Saturday 24 February 2018

Back on track: 'Running puts life back into your years'

It's never too late to return to the roads, writes running legend Frank Greally, who laced up again at the age of 63

Frank Greally matches his 1970 Irish Junior record time on the 45th anniversary in 2015 Photo: Tomás Greally / SPORTSFILE
Frank Greally matches his 1970 Irish Junior record time on the 45th anniversary in 2015 Photo: Tomás Greally / SPORTSFILE

It's only when you complete a running event that challenges you that you fully appreciate how good it is to be striding out again and feeling part of the vibrant running community. Taking part in the recent Dunleer four-mile road race in Co Louth proved to be enough of a challenge for me to fully appreciate the running progress I have made over the past two years.

I ran the first few miles of the event with 66-year-old Collette O'Hagan, the Dundalk woman who on the previous day had notched up an incredible 400th marathon in an event in Duleek.

Collette was running at a steady 10-minute mile pace, but I could only match strides with her for about two miles. Still, it felt great to be out on the road along with many other mid-pack runners as I slowed down to a jog and watched Collette disappear off in the distance, all the time passing runners with words of encouragement and a friendly smile.

I thought too of my late and great friend Noel Carroll and the running mantra that he often shared with runners in the early days of the Irish running boom back in the early 1980s: "It's not the distance, but the pace that kills".

And of course it was the early pace that slowed me down to a gentle jog, followed by a quick walk and then another stretch of determined running. But even that felt like decent progress to me, when I thought back to a day two years ago when my six-year-old granddaughter, Hayleigh Bone, posed a searching question for me.

I was watching Hayleigh run around a green area in Rialto, close to the Grand Canal, and when I joined her for her last lap around a little track she calls 'The Circle Field', she looked up at me with innocent eyes and landed me with: "My Mam says that you were a great runner one time. How come you don't run much anymore?"

My granddaughter, who loves to run free as the wind, was indeed correct. I had many years ago been blessed with a natural talent for distance running and one summer night in 1970, in the Morton Stadium in Santry, I succeeded in leading the field a merry dance in a 10,000m track event. In the process I set an Irish Junior record for the distance that has somehow stood the test of time since then.

I remember that time in my life as a period of lovely innocence when I too felt I could run like the wind and take on all challengers. That changed a bit for me when I accepted an athletic scholarship to East Tennessee State University in 1972 and there I found that my running became more a chore than a joy.

And so by the time I reached 25, I had more or less quit competitive running, but I never gave it up completely. For many years while publishing and editing Irish Runner magazine, I did my running in a series of fits and starts. I completed a couple of marathons (Cork and New York) in the mid-1980s in around three-and-a-half hours, but my training lacked consistency and I was always trying to do too much, too soon - leading to niggles and injuries - even though I knew better and had a lot of knowledge about best training practice.

It was David Carrie, the charismatic leader of Team Carrie in Dunleer, who helped to finally steer me in the right direction when I made my comeback to regular running nearly two years ago. For the past five years David has trained groups of 150 locals to complete the SSE Airtricity Dublin Marathon and each year every one of his charges have finished the course.

With the help of Catherina McKiernan, David tailored a training plan for me and for once in my life, I listened to sound advice and followed the suggested plan that almost seemed too simple. Indeed, I felt at the time it was not nearly hard enough for me but I stuck with it and soon began to see its value.

The training plan laid out for me started with a walk/jog/run programme (walk for three minutes, jog for a minute) and it gradually progressed over several weeks until I could run continuously for 40 minutes. David and Catherina had set me a target of being able to run continuously for at least 30 minutes, 17 seconds - the time I posted for the Irish junior 10,000m record in Santry all those years ago.

"I have seen you making several efforts to get back to regular running over the past few years, but I noticed that every time you tried too hard to do too much too soon," said David. "Put some faith in the training schedule we have tailored for you and be ready to celebrate the 45th anniversary of your record run in Santry on August 18, 2015."

And so I followed the training programme and I progressed from walking to jogging and on to running - making very small incremental fitness gains over a period of several weeks.

And on the evening of August 18 last year - in the company of several Olympians, family members and close friends - I completed just short of five thousand metres in 30:17 on the track in Santry: a deeply satisfying effort at the age of 64.

That night in Santry I thought of a day in Kerry when, in very difficult weather conditions, I was climbing Carrauntoohil in the company of my good friend Pat Falvey, mountaineer and world-wide adventurer.

At the ascent of the mountain, Pat asked me how old I was and the question caught me by surprise. Why had he asked? Did he think I was fit for my age? Did he think I looked older or younger than my 45 years? Was he comparing me to the athlete he knew I once had been? I gave him my true figure but had to ask why the question. And I will always remember his answer.

"I was thinking you were somewhere around that mark," he said. "You know that there are only 15 years now until you hit 60, so you need to stay fit and well."

I laughed and reminded him that from where I stood on the mountain, 60 was still a lifetime away. But it came around much quicker than I could ever have imagined and, midway through those 15 years, I let my general fitness levels slide and piled on excess pounds - often citing work and other commitments as excuses.

After I crossed the finish line in the Dunleer four-mile road race, I met Stephen O'Hanlon, father of well-known runner Gary O'Hanlon. Stephen, who is now 71, only took up running two years ago and he talked about how he started out - walking and jogging a few hundred metres at a time between lamp-posts near his home.

These days, Stephen cannot get enough of running and he finished the four miles in Dunleer in around 33 minutes. "Running has added life to my years," he said. "It has helped me to tolerate and accept retirement and it makes me feel very much alive."

I only wish now that I had started back on my path to regular running when I was 45, but I am more than a little delighted that, at 65 I can still run and even compete a little - mostly with myself.

* Join us for the Vhi A Lust for Life Run Series brought to you by the Irish Independent on September 3 at Galway Racecourse and September 30 at Cork Airport for two unique and fun 5k events. For more information, or to sign up, visit

Top tips for running

• Have a full medical check-up. Follow a well-recommended training plan

• Be satisfied with small incremental fitness gains - especially in the first 10/12 weeks

• Stay well hydrated and flexible

• Observe and enjoy rest days that are recommended in your training programme and don't underestimate the value of regular walking

• Join a local training group or look for a friend of similar age/fitness to join you

• Purchase your running shoes in a sports store where gait analysis is available

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