Google+ Running in Cork, Ireland: Guest article : HOOPER WAS JUST TOO HOT FOR HIS RIVALS ...By John Walshe

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Guest article : HOOPER WAS JUST TOO HOT FOR HIS RIVALS ...By John Walshe

In this guest post from John Walsh of Ballycotton, he recounts the 1978 national marathon in Tullamore...

HOOPER WAS JUST TOO HOT FOR HIS RIVALS ...By John Walshe (Evening Echo 03/07/2018)

The month of June is usually favourable to most outdoor activities, but running 26-plus miles may not be one, as participants in the recent Cork City Marathon can testify.

Forty years ago this month, on a Sunday afternoon, the BLE National Marathon took place in Tullamore. Like the Limerick championship two years earlier which was the selection race for that summer’s Olympics, the European Championships in Prague of 1978 ensured that all of the country’s long distance men would toe the line in the midland town.

The preview in the previous week’s Cork Examiner stated that a record entry of 104 had been received. This included a number from Britain including 20-year-old Alan McGee, the 1977 Fell Runner of the Year who had recorded 2:21 in his marathon debut, along with the likes of Norman Deakin (Stoke) with a best of 2:17:20, Doug Gunstone from Edinburgh (2:19) and Kevin Best who had run a fast time for 20 miles.

Danny McDaid (1976 winner) and Des McGann (1977 winner) headed the Irish challenge which also included Neil Cusack, the 1974 Boston Marathon champion, along with former title holders Donie Walsh, Fr Paddy Coyle and Mick Molloy.

However, there was no mention of two brothers from the north side of Dublin who would not only take first and second but who would go on to dominate the Irish marathon over the following years.

Although 26-year-old Pat Hooper had finished seventh in the championships twice, his brother Dick – five years his junior – was making his marathon debut. Speaking last autumn at a St Finbarr’s AC get-together in West Cork, the Raheny man recalled that famous day four decades ago when he became national champion. 

“We went down to Tullamore that year and no one had heard of me in that context but I was very well prepared. I had trained 130 to 140 miles a week, had done two 32-mile runs and two 30-mile runs and nobody knew about that.

“Luckily for me in hindsight we got a scorcher of a day and it kind of slowed everybody and put seeds of doubt in everybody. I was also a bit of a pioneer and was fairly organised in myself and had been to Tullamore about four times and had run over the course in the weeks before the race.”

The biggest talking point that day in 1978 was the blistering heat which ended the hopes of many. From the start, a big group of around 15 formed at the front. At five mile, English-based Tony Kearns made the first real break but was hauled back by Jim McNamara who then took control.

After reaching 10 miles in 53:56, Dick Hooper had joined McNamara and at the halfway turnaround point just beyond Kilcormack village he took the lead, his time of 70:05 putting him around 10 seconds clear of the chasing pack. Neil Cusack took off after Hooper but at 15 miles he walked off the road explaining “my legs just went dead.”

Des McGann had given up with blistered feat after nine miles, Donie Walsh, running with a back injury, was another casualty as was his brother Michael who also succumbed to the scorching heat.

At 18 miles Hooper was 26 seconds clear of Fr Paddy Coyle and despite a bad patch with three miles to go he held on for a remarkable victory in 2:23:19, making him at 21 the youngest-ever winner of the marathon championship.

There was further glory for the Hooper household as Pat came with a late challenge to pass Coyle and make it a unique double. His time was 2:24:08 with the bronze medal going to Coyle in 2:25:43.

Fourth was 1968 Olympian Mick Molloy (2:26:34) with Kearns in fifth (2:26:40) as the fancied British challengers found the going too tough on what was later believed to be the warmest day of the summer.

Jerry Murphy was the first Cork runner, finishing a gallant eight in 2:30:10 which was over a minute faster and five places higher than he had achieved in more favourable conditions the year before.

His Leevale clubmate Dick Hodgins was 12th in 2:33:12 as just 54 runners completed the distance.

Both Hooper brothers would go on to represent Ireland in the European Championships that autumn and the following year of 1979 saw Pat Hooper win the title, again held in Tullamore, with a much faster time of 2:17:46.

However, Dick would be unbeaten over the following three years and – along with three Dublin Marathon titles and Olympic appearances in 1980, 1984 and 1988 – he amazingly won his sixth Irish marathon championship in 1998, 20 years after that epic day when the tar melted on the roads of Tullamore.

The above article was written before the recent heatwave but memories from that occasion of 40 years ago are of similar weather, although no doubt the summer of 1978 probably lasted only that one day.

