Tuesday 17 October 2017

Running the race of their lives

TO Gordon Kennedy they were no ordinary men. They were pioneers, visionaries who saw possibilities where others merely saw empty space. History reveals that they met under a street light in Tullamore on a bitter November evening in 1953 and then adjourned to Clarke's barber shop where the Harriers were born. In all, there were nine founding fathers. "The Gods", as Kennedy likes to call them.

There had always been running in Tullamore, but nothing fancy or organised. They improvised tracks around local GAA fields and staged races before games. That was their station. They were a warm-up act, an aperitif for curious spectators waiting for the main event to begin. And they wondered if, some day, they might be the big show themselves. Wasn't it called the Gaelic Athletic Association after all?

So they conceived a grand plan and mustered the strength and acumen to see it through. They found eight acres on the edge of town and built a social centre before they built a top-class track or stadium. That way they would have a revenue stream to power big dreams. At one point the Harriers laid claim to being the only privately owned athletics club in the world. If it was a GAA venture, they would be hailed as a social and sporting miracle.

They have never stood still. They laid a track in 1978, built a stadium a year later. They bought more land and built a car park that could cater for the biggest national events. In the last few years they've added an outside training field and an all-weather pitch for football and hockey, another vital income source. In all, the Harriers have over 200 active members and in the region of 3,000 social members. The complex is valued at €10m.

There are so many stories. Kennedy's favourite is about the building of the complex. "They didn't get a planner," he says. "They went and studied a place in England and came back and built an exact replica. The way the track is positioned, the long jump pit is close to the stand. In the original design it was on the opposite side. Paddy Larkin wanted it the other way so he switched the plan. When it was started nobody could do anything about it."

That was Paddy's way. He was the Harriers' can-do man, their fixer. Larkin had been a fine athlete in his day, but as coach and administrator he found his calling. To Kennedy, he was a second father. He remembers the first morning he landed at the club in 1998. Peadar Coughlan sent him away up Eiscir Riada with Larkin. "He's a tyre for you to wear out," he said. Under Paddy's tutelage, Kennedy developed into one of the best 400m runners in the country.

"He wasn't just my coach, but my counsellor as well," Kennedy says. "He was a man who got things done. He wasn't bullish or thick-headed or anything like that. He was a quiet, calm individual and way ahead of his time. Talk to anybody about Paddy Larkin and they'll tell you about his charisma, how gentle he was."

Larkin was the club secretary from its formation up until his death in 2006, the soul of the club and its main driving force. On the way to the dressing room, Kennedy sees the pictures lining the walls and they stir golden memories. "I say hello to the boss every day I go there," he smiles. And every time he passes that spot on the final bend, he can't help seeing Paddy's ghost there, roaring support and encouragement, as he always did.

Nor will he forget that glorious day in the summer of 2008 when he claimed his first national title. For Kennedy, the race had never been kind. He'd been fifth several times and had been disqualified the year before. The men's 400m was always one of the toughest events on the national circuit. This time it came right, though. He crossed the line, heard the crowd applauding but only one thought crossed his mind. This was for Paddy.

A week later he went up to the graveyard and sat down for a chat. "We finally did it Paddy," he said quietly. And he knows that if Paddy walked into the club today, he'd be happy with what he saw. He'd see Pauline Curley's smiling face looking down from the roof of the complex, the club's second Olympian after Kennedy. He'd see too that they want more than that: better facilities, more athletes, a bright and secure future.

Never standing still. Paddy's legacy lives on.

* * * * *

YOU find him in the middle of a maelstrom of activity. The tartan running track at Cork Institute of Technology on a Saturday morning. He will be here every Saturday and Sunday morning and on Tuesday and Thursday evenings. He used to do Wednesdays too but gave them up. "I got another fella in to do the weights," John Sheehan says. "You need someone else in. They'd be sick of listening to me all the time."

He's wearing his Ireland gear and a happy smile. The weather gods have been kind and the track is thick with athletes of all ages, giddy with activity. He has a session with Derval O'Rourke and the national female 4x100m relay squad and a junior team watching their every move. All around him there are knots of kids he doesn't know getting instruction from coaches he has never seen. A grand sight for sore eyes, he thinks.

Nowadays he is the national sprinting coach, but a Leevale man all his life. When O'Rourke first came to him she was 11. Even then he could see the sea-change in Irish athletics. The old middle-distance tradition wasn't dying out, but a new generation was taking hold and the athletes wanted to run faster. All his life, speed had fascinated Sheehan. How to harness it. How to develop it. He knew there were quick athletes in Ireland. But nobody was finding them.

"We just never developed it," he says. "Go back 30 or 35 years. When athletes trained it was always hard, hard work. Kill the speed. The policy now is to keep it there the whole year. Develop it. You still train hard but you always throw a speed session in there, no matter what discipline."

He sees the Hessions and O'Rourkes now and remembers the well from which they sprung. The impetus came from men like Ciarán Coakley, Jim Kilty and Paddy Fay. They would head off to coaching courses and share their knowledge when they returned. At Leevale, Sheehan took over as head coach from Finbarr O'Brien and realised later how forward-thinking O'Brien had been.

"I'd go off on coaching courses myself and I'd learn Finbarr had been doing the same stuff for years. We weren't behind the times. At the time athletics was beginning to pick up on plyometrics but we had been doing it all along. The difference was we called it 'walking on the moon'. Some guy changed the name and made a load of money."

