I experienced a lump-in-the-throat moment in Waterford on Sunday as I watched Malcolm McEvilly, wearing the colours of my native Mayo, storm to victory in the U-11 boys' race at the Woodie's DIY National Novice and Juvenile Uneven Age Cross-Country Championships in Waterford.
The little man with the big heart from Westport AC reminded me a lot of myself when I was his age -- a runner without limits, innocent and fearless.
I was about Malcolm's height and weight when I was 10 years old. I was too small to be of much use on the football field and I longed to find a sport I could participate in. It was only when I discovered running, at around the age of 16, that I started to shine at sport.
It was a friend and near neighbour, Pat Cribbin, who introduced me to running and I can still see him after all these years, running by my home in the morning on his way to work. He had read somewhere that the legendary runner Emil Zátopek trained in heavy boots, and so the boots he wore on those runs were sturdy enough to help absorb the impact of his six-foot frame on the tarmac.
In those days of the mid-1960s, my friend was a mould breaker and sports fanatic -- and the closest friend I have ever had. He would call to our house on his way home from work in a local joinery and talk about his favourite sports: running and boxing.
One winter evening, he invited me to join him on a two-mile lap that skirted his village, Lecarrow, near the town of Ballyhaunis. That first night, I managed about half a mile, after which Pat coaxed and cajoled me the rest of the way. Little did I think when I staggered to the finish that, for years to come, running would be part of my life.
For weeks after, I joined my pal on the nightly odyssey. Then, one night, I managed to run the whole two-mile lap. To me it was a big breakthrough; to my friend it was small apples -- he completed three circuits every night.
We must have looked like an odd couple, both decked out in sweaters and army boots, me trying to match strides with the giant.
Soon we looked the part, having bought tracksuits and running shoes. We even formed a club -- and to prove it was a club, another friend, Michael Joyce, joined.
At last came the day of my first race: a cross-country event in Tuam. I started off like a startled hare and, by halfway, was watching from the ditch as Eddie Leddy from Ballinamore powered to victory.
Of course, I persevered. A few weeks later, in the Mayo cross--country championships, our little team won our first medals. I doubt anyone that day imagined that, within a few years, two members of our club -- Padraig Keane and I -- would be wearing Irish singlets in a men's senior race at the International Cross-Country Championships. When it happened, there was no prouder man than Pat.
For a while, Ballyhaunis AC enjoyed great success. But too soon, our little group scattered. Padraig and I moved to Dublin. Michael went south to Cork and Pat took the boat to England. Pat kept in touch, his letters vividly describing training sessions at his adopted club, Birchfield Harriers.
In late 1972, I took up an athletics scholarship at East Tennessee State University. One morning, a letter arrived with the news that Pat had been killed in a road accident. Years later, I still miss my dear companion of the road and that is why watching Malcolm win conjured so many deep memories for me.
Later in the afternoon, I watched another Mayo runner -- Con Doherty of Westport AC -- deliver a powerful front-running victory in the U-19 event. It brought the curtain down on a lovely day of cross-country running -- one that brought me right back to my roots.