Lisburn man Neil and his wife Ruth organised Northern Ireland’s first ever cross country fun run where dogs and their owners sprint, jog or walk together back in 2014. Now just three years later, the team behind Waggy Races are about to hold their most popular event yet in the picturesque surroundings of Portstewart Strand.
Dog lovers Neil and Ruth Robinson first organised the aptly named Waggy Races at Castle Ward three years ago, after discovering there was nothing like it available in Northern Ireland.
“Waggy Races is essentially an off-road fun run in a beautiful location where you compete in a team alongside one or two dogs, or in a ‘pack’ - which is two people and one dog,” Neil explained.
The race is open to all abilities, as participants can run, jog or walk the course.
Both keen runners, after getting a Samoyed puppy called Zola, who is now five years-old, the couple began to discuss running with their dog when she was older.
“While Zola was a puppy chewing her way through the house we chatted about how cool it would be to take her out running when she was older.
“These conversations grew to how much fun it would be to enter a race with your dog and compete against other dogs,” Neil said.
“However these were just conversations until one day in 2012 when Crufts was on TV and Ruth excitedly called me into the living room. In the Crufts arena were 100 owners attached to their dogs about to run a 3K race round a lake in a sport called ‘Canicross’!”
After contacting the organisers of the event, making various phone calls and even meeting with one of the competitors that day, the duo realised that nothing similar had ever been held in Northern Ireland before. With this in mind, they decided to set up their own version.
“Zola now forms one third of the Waggy Races team and acts as mascot!” Neil added.
The light-hearted event, which takes place in beautiful locations across Northern Ireland, has seen its popularity soar since its initial launch three years ago.
“When we started planning for our first race, we were slightly daunted by the prospect of staging an event the like of which had never happened here before - we had no clue what the uptake would be like,” Neil said.
“What we did know for sure though was that we are a country of dog lovers and that running is very popular at the minute, especially since the start of parkrun and couch to 5k programmes.
“Whatever size our first race was though we wanted to make sure it was a great spectacle and organised to a tee.
“Thankfully at our first race, the Castle Ward 5K in March 2014, the weather was beautiful, we had around 100 people with dogs and the race as an event was a big success for us.”
The trio behind Waggy Races have organised their ninth race, which is set to take place in the picturesque Portstewart Strand at the end of March.
And with popularity soaring, applications have already closed for this year’s race after a rush of demand.
Neil said: “Since our first race, Waggy Races has grown in popularity as more people become aware of it and now as we approach the Portstewart Strand 5k, we are expecting 260 people and 240 dogs to be lining up on the start line!”
The race takes place in a series of breathtaking locations across Northern Ireland, with many areas featured in popular HBO series, Game of Thrones.
“We tend to choose venues that are very scenic and that people can’t easily go to on a daily basis, such as private estates and national trust properties,” Neil said.
“We avoid town parks that people can use on a daily basis. We think this adds to the excitement when people have to travel and make a day of it.
“So far we’ve been fortunate enough to host the Waggy Races at Castle Ward twice, as well as Mount stewart, Murlough, Portstewart strand, Tollymore Forest, Montalto Estate and Larchfield Estate.”
The race, which is divided into categories to ensure that all fitness abilities are well-catered for, has a range of prizes up for grabs including first, second and third place prizes for all of the categories, as well as a special Spirit of Waggy Races’ award, for whomever Neil and Ruth decide is deserving of such a prestigious accolade.
Neil explained: “When designing our events, one of the things that we wanted to ensure was that it was accessible to lots of people - 5K is distance that is achievable for most and we ask for information on the entry form that enables us to group participants into starting waves.
“This is key - people will run in a group with others of similar ability and need not be intimidated. We also have a walking category.
“Whilst it’s a competitive event, it’s also a lot of fun. If you are neck and neck sprinting for the finish line and your dog stops for a poo, there isn’t much you can do about it. We have a lot of poo chat!
“One of the nice things for us is that we get people who have never run a 5K before but love the idea and Waggy races is their first 5K event.
“We also get people who enter as a walker, love the event and subsequently enter as a runner.
“We really do get the full range of entrants - from competitive club athletes to fun runners, jogger and walkers.”
Neil added that it’s not just the variety of entrants who differ dramatically, as the four-legged contestants differ drastically in size and breed.
“In terms of dogs, we get everything - from Chihuahuas, Bichon Frises and Yorkies, to Malamutes, Weimeraners, Greyhounds and Newfoundlands.
“That’s the glory of it and what people enjoy, they could be toeing the line with their Yorkshire terrier, who is sniffing a Weimeraner, over 10 times his size. We do recommend that people use common sense when entering with their dog and to consult with their vet if in doubt.
“As we approach our ninth race, we are getting a core of people who will go to all our races, as well as new recruits at each event. We are getting increasing numbers coming from the South and have had people ferry over from Wales to compete.
“We have a number of sponsors now who come to our events and help us out with prizes, promotion and in generating a great atmosphere on race day, and we are indebted to them.”
Waggy Races make donations to the National Trust when they host the event and also work with Guide Dogs NI, who come to the races.
“Torrie tenant is a Guide Dog user who enters most of our races to walk with Guide Dog Ushi,” Neil explained.
Personalised bright orange tech t-shirts are available to buy along with your entry or from the Waggy Wear tab, with £2 from each t-shirt going to Guide Dogs NI.
Neil adds that all you need to enter the Waggy Races in future is: “A dog, and preferrably a harness with a collar. A waist belt and line or lead can also be used.”
The next Waggy Races event takes place on Portstewart Strand on Sunday, March 26 at 12pm, and whilst entry for this race has reached full capacity, spectators can come along to watch the Waggy Races event on the day.
If you are interested in participating in future Waggy Races events, keep an eye out for updates by Liking the Waggy Races on Facebook.
To find out more, you can also visit www.waggy-races.com.