Sheehan sees a bright future in the distance. He expects his relay team to qualify for Barcelona and enthuses about the fact that four of the six girls are under 23. London stands out as a tangible goal. At Leevale, he coaches around 20 200m and 400m runners from the ages of 15 upwards. "Quality athletes," he says. "You'd be hopeful for them." He points to a spot just north of CIT and predicts that Leevale will have an indoor arena up and running within three years. "We have the ground and are ready to get going. We're not hanging around."

He knows not everybody shares his sunny outlook. They say there aren't enough good coaches in the sport anymore. Kilty has scaled back his involvement for now, Fay is living abroad. The old ones are all leaving and the talent to replace them isn't enough. On the ground, Sheehan sees it differently, though.

"The way I see it we do have good coaches in this country," he says. "You look at our athletes who ran in the World Championships last year -- Derval, Gillick, Hession. They all came through our system under Irish coaches. Joanne Cuddihy and Ailish McSweeney the same. Okay, some of them are with English coaches now but to me what's a coach? A guy that grabs a good athlete or a coach who brings them through the system? To me, that's a proper coach. And we have those guys here now. Sean and Terri Cahill, Jim Kidd, Joe Evans, Brian Corcoran. The work is being done. The cycle is still going on."

* * * * *

BRONA Furlong tells you a story. For three weeks she has been crossing the Liffey to train in Irishtown while the track at Santry was closed for lining. They had resurfaced it last October but the guys doing the job got fed up waiting for a dry day and left to do another project abroad. So all winter and spring the athletes had to train on a track without lines or clear measurements. A typical Irish athletics story.

The thing is, though, she isn't bristling with indignation while she speaks. It is merely an amusing story, another small hurdle to overcome. And maybe that's the thing about this emerging generation of Irish athletes. They don't expect to be pampered or spoon-fed. They expect little enough, really, and maybe, as a result, it has made them more durable and self-sufficient than those who came before.

Furlong sees few clouds in her life. She is 21 years old. Last year she finished her degree in sports science at DCU and began her PhD in October. That will take her another four years, she thinks. "No hurry," she smiles. Niall Moyna is her tutor and flexibility is his middle name. The set-up at the university is first-class. She has everything she needs at home.

If you know her at all, it is probably because she was a star on the Wexford camogie side that won the 2008 All-Ireland. She played camogie as a kid before she ever started running. Back then she didn't have a preference for either. She was sports-mad and felt the invincibility of youth. Whatever they put in front of her she could handle. Bring it on, she always thought.

And then she started getting better and things got tougher. Two years running the national indoor championships fell on the same day as the All-Ireland schools' camogie final and she remembers her mother doing her best Lewis Hamilton impression to get her there. For a while it was a thrilling adventure. Until it became a strain on rising ambition.

"Two years ago, I remember running in Italy on a Friday and then flying to London that night. I got a flight to Shannon the next morning. My mother picked me up at the airport and drove me to Shannon for a game that afternoon. That was the day I said I can't do this anymore. It took me a week to recover."

Something had to give. Her coach told her that if she had any hope of making the Olympics, she would have to qualify for the 2010 European Championships and wouldn't be able to play any camogie that year. She told him she had already made her decision; 2008 would be her last year playing camogie.

"The funny thing," she says, "is everyone in athletics was always telling me to give up camogie but no one in camogie ever said 'would you ever give up the athletics?' They were all very supportive and wished me the best." In a way, that was easy to understand. The GAA can lose one or two saplings and the branch won't break. Athletics needs to keep hold of every bit of talent it can nurture.

She knows the life she has chosen will be a tough and sometimes lonely one. Her specialist discipline is the 400m hurdles and to find competitive races she has to travel abroad. Finding good races is hard but Enda Fitzpatrick, the head coach at DCU, has good contacts she can tap into and she has an agent friend who helps out too. She gets by handily enough.

Right now, she is 0.07 seconds off the qualifying standard for Barcelona so getting to the Europeans isn't much of an issue. Her minimum target is to make the semi-final. She isn't a carded athlete, but hopes to change that before long. This year Athletics Ireland introduced clear standards athletes needed to achieve for funding and she's hopeful they are within reach. "I have to achieve a time of 56.84 which is a second faster than my PB," she says. "My goal this year was to break 57 seconds anyway so I'd like to think I could achieve that."

She knows where she wants to go and what she needs to do to get there. For now she could not ask for more.

* * * * *

GORDON Kennedy is going places too. Finally. The skies have cleared of ash. Planes are landing and taking off. The airport is a hub of noise and movement again. He will arrive in Portugal a week late, but no major damage done. Two weeks of warm-weather training will set him up nicely for the summer campaign. At 29, he doesn't know how many more he has left so he'll enjoy them while he can.

He's old enough to know that athletics can be a cruel mistress. It gave him the pain of Sydney in 2000 and the frustration of not making Beijing. Yet, for all the heartbreak, it has been his life and the happy memories far outweigh the regrets. And now he hears stories from around the country, of athletes shaping up for Barcelona and, even if the odds are against him making it himself, he's happy to hear of others doing well.

Because it tells him that, contrary to what you might hear, the sport still has a pulse. Its beating heart remains strong and vibrant.

Sunday Independent

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