Tuesday 27 September 2016

Books: A restless spirit driven toward self-esteem and joy

Running full circle, Ballpoint Press, €14.99

Published 11/01/2016 | 02:30

Frank Greally believes running is as much spiritual as physical. Photo: Sportsfile.
Frank Greally believes running is as much spiritual as physical. Photo: Sportsfile.
Frank Greally was a talented athlete.
Running Full Circle

Let's start with a confession: I have known Frank Greally for many years, or, rather, I thought I knew him. Turns out, however, I never really knew Frank Greally at all. Until now, that is.

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Greally is best known as the publisher of Irish Runner magazine, and as one of the beating hearts of athletics in this country. But the opening lines of Running Full Circle, his deeply personal memoir, scarcely prepare you for the drama that is about to unfold: "This is my story and the only story I have a right to tell. In telling it here as honestly as I can, I feel I have gone up on a high wire without any safety net."

The book begins with a journey. It's September 1976, and Greally is travelling across the Atlantic after his fourth and final year in East Tennessee State University, nearing the end of his long trek home to Devlis, the small village near Ballyhaunis in Co Mayo where he grew up. He is not in any hurry.

"You might imagine there would have been a spring in my step on that bright September morning as the Irish coastline swung into view. But no, the dominant emotion as I contemplated the final few legs of this final homecoming was the intuition of failure, the feeling I had squandered the rare and wonderful gift offered by those four years in the land of opportunity."

He had left Ireland dreaming of the Olympics; he returned wondering how he would break the news to his parents that he lost his way so badly that he now had nothing to show for his time at university. On that long and lonely journey home, he reflected on where it had all gone so terribly wrong and what emerges is a picture of a talented athlete who was also deeply troubled and riddled with self-doubt, and ultimately dragged down by depression and alcoholism.

Some of Greally's adventures - or perhaps misadventures is a more accurate description - in the US are truly hair-raising. There were times when some combination of incredible good fortune and his quick wits or that of his friends kept him alive as he was chased down by men with murderous intent, or felt the true pang of hunger with not a single dollar to his name.

Bit by bit his story is stretched out before you. He jumps back and forward, putting all the pieces of an amazing life in place in an unconventional but compelling narrative style, and all the time our sense of Frank Greally grows: the tragedies of his childhood, his loving but profoundly troubled parents, the origins of his twin obsessions - running and literature, and much more. It is evident from his earliest days that he is a restless spirit, a man in search of answers which for so long seem just beyond his grasp.

Author and academic Robert J Higg deals with this in Laurel & Thorn: The Athlete in American Literature. "We are surrounded by utter mystery in an effort to determine who we are as thinking beings," he writes. "All we know is that we are more than bodies and that we are driven toward self-esteem and joy."

Higg then quotes from The Joy of Sport by Michael Novak: "The root of human dissatisfaction and restlessness goes as deep into the spirit as any human drive - deeper than any other drive. It is the human spirit (or soul). Nothing stills it. Nothing fulfils it. It is not a need like a hunger, a thirst, or an itch, for such needs are easily satisfied. It is a need greater than sex; orgasmic satisfaction does not quiet it. 'Desire' is the word by which coaches call it. A driveness. Distorted, the drive for perfection can propel an ugly and considerably less than perfect human development."

Running Full Circle is Frank Greally's pursuit of self-esteem and joy. Perhaps writing this book is the end of that journey. In it, he describes Higg - who he grew close to during his time in Tennessee - as a "kindred spirit".

Higg, 'Jack' as he calls him, is one of an incredible cast of characters who come alive in this book and if Greally's survival through some dark chapters in his life says much about his remarkable spirit in times of adversity, it owes something too to the many people whose lives he touched with his generosity along the way and who looked out for him on those days when he needed it most.

There is no doubt that he has known tough times. He has known loneliness and despair, failure and regret - but he has come full circle too. He has found his way back, and found strength in the familiar, in family and running. He writes near the end that he has "come to believe running is as much a spiritual experience as a physical one". He has, it seems, found his answers.

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