challenge when first approached by one of the founding organisers Mary Nolan to take part all those years ago.
“Now I would have done a bit of walking myself up to that point, but I remember telling her ‘there’s no way on earth anyone can walk 50 miles!’. They often quote me as saying that now,” she recalls.
From being a somewhat reluctant recruit to soon taking on organisational responsibilities of her own along with her husband Gerry, the event became an integral part of Ann Marie’s life. However, it would take on even greater significance as the years progressed.
My sister Martina who completed the walk for three years died of ovarian cancer five years ago.
“Then my brother Sean died from lung cancer three years ago, so it’s very close to my heart and my family’s heart.
“I’m one of the people who really has a reason to go out and do it, and that really motivates you to keep going. Particularly my sister was very into her walking and golfing, a very active sort of person; I can hear her in my head saying to me ‘keep going, keep going, don’t give up’, because that would have been her attitude – ‘just keep going’.”
Ann Marie says that aside from the personal significance, the event is great fun to be involved in every year.
“It is a massive event which developed out of nothing, it’s unbelievable how it’s gone. Only for the support we get from a huge amount of people, we wouldn’t be able to keep it going. Every penny we raise goes to cancer services; everything we have for the event is sponsored and we also get brilliant help from the local Civil Defence and their volunteers.
“From Drumone, the local village where it all starts, right through the rest of the route people come out to provide food, water and amenities, and there’s one lady had a sign up for ‘Pee & Tea’ at the 12 mile stage; she’d do much more for us than that but it’s a great bit of hospitality and bit of fun. I’ll tell you that nothing tastes as nice as that tea.”
As Ann Marie herself says, “you don’t win an All-Ireland medal without doing any football training”, and in her case the training is year-round with 10 mile walks in the winter doubling to 20 miles nearer the date of the challenge.
The organisers are hoping to break the €1 million mark raised for cancer services over the last 10 years in this edition, and have even welcomed a chapter of participants and fundraisers in Boston this year.
For Ann Marie, the most important part is to take part:
“I emphasise this all the time: just do what you’re able to do. You can do 5 miles, you can do a mile if you want, the main thing is taking part.
“I remember someone involved with the event saying that he’s never seen it before, but the last person coming in at the finish line nearly gets a bigger welcome than the first person. There’s great excitement in the own village with people waiting for participants to come in, the music playing and everything- that’s the spirit of the challenge, that’s what it’s all about.”
This year's event takes place on 7 August and you can join in the action or take part in the virtual Moylagh course in support of cancer services. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or click on the link below to find out more information and sign up
Contact the Irish Cancer Society Support Line
If you have worries or concerns about cancer, you can speak confidentially to an Irish Cancer Society Cancer Nurse through the Freephone Support Line on 1800 200 700.
Monday to Friday, 9.00am - 5.00pm
For more information
1800 200 700