Google+ Running in Cork, Ireland: Guest article...Last on the Road by John Walshe

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Guest article...Last on the Road by John Walshe

LAST ON THE ROAD...By John Walshe

Winning a marathon is an honour that few attain, and when it happens there is no disputing the identity of the first man and first woman across the line. Finishing last is a different matter, and less easy to determine.

Although all the major marathons have a cut-off point of seven or eight hours, there are still people who persist in keeping going, at their own risk, to make it home as darkness falls. This year in London you had the case of Tom Harrison who crawled the course on his knees dressed as a gorilla, taking over six days to complete the distance. So was he the last finisher?

Forty years ago, things were much simpler, as you’ll discover if you read on. The BLE National Marathon of 1977 took place from the Galway town of Loughrea on the Bank Holiday Sunday of June 5th. As no major games places were up for grabs, there wasn’t as much at stake as the previous year in Limerick when the race acted as trial for the Montreal Olympics.

There was, however, the much sought-after honour of a national title. Five years before, Des McGann had finished second behind Donie Walsh on the roads around Athlone, thereby qualifying for that year’s Munich Olympics. In the years between, the Civil Service Harrier had been to the forefront of Irish distance running, be it on track, road or country.

But the national marathon title had always eluded him. On the out and back course at Loughrea, it finally all came together for the 32-year-old McGann and he crossed the line a delighted winner in 2:20:34, ahead of the respective 1971 and 1973 champions, Fr Paddy Coyle (2:21:17) and Brendan O’Shea (2:21:42).

First Corkman in 13th place was Jerry Murphy of Leevale in 2:31:34, just ahead of Flor O’Leary of St Finbarr’s in 2:31:47.

In an article written last year on the 1976 BLE Marathon, this writer added a postscript on his own debut which produced a satisfying time of 2:49:24. So now, we’ll change tack and give a first-person account of what transpired over the following 12 months and, if you persevere in the reading, maybe a few lessons that are still relevant today.    

Having run a 2:49 marathon while still a few months shy of my 25th birthday, I no doubt harboured notions of going a good deal faster. It was six weeks after that Limerick marathon before I raced again (a track race in Midleton), mainly because road races as we know today didn’t exist. At the time, just two or three half-marathons took place annually in the whole country. One was the Liffey Valley race from O’Connell Bridge to Celbridge in Kildare, held in conjunction with the St John of God Garden Fete.

On Sunday July 11th I took the train to Dublin, only my second visit to the capital. Handing in my bag at the start, I lined up on O’Connell Bridge and arrived at Celbridge one hour, 24 minutes and 27 seconds later which gave me 50th position out of the 65 finishers. Not too bad, but considering I had run the same pace for twice the distance three months before, it did raise some concerns.

During that long hot summer of 1976 running became increasingly difficult and when the cross-country season came around, it went from bad to worse. Usually a mid-pack runner, an occasional scoring member of a team was always an aim but now I was bringing up the rear. Things really came to a head at the Munster Intermediate championships in Clare where I was lapped by winner Robert Costello and ended up without a soul behind me.

As winter turned to spring, the Cork to Cobh 15-miler then held in April was usually the highlight of the year. This had been something of a breakthrough race for me two years before when I had recorded a time of 90:20 and even in the 1976 race – held in March because of the Limerick marathon – I was still happy with my 94:04 as we had a strong easterly wind to contend with for half of the journey.

However, on this occasion it took me all of 1:47:00 to complete the distance with just two behind me. The few races that I now ran were at a much slower pace than I had easily accomplished in training the year before. Call it stupidity, naivety or sheer stubbornness, but somehow I still posted off an entry for the National Marathon in Loughrea.

And so on that cool June Sunday my good friend, the late Dan Donovan, transported Paul Mulholland and myself on the long road west. The previous year Paul had journeyed with me to Limerick where unfortunately he had to drop out but on this occasion he finished a well-deserved 15th in an excellent 2:33:59, one place behind the aforementioned Corkmen Murphy and O’Leary.   

As far as I recall, there were only five or six behind me at the halfway turn-around point and those that didn’t pass me must have dropped out. When, after 20 miles, I was reduced to a walk I realised it would be a lonely struggle home. With a few miles to go two BLE officials in a car came out to see if I was going to finish, and should they wait for me, or would I do the sensible thing and get into the car so they could go home for their tea.

