NATIONAL MARATHON OF 1976 ...By John Walshe (Evening Echo 09/04/2016)
The recent passing, within days of each other, of running legends Dick Hodgins of Leevale and Jim McNamara from Donore recalled a famous marathon race that took place 40 years ago this weekend in which both played leading roles.
The National Marathon of 1976 was held in Limerick on Sunday April 11. It was the first time since the formation of BLE nine years before that a Munster venue had been chosen. Nowadays, in the weeks preceding a marathon, interest centres on the numbers taking part, the people participating in unusual garb or those running for various charitable causes.
But back then, it was all about the competition. That marathon of 1976 was of special significance as it also acted as selection for the summer’s Olympics due to take place in Montreal. And, to add to the hype, amongst the favourites was a local Limerick man, Neil Cusack.
Two years before the goatee-bearded East Tennessee student had etched his name in the all-time honours list with a famous victory in the Boston Marathon, his time of 2:13:39 then the fastest achieved by an Irishman.
Dick Hodgins was the reigning National champion, where his 2:19:45 the previous May in Galway gave him a close victory over Mick Molloy with Jim McNamara in third.
|Neil Cusack, Dick Hodgins, Jim McNamara & Danny McDaid|
Danny McDaid - who had beaten Hodgins in the 1974 decider - was also in the line-up along with 1972 Olympic marathon representative, Donie Walsh. Two months before, Leevale man Walsh (who unfortunately would fail to finish due to injury) had won his third National C-C title ahead of McDaid and Cusack.
Marathon running then was a different proposition compared to what’s experienced today. The race took place at 2.30pm on a Sunday afternoon from the Dock Road in Limerick, straight out the Foynes road where, after 13 miles, the runners turned around and retraced their steps back to the finish.
Entry fee was just 30 pence but all runners had to enclose a doctor’s certificate indicating they were medically fit to compete. However, with only around 70 entrants the medical profession didn’t make a fortune – it can only be imagined nowadays with thousands competing what this would entail.
The goody bag, the race shirt and the medal is now mandatory at all major marathons but back then all you expected to receive after completing the gruelling distance was a certificate with your time and place.
But that year, due to sponsorship from Omega (official timekeeper at the Montreal Games), each finisher got a pleasant surprise when presented with a T-shirt at the prize-giving – probably the first time that any of the runners had seen such an item.
After the morning rain had cleared, conditions were ideal as the runners faced the starter, Limerick Mayor, Thady Coughlan, on the journey which for at least two would guarantee them a seat on the plane to Montreal. A 14-man bunch went through 5km in 15:15 and at 10 miles, reached just under 50 minutes, this had been reduced to seven.
Donore’s Tony Brien, who had returned from the USA for the race, was joined by Cusack just before the turn along with McNamara, Fr Paddy Coyle and McDaid. “It was faster than most of the runners had ever done on the track, they pulled away from me at 10 miles but I felt someone would have to crack and I kept running on,” admitted Hodgins - who would eventually finish eight – afterwards.
McDaid made his break at 30km, opening a slight gap on Brien with Cusack in third and McNamara, getting over a bad patch, in fourth. Over the closing six miles McDaid continued to increase his lead while a rejuvenated McNamara, just a week short of his 37th birthday, was the surprise packet as he moved into second, therefore clinching Olympic selection.
McDaid’s time of 2:13:06 was the fastest ever achieved on Irish soil with McNamara knocking a huge chunk from his previous best to cross the line in 2:14:54 as a tired Cusack finished third on 2:17:07. For the local hero, justice prevailed as he was later added to the team for Montreal.
Donegal postman McDaid was then aged 34 and many considered his Limerick marathon victory the swansong to what had been a long and successful career. However, his greatest day had yet to come.
Three years later, in the quagmire conditions of Limerick Racecourse, he played a captain’s role when finishing 11th in the World Cross-Country behind John Treacy’s individual victory thereby guaranteeing the Irish team the silver medals.
