On a sunny Saturday morning in June, eleven people ran from Draperstown to Maghera, keeping alive a family tradition that goes back three generations and started, almost 90 years ago, with a bet over a cow.
In 1926, Joe Toner, a young farmer from Straw, outside Draperstown took up the challenge of a neighbour who wagered that Joe could not run from the railway station in Draperstown to the police barracks in Maghera in under one hour.
Hundreds of people gathered to watch him finish in 41 minutes and pick up his prize: a heifer.
The story could have ended there. Joe left Derry with his wife, Mary, and their young family in the 1940s, buying a farm in Meath. They raised 11 children, and many of them–in between picking spuds and milking cows–were keen cross country runners.
In 1966, one of those children, Tom Toner, returned to Derry to run the same stretch of road his father had 40 years before. He completed the course in a speedy 36 minutes, breaking his father’s record.
The years passed and the Toner family expanded, spreading out around the world.
The time came for a new generation to carry on the tradition. Some of Joe’s grandchildren heard the story of the run for the first time during the Christmas of 2007 and decided to stage it once more. The following July, three of Joe’s grandchildren completed what has now been dubbed the “Joe Toner run”.
This tradition looks like it will be one for the ages and the fourth Joe Toner run was held on June 6th this year. Around 40 family and friends travelled from near and far–including Glasgow, Liverpool, London, New York and Toronto.
That Saturday morning, 11 of the group set off, draped in bright sunshine, and pushed along by a stiff breeze.
They quickly covered the twists and turns in the road to Tobermore, where they were greeted by cheering fans, before turning left and setting off up the long, straight road to Maghera, and the steep ascent to the finish line, Matt Regan’s pub.
All 11 runners completed the course and a plaque with a cow on it was awarded to the fastest time, a nod to the bet that started it all. But the family record, set by Tom Toner 50 years ago, remains unbroken.
No proof has been found to support the wild accusations that extra twists and turns have been added to the road over the years, along with more hills.
The challenge will fall to the next generation. Some of Joe Toner’s great-grandchildren have pledged to break the record in 2026, the 100th anniversary of the original Joe Toner run.