Hope you are all well and keeping safe. Over the next few weeks you are all in for a treat with the Athlete Profiles with 3 of the very best. Each one epitomises what our group is about and what I am hoping to achieve with the group.
The first one is from a guy who is only with us 6 to 8 months but has already fully bought into the TTracers concept. If you Google his name you will find him 3rd behind one of Ireland’s most famous person’s in History and an American Astronaut who was there on the first landing on the Moon. He himself is a Booker Prize nominee. Its Michael Collins.
How did you get into athletics ?
I played football until third year of Secondary Year. My family had moved from Limerick to Dublin and soon after, while playing for CBC Bray, a football scout who worked with English clubs asked me to come train weekends at a training grounds in Dublin. I worked with a development program for two years, progressing toward a potential tryout with an English youth team. As a number 11 winger, I developed a reputation of running the legs of players, drifting back and forth before man-to man marking and the off-side rule made football all about tactics. I think much of my love of the game was the endurance factor, wearing players down. But when playing at a higher level, the game became about tactics and set pieces. I lost love for the game. During a match, I missed a sitter of a shot. I was substituted and lambasted by the coach. I remember getting my kit and leaving the ground. I ran about 6 miles home and swore off ever playing on a team again.
During fourth year, my grandmother fell ill, and my family returned to Limerick to care for her. I entered Saint Munchin’s college. Unbeknownst to me, the school had a celebrated running program. Former pupil Niall Cusack had won the Boston Marathon in 73 in 2:12 or so. Closer to my arrival, Niall O’Shaughnessy ran 1:47 for the 800m in the mid-seventies, while recent graduate, Frank O’Mara blazed a 3:44 for the 1,500. I never had the speed of those runners, but I developed as a distance runner. As a novice, I won intercounty championships, and on the track garnered 3rd place at the BLE championships. The first two athletes were headed to Providence College. I ran 15:05 in the race, and later that summer I represented Ireland in a tri-meet at Gateshead. I lowered my 5k to 14:36, a national-class time. I won the international event.
With the expectation of a scholarship to the US, I decided to finish out school in the US. The early eighties were foreboding times in Ireland, and early on, running successes aside, I felt that running was a way out, and less a path to glory. During my year in American high school, I won the New York state and Eastern states cross country championships. I would end up placing 4th at the US Cross Country Nationals in 82. In track I ran 8:48 for the 3,200 meters and later in the summer clocked an 8:11 3000m before entering college.
As said, always the realist, I recognized that I would settle as a national-class runner, and so decided to use running to advance my education. I decided against the traditional track dynasties and chose the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. My goal was to remain in America. Education eclipsed athletics.
Why do you run?
I’ve always run for the competitive feeling of pitting myself against other athletes. Running is the purest sport in terms that you are accountable only to yourself. I’ve used running and training as a guiding influence in helping me orient my life and set goals. Running was a way out of the miasma of economic-depressed Ireland. It’s difficult to contextualize how important escape was back then. Many Irish were going illegally to the US. Earning an athletic scholarship was about freedom and legitimate escape. Much of my academic and later successes as a computer programmer and later as a novelist were based on applying a training principle to my life.
Did you try different events or where you always a distance runner?
As mentioned, I was a competitive footballer, but when I discovered running, I found a self-directed sport that has influenced and directed how I approach life.
Can you give a brief synopsis of your running career to date?
Following on from outlining my secondary school days and senior year at an American high school, I continued running in college on athletic scholarship. By my second year, I led Notre Dame to its first NCAA Cross Country appearance in over a decade. I’d spent the summer in Colorado and in late August, prior to the cross-country season ran 28:43 at Stanford. I entered my sophomore season with wins at major invites, but throughout the season I lost form. I won’t place blame, but simply say that I led the team to the nationals, felt I had improved the program, and thereafter made a petition to the school that I be granted permission to continue attending the university, but discontinue running.
In a show of compassion and consideration, an advisory board of priests, not the athletic department, granted my request. I attended my last two years without charge. The compassion extended to me changed my life. I would graduate near the top of the class, and in the ensuing years, with a successful career at Microsoft during the heyday of the nineties, I went on to create foundations and scholarship programs for students in an attempt to give back.
What would you consider to be your main highlight?
After leaving college running behind, while at Microsoft I ventured back to running to find that centred sense of discipline needed in pressure situations. Microsoft in the mid-nineties was the centre of computing. The psychological and physical pressures were intense. Instinctively, I turned to running. It became the fallback activity to orient the workload, to allow me to move away from a desk, to grapple with programming issues and develop solutions. Redmond Washington, home to Microsoft, is in foothill mountains, and in a matter of three years of these escapist runs, I found myself running upwards of a 100-miles a week. At that time, mountain running was coming of age. High-tech companies were sponsoring endurance events. I entered and won local events, then went on to place 5th at the USA 50-mile championship. The other runners were all full-time athletes, while I was working upwards of 60 hours a week.