‘Marathon running on a new plateau’ went the headline in the Evening Echo of April 13 over a piece by Brendan Mooney who stated that “apart for being the fastest this, as a spectacle, was the best marathon seen in this country.”
What might seem like a glaring omission in this nostalgic look back is that there is no mention of the women – for the simple reason that four decades ago no females ran long distance races in Ireland, or indeed in the UK. It would be another three years before Galway native Jean Folan became the first Irishwoman to run a marathon in this country.
But of course, as so often the case, Cork women led the way. Just a year after that Limerick marathon, Marion Stanton (now Lyons), Elaine Kelly and Dervla Mellerick lined up at Water Street with around 30 men for the 15 mile race from Cork to Cobh, the first time in this country that women had competed with males over such a distance.
The hundreds of women now enjoying the ever-increasing number of road races at all distances around the county certainly owe a debt to those three pioneers who proved that the female body is more than capable of competing with its male counterpart, and indeed, on many occasions, finishing well ahead.
That marathon of 1976 holds special memories as it was my first attempt at the classic distance. Two years before - at the relatively young age of 22 – I had trained for the National Marathon at Portlaoise, but never got there.
The reason being, back then, transport to races posed a major problem. A member of the Midleton club at the time, few of us possessed cars and but for the kind efforts of Tom Houlihan there was many a race we would never have got to.
For similar reasons, the 1975 marathon in Galway ruled me out so when Limerick was announced as the 1976 venue, the training commenced. But getting there still wasn’t easy. On that wet and windy April morning I walked down to the Protestant Church outside Ballycotton where I got a lift from the man delivering the Sunday papers.
Long before the era of health and safety, what followed was a whirlwind tour around the back roads of Garryvoe, Ballymacoda and Ladysbridge before arriving in Midleton where I met up with my club colleague, Paul Mulholland.
Paul was the pioneer of marathon running in the area, having finished the National event three years before. In that year of 1976 he was, in all probability, the only runner in all of east Cork who could claim to have run a marathon. Paul’s brother-in-law, Peter, drove us to Cork where we caught a bus to Limerick, taking us on somewhat of a scenic route through places like Bruree and Croom.
On arrival in Limerick and it being Palm Sunday, we attended mid-day Mass in the cathedral. Then we made our way to Limerick Rowing Club for the afternoon start and, what would be for me, a journey into the unknown. Our Midleton club-mate, Liam O’Brien, then a student at Thomond College (now UL) arrived on his trusty black Raleigh bike to provide us with a modicum of support along the way.
The advantage of an out-and-back course is that you got a good view of the leading runners, accompanied by a cavalcade of cars, on their return journey but then it was a lonely road as you made your own way to the turn-around before facing the homeward struggle.
Unfortunately, Paul had to drop out after 20 miles (he would run 2:33:59 in Loughrea a year later) so he was there at the finish to greet me. After a visit to a greasy grill for a bite to eat, we then had to scrounge a lift back. Fergus O’Donovan and his St Finbarr’s club-mate Michael Joyce (now the Ballycotton ‘10’ commentator) obliged.
Fergus then, as now, was a fount of knowledge and on the journey home regaled us with the intricacies of the carbohydrate-loading diet made fashionable at the time by Ron Hill.
On arrival in Cork, we caught the 10.30pm bus from Parnell Place with a no-doubt disappointed Paul getting off in Midleton while I carried on to Ballycotton, alighting at the same spot where I had met my newspaper delivery friend some 15 hours before.
As I made my way up the hill and home I carried the aches and pains and tiredness of what had been a long and eventual day. But I also carried that special feeling of achievement and fulfilment that only finishing one’s maiden marathon brings.
And in my little kitbag I carried three items I didn’t have when I set out that morning – a white cotton T-shirt, a one-page result sheet and a certificate stating that I had completed the BLE National Marathon of 1976 in 34th position in a time of two hours, 49 minutes and 24 (.3!) seconds.
Updated...12th Apr 2016
Andrew Talbot has a small gallery HERE on Facebook of the race.
|Photo from Andrew Talbot|