Saturday 18 November 2017

Books: A well-paced account of a life in the fast lane

Sport: Running Full Circle, Frank Greally, Ballpoint Press, pbk, 240 pages, €14.99

Memoir: Greally's book makes for a heart-wrenching read
Memoir: Greally's book makes for a heart-wrenching read
Running Full Circle by Frank Greally.

We tend to think of athletes as emotional automatons, people for whom regular physical endurance and a clean lifestyle brings some level of inner tranquillity. At least we did. The "healthy body, healthy mind" maxim has been gradually decommissioned, in this country anyway, in light of the suicide in 2009 of boxer Darren Sutherland or the chronic anxiety attacks of one-time Leinster rugby player Niall Breslin.

Frank Greally showed great promise as a runner and, in 1970, the then 19-year-old set an Irish junior record in the 10,000m (30mins, 17secs), which still stands to this day. That same year, he won a scholarship to East Tennessee State University (ETSU) with designs on progressing to Olympic heights.

Things took an altogether less glorious route and the change in Greally's life trajectory forms the axis of this redemptive memoir.

In short, clear-headed chapters, Greally (a columnist with this parish) plots out his life with admirable candour; his youth in Ballyhaunis, fledgling steps into athletics and the host of colourful characters whom he trained alongside or received mentorship from. Always hovering sidestage, however, was his depressive disposition.

He locates the malady in his father, who was occasionally unable to work due to pronounced bouts of gloom. His uncle Miko, meanwhile, was "a bit too fond of the drink". Greally is cut from this cloth and a combination of these genes, homesickness and injury emulsified during his time in Tennessee. He turned his back on running and hung around artistic circles where alcohol was fundamental.

The young man returned home in 1976 under a cloud of shame, a journey which anchors several chapters. After the openness of the writers and artists at ETSU, it killed him to be back home with his parents in a house that obeyed a very Irish moratorium on addressing elephants in the corner. There was nothing to show for his time away, or so he believed.

He ventured into journalism, eventually leaving the Sunday Tribune 30-odd years ago to begin his own sporting title, Irish Runner magazine. The industry was notorious for its boozy whiff back then so Greally had just the right crutch to distract him when the black-eyed dog called at his door. His marriage, career and sanity were pushed close to the edge.

If running did not equip Greally from the outset with the tools to live then it did, however, instil in him an ability to go on when the wall was approaching, to keep dragging one foot in front of the other with a kind of primal resistance. He made the decision to finally commit to alcoholism treatment, while counselling lanced his "enormous dam" of pain. The blackness receded and a peace was restored. Re-acquaintance with his running shoes played a part in this.

The process of externalising everything through the written word has clearly been a cleansing one for Greally. It makes for heart-wrenching reading at times as he gazes back at a young man squandering talent, the undertow of unhappiness in his childhood home following the loss of two siblings in infancy, and Old Ireland's ignorance of mental illness. The self-diagnosis is calm and metered, and almost as liberating for reader as author.

The negativity of those years lifts during passages about running, his family (wife Marian and their five children) and literature. The reflections in Running Full Circle are richly coloured by prose, poetry and song, from Faulkner and Thomas Wolfe to Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson. There is pace and focus to these mediations on a life being reconstructed, and while it will fascinate any student of Irish athletics or journalistic history, it is in Greally's return from the abyss that his story achieves a special purchase.

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