I continued to work, but that US showing at the Nationals opened up the possibility of a second running career. Thereafter, I sought out endurance events in exotic places. Again, major high-tech gear companies were sponsoring athletes at events around the world. Notable wins included The Everest Marathon and the Last Marathon, Antarctica, along with the Sahara Marathon, where I beat Anton Abel, former two-time world champion. On the roads I ran at 2:30 off a base of slow distance runs at the Chicago Marathon. It was my first marathon. I moved toward some shorter intervals and more marathon oriented running. I ran a series of marathons, all sub 2:20 and ended up with a 2:17 best.
A victory at the North Pole Marathon in 2006 garnered me an invite to run for Ireland at the 100K distance. I ran three world championships. My most accomplished and memorable victory was when legendary Irish runner Richard Donovan, serving as head of Irish Ultra-Running, graciously asked me to captain the Irish team in 2010 at the World Championships in Gibraltar. I led all Irish runners that day. The World Masters championship was held in conjunction with the senior event. While captain of the senior team, I also earned a bronze medal in the masters’ division.
My second career eventually veered toward charity runs and awareness runs. Much of the running community and events, even the exotic events, involved people running for charities. As runners, we are exposed to the compassionate side of humanity. We encounter people competing outside their comfort level, running to raise money, people with a story of loss and redemption.
In 2016, I ran a solo Marathon-a-Day along the Saint Lawrence, retracing the journey of 1847 survivors of the Great Hunger, who had arrived on Canadian shores. Their story, which connects with the infamous coffin ships, had never been fully told. In working with The Irish Times, I was commissioned to write a series of feature pieces regarding that fateful year. I lectured throughout Quebec and Ontario and raised money for commemorative Celtic crosses along the Saint Lawrence where bodies had been unceremoniously dumped into mass graves. The collective remembrance of those who died and were then recognized with commemorative memorials and ceremonies is my most heartfelt experience. Local city governments, with legacy records of these mass graves, facilitated the remembrances, allowed the records to be accessed. I sponsored school projects for a year before the run so that the run would allow for a collective reconciliation and remembrance.
When did you hook up with TTracers and what was the reason for doing so?
I arrived in Ireland in September, fit, but recovering from a sustained injury that I picked up during the marathon-a-day. I won the 2019 US Master 15k, but in the US, masters running has no pedigree or strong tradition. I was running to simply not get fat. I was running at Olaf’s when Sonya, Terry’s wife, spotted me running around the field. She graciously approached me, and the rest is history. The shock of the first Marlay Park 2×15 left me thinking about quietly retreating. Any claim to former glory was quickly eclipsed. I was chastened and left for dead during those first sessions. But of course, I returned.
I must give credit to the Tues/Thurs crew, who, to a man, befriended me, gave me lifts to Saturday training, and generally looked out for me. I was in Ireland to begin a book on the famine, but also cope with my parents’ failing health. COVID ended any attempt at onsite research. From Sept-Dec, I came to rely on TTracers for a sense of purpose and friendship. Frustrated with being unable to secure a car and other basic necessities due to strange Irish laws and quirks, I came to rely on a series of athletes who graciously helped me in all manners of life.
what would be in your eyes the main advantage of being part of TTracers?
There is instant community. Also, as one gets older, there is a yearning for school days of banter and competition. On numerous Tues/Thursdays, I felt transported back in time, to those days of youthful ease and enjoyment, where nothing mattered but the immediate joy of sport. I think we are all competitors, but we do so with a collective love of the sport. During lockdown, I had occasion to make some closer friends, run long on Sundays. The genuine escape of two hour runs up around the Dublin mountains again harkened to early days of running in Limerick. I found a sense of differentiation and self in looking down on a small, slumbering city on Sunday mornings. Seeing the encapsulated life of a town from a mountain top brings perspective, allows one to make decisions, to see the grander picture. I felt that flood of old experiences again.
What’s the best running advice you’ve been given which has helped you to become a better runner?
Distance runners need time on their feet. Long slow distance (LSD) is the essential base for later success. The conversational nature of LSD facilitates community group runs, but on those solitary days, it allows one to self-assess life, to contemplate goals, to set challenges, to confront issues, to find solutions. Running is a form of meditation in a secular world. For me it represents a last hold on a more tempered and spiritual time.
- What’s your running ambition going forward?
As 57 approaches, my ambition is to continue running as long as possible. I have my sights set on competing for Ireland again. The standard is probably the highest in the world. Groups such as TTracers have extended the life and love of running to masters’ runners. Many Irish masters’ athletes hold world records in the distance events. The occasion to run with younger runners is something masters’ runners do not experience in other countries. I suppose if I had to characterize TTracers and the general running scene in Ireland, it’s about camaraderie and inclusion, about extending one physical and psychological well being.