The main street of Loughrea was nearly deserted as I finally made it over the line – no medal, no T-shirt or goody bag back then. At least the timekeeper had remained and when he stopped his watch it showed a time of three hours, 36 minutes and 36 seconds.

Time - 3:36:36. Position - 41st out of 41 finishers. In other words, last. ‘Dead last’ might be more appropriate as the next runner to me, Brian Price of Dublin City Harriers, was over eight minutes ahead in 3:28:03.

The diary entry for the following night simply reads: ‘jogged three miles’, so the show went on. A few weeks later I came down with a sore throat which necessitated a visit to the doctor. After prescribing whatever was required, he mentioned that I looked anaemic and arranged an appointment for a blood test. Ironically (if you pardon the pun), the same doctor had signed a certificate – then a requirement when entering a marathon – a couple of months before stating I was physically capable of running 26 miles! 

While I was waiting for my blood test I started on a course of iron tablets and things started slowly to improve. The first Ballycotton ‘5’ road race took place that August and after initially wondering would I make a show of myself and come in last, at least the time of just over 30 minutes meant I had a few behind me.

When I did eventually have the blood test, I was found to be severely anaemic. I don’t know what the remedy is today but back then a course of iron injections was what was prescribed. Twice a week these were administered into a delicate part of the anatomy and were not a pleasant experience – suffice to say they were, literally, ‘a pain in the butt’.  

But the affect was dramatic. From bringing up the rear, I was now effortlessly moving through the field and suddenly racing was enjoyable again. We all hear nowadays of the benefits of blood doping and the like, but if it’s anything like the boost I experienced, I can certainly understand. But, I hasten to add, in my case I was only getting my iron levels back up to where they had been over a year before - not adding extra!  

The inaugural Ballycotton ‘10’ came around the following March and produced a time of 57:49 while the Cork to Cobh saw a return to the near 90-minutes of three years before. That June of 1978, Tullamore was the venue for the BLE Marathon and on the warmest day of the summer which saw around half of the field drop out, I finished 20th in 2:49:55.

It was just outside my inaugural effort but a much better performance considering the conditions. In the years that followed, a constant chipping away at the marathon times would eventually produce a number of sub-2:40 clockings.

So now, if you have managed to read this far, we come to the moral (or morals) of the story:

Firstly, if for no apparent reason your running suffers a dramatic down-turn it’s always worthwhile having a blood test done. The symptoms are usually general tiredness and heavy legs and it’s something you’ll especially notice on hills. Obviously, it affects females more than males but it’s surprising how many men also become anaemic. There can be a number of reasons such as a poor diet (lack of red meat and green vegetables) or simply in some cases an inability to absorb iron. Usually a course of iron tablets will set the problem right but it’s always advisable to get a blood test done first to rule out any other underlying causes.

Secondly, in the unlikely scenario of finishing last in a race (or even near the end), don’t give up hope – you can only improve. During that winter and spring of 1976/77, there were times, I admit, when I felt like packing it all in. And no doubt had I thrown in the towel, life for me over the following four decades would certainly have taken a different path, and maybe for others as well.

Thirdly, be appreciative and glad that you are now part of a running scene where there is a place for everyone, regardless of ability. Us old-timers may occasionally (and sometimes with justification) harp back to the good old days when standards were high – and I’m glad to say I was privileged to be part of that era – but I know where I’d rather be today, where my eight-minute-mile pace (at best) means I can still finish with plenty of people around me.               

And finally, when you do run your marathon and if the clock happens to show three hours, 36 minutes and 36 seconds as you cross under the gantry, you should – going by the results of the Cork and Dublin events – have around 80% of the finishers in your wake. One thing’s for sure, unlike that June Sunday of forty years ago, you certainly won’t be the ‘Last on the Road.’


Anonymous said...

Thanks John, very much enjoyed the article

Anonymous said...

Excellent reading

Anonymous said...

A very good article, I suffered from very low Iron levels confirmed by a blood test in the past. The iron tablets prescribed contained many multiples of the recommended daily allowance but they worked. Improvement, as a result, was not immediate - it gradually began only after a minimum of 3 weeks.

Unknown said...

Fantastic read, John. Most enjoyable.

Haille said...

Great article John.CaN you imagine two marathon officals coming out to finishers finishing sub 3.hours 40 mins in a present day marathon offering them a lift.

Unknown said...

A great article yet again, I finished dead last in a few marathons myself, but I'd rather be last than left out :)