As I recounted over the past two years, my introduction to marathon running saw both of my two attempts at the classic distance producing differing results. My first, in Limerick of 1976, was a satisfactory debut resulting in a time of 2:49:24. The following year in Loughrea, not realising I was suffering from severe anaemia, saw me finishing last of the 41 finishers in 3:36:36.

After getting my iron problem sorted out, the following winter saw a return to my previous club standard capability and the spring of 1978 brought results of 57:16 for 10 miles and just over 90 minutes for the Cork to Cobh. Leading up to Tullamore, the highest training week was 56 miles. I had just one 20-mile run - although I did take part in one of the classic races of that era, the Clonliffe ‘20’ which was a point-to-point race finishing on the track at Santry. There, my 2:06:52 gave me 26th place out of the 38 finishers.

Although I don’t recall too much about the day in Tullamore, what is still vivid in the memory is looking at the television the night before and seeing the weather forecaster pointing to the middle of the map and predicting this would be the hottest part of the country on what would be the warmest day of the year.

The following morning, my good friend, the late Dan Donovan, once again chauffeured Paul Mulholland and myself on another marathon journey (in every sense of the word). With an afternoon start, there was no rush and somewhere outside Portlaoise we got out to stretch the legs. With not a cloud in sight and the sun blazing down out of a clear blue sky, we realised it was going to be a tough day.

As stated in the article, the course was simply 13 miles out beyond the village of Kilcormack where we turned around a barrel and retraced our footsteps back to the finish. As I mentioned before, 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. According to the Irish Independent report of the following day ‘the numbers of cars en-route, dicing with the officials attempt top keep the road reasonably clear, was akin to O’Connell Street on a wet Friday afternoon’.

As a protection from the sun, I adopted the practise of tying a hankie around the neck as seen in the attached photo (don’t laugh – having a fine head of hair at the time also helped). This was familiar from seeing pictures of the likes of marathon greats Ron Hill, Jim Hogan and Bill Adcocks in the pages of Athletics Weekly.

Jim Hogan on the right

Although memories of the race itself are somewhat vague, I do recall passing Donal Burke of St Finbarr’s and Gerry Ryan from Tipperary - two runners of my own standard I had got to know – around the halfway mark. On the outskirts of Tullamore with a couple of miles remaining I saw a tall, stooping figure up ahead. As I drew near I realised it was the great Jim McNamara of Donore, clearly struggling after succumbing to the frantic pace and conditions.

Two years before, Jim had finished second at Limerick in a brilliant 2:14:54 and had gone on to represent Ireland at that year’s Montreal Olympics. Yet, here he was being passed by ‘scrubbers’ (as ordinary runners like us were known back then) but still determined to reach the finish line regardless of the time.

At the finish outside the Tullamore Harriers clubhouse (their track hadn’t yet been laid) I was greeted by Dan and Paul, the latter sadly having to drop out after running a great time of 2:33 the previous year in Loughrea. Also there was that famous man of athletics, Fr Liam Kelleher, who took the afore mentioned picture as I was about to peel an orange! 

We decided to wait around for the prize-giving and even then, as the evening started to cool, a couple of the top runners of the day – one a British international – were still suffering the after-effects as they had to get medical assistance after fainting at the presentation.

Although I had got a white cotton T-shirt in my first marathon in Limerick, finishers prizes and goody bags were unheard of back then. A time certificate for a marathon or any long race was all you could expect. However, that BLE marathon was sponsored by a local company called Guardian Builders and along with an increased prize list, including a colour television for the winner, they also awarded a special medallion to the first 30 finishers.

Now, aspirations of making the top 30 in a national marathon certainly hadn’t crossed my mind, given the standard of the 102 runners entered, a record number at the time. But you never know what to expect over the 26-mile distance and it was with utter surprise and delight when I heard my name called out for 20th position in a time of 2:49:55 – therefore qualifying for the prized medallion. No doubt I had the conditions to thank as the attached results show just 51 runners completed the race.

Recovery must have been swift as the following Sunday – the day that Argentina beat the Netherlands 3-1 after extra time to win the 1978 World Cup – I travelled to picturesque Aughadown in West Cork with that great stalwart of Midleton AC, Tom Houlihan, for a novice sports. Although never possessing any resemblance of speed, the standard must have been poor as the diary shows a third place in the 1000m and a second in the mile.

No doubt two more plaques or trophies were added to the collection that day and in the following years, as the running boom began to gain momentum, the ‘plaque for all finishers’ became commonplace.

However, of the many mementoes acquired over the decades, few can compare with that hard-earned medallion from the BLE Marathon of 1978 – for definitely nothing came easy on that scorching June day 40 years ago in Tullamore.      

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