Google+ Running in Cork, Ireland: Guest Post: FIFTY YEARS AGO – WHEN AN IRISHMAN WON THE BOSTON MARATHON John Walshe

Thursday, April 11, 2024


In this guest post, John Walshe looks back at the 50th anniversary of Neil Cusack winning the 1974 Boston Marathon with an additional piece about Bill Rodgers' win the following year.


By John Walshe

This Monday, April 15th, sees the 128th Boston Marathon taking place. The date will also mark the exact 50th anniversary of a historic triumph by an Irishman on that celebrated 26.2-mile point-to-point route from Hopkinton to Copley Square.

Patriot’s Day - on which the marathon is traditionally held - in 1974 coincided with Easter Monday. On that fine April evening a brief announcement at the end of the nine o’clock news on the black-and-white television stated that an Irishman named Neil Cusack had won the famous Boston Marathon.

Neil Cusack winning the 1974 Boston Marathon in a time of 2:13:39.

Although only 22, the Limerick man was no stranger to Cork athletics fans. Two years before on a Sunday afternoon he had won a 10,000m road race (the acronym ‘10K’ hadn’t yet been invented) organised by the Midleton club on a six-lap course around the town.

That March Cusack had returned from East Tennessee State University where he was on scholarship to represent Ireland in the International Cross-Country at Cambridge. The marathon potential was already evident the previous December when, in his first attempt and a few days short of his 20th birthday, he won the Peach Bowl Marathon in Atlanta by almost seven minutes with a time of 2:16:18.

Later in that year of 1972 he would set an Irish 10,000m record of 28:45.8 in the heats at the Munich Olympics. Before leaving for Munich, he made another visit to Midleton where in a novel mid-week 10,000m road and track race he defeated locally-born Mike Keogh, back from the US for the Olympics.

On his return to the US in the autumn Cusack became the first Irishman (and one of only three in all) to win the prestigious NCAA Cross-Country. On that day at Houston he led an all-Irish team known as ‘The Irish Brigade’ to a second-place finish. The team consisted of himself, Eddie and PJ Leddy, Kevin Breen, Ray McBride and Frank Greally who would go on to create Irish Runner magazine.

Three of Ireland’s greatest athletes at the 1975 Tullamore road race: Neil Cusack, third; Eamonn Coghlan, first; John Treacy, second.

After a stellar indoor season in early 1974, Cusack arrived in Boston in top form, both physically and mentally. “I remember travelling up to Boston from Johnson City having my mind already set on winning the event,” he would relate to Greally in Irish Runner many years later.

I was young and confident and I had no fear of the distance or the opposition. I didn't put any limits on myself back then and running that first marathon in Atlanta gave me an insight into what it was like to tackle the distance," he said. "Going into Boston, I had no fear.

The night before, Cusack remembers sitting in his hotel room in the city sewing a shamrock crest to the string vest that he was going to wear. "Ron Hill, who had won Boston in 1970, had made the string vest a popular piece of running apparel for marathoners and I had my Dunnes Stores version with me in Boston.

That Patriot's Day, Cusack was on target for a 2:09 performance going up the infamous Heartbreak Hill between 18 and 21 miles but the pace found him out over the final miles. He still recorded the third-fastest performance over the iconic course as his 2:13:39 gave him almost a minute to spare over Tom Fleming in second (2:14:25) with Canadian Jerome Drayton taking third spot (2:15:40).

Nowadays the winner at Boston can expect to gain in the region of $150,000 in prize money, plus bonuses and expenses. But like Hill four years previous, all Cusack received was a medal, a laurel wreath and a bowl of stew. The big money in road racing was still a couple of years distant but Cusack’s class can be seen from his victory at the Newark Distance Run over 12 miles the following year.

There he defeated Bill Rodgers by 10 seconds in a time of 58:38. The following month Rodgers would win the first of his four Boston Marathon titles, setting an American and course record of 2:09:55, thus making him one of the first (and richest) superstars of the sport. A year or two later he had his own running store along with his own line of running apparel.

Cusack hit another high when he won the Dublin Marathon in 1981 in 2:13:58. He competed in two Olympics, 1972 and 1976, and represented Ireland in the World Cross-Country on 13 occasions. In the 1982 Ballycotton ’10’, the Limerick-man came home first of the 429 finishers in a course record of 48:01. He would run a second faster a year later when finishing third (48:00) behind Jerry Kiernan (47:04) and Ray Treacy (47:42).

For this year’s Boston Marathon Neil and his wife Imelda have been invited back to celebrate that day all of five decades ago. He has been given the special honour of being the official race starter for the event, which now boasts an entry of 45,000. 

* As a footnote (pardon the pun) to that famous victory, a glance at Cusack’s shoes shows he was wearing the Tiger (now Asics) Marathon racing flat, probably the most popular of the few racing shoes available at the time.

They had a simple blue nylon upper, stitched to a white rubber sole that was - compared to the ‘stacked’ shoes of today - only about a quarter-of-an inch thick, with maybe a half-inch under the heel. Looking at an advert in Athletics Weekly of the time, they retailed for around five or six pounds sterling in the UK, about €75 in today’s money.

In the early 1970s, Nike was just getting off the ground in the US and there is a fascinating story concerning Bill Rodgers’ victory in that Boston Marathon of 1975. An unemployed school teacher, he had returned to competition after a two year layoff and had surprised even his coach when finishing third the previous month at the World Cross-Country in Morocco. 

This impressive performance caught the attention of many in the running community, including Steve Prefontaine. ‘Pre’, as he was known, was then at the height of his running career. He had set every American record from 2000m to 10,000m, along with a fourth-place finish in the 5000m at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

Prefontaine was also an employee of an athletic shoe company started by his college coach, Bill Bowerman. That company was Nike. On April 9th, Steve Prefontaine wrote a letter to that relatively unknown, but up and coming runner named Bill Rodgers. The typed letter, hand-signed by Pre, went as follows:

Dear Bill,

First of all congratulations on a fine race in Rabat. You have really improved this last year and hopefully will continue to until the Olympic games.

The reason I'm writing is because Jeff Galloway told me you were interested in training in our shoes. I'm sending you a pair of Boston 73's and a training shoe. Any comments would be greatly appreciated. Just feel free to drop me a line and let me know what you think.

Wishing you continued success for 75.


Steve Prefontaine

Because the shoes were a bit on the large size, Rodgers had to stop twice in the final few miles to tighten his laces, to the surprise and awe of the spectators and press. Despite this he still crossed the line first in an American record of 2:09:55.

The following month, on May 30th at the age of 23, Steve Prefontaine would tragically die in a car crash.


Previous posts by John Walshe HERE

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