Saturday 24 March 2018

Champion Ray's fighting spirit keeps shining through

Martin Fagan (winner) leads out the field of close to 3,000 in the Kearney Cycles Streets of Galway 8k. Photo: Donal Glackin
Martin Fagan (winner) leads out the field of close to 3,000 in the Kearney Cycles Streets of Galway 8k. Photo: Donal Glackin

Frank Greally

I drove the road west a week ago for what has become, for me, my annual pilgrimage to the Kearney Cycles Streets of Galway 8k.

It was a lovely evening in Galway as bright sunshine bathed the Claddagh where the race started and finished.

There was a lively beat on the streets close to the race HQ as runners warmed up for the event, which attracted a quality field in the men's and women's section.

This Kearney Cycles Streets of Galway 8k has earned a big reputation for an excellent standard of organisation. The race is organised by Galway City Harriers, the athletic club with over a thousand members. Race director Gerry Carthy and his team deliver a consistent quality of service.

An hour before the race start, I made my way to Fairhill Road in the Claddagh to visit my great friend and former running companion, Ray McBride.

Ray's house is always my first port of call when I visit Galway. I have been a regular visitor there now for well over 40 ­years - ever since the early days of my running career, when I competed in and once won what used to be the New Year's Eve Around the Houses race that started and finished in Salthill.

It will be 42 years on September 19 next since I boarded a plane in Shannon, along with Ray McBride, to fly to New York City; the first leg of our trip to Johnson City in East Tennessee, on a four-year Athletics Scholarship.

We found the tough training regime under the late coach Dave Walker at East Tennessee State University a baptism of fire, but we stuck to the task and that year our team, which became known as The Irish Brigade, finished second in the National Collegiate Cross Country Championships as our team-mate, Neil Cusack, led the field a merry dance to win the individual title.

Ray McBride was multi-talented and the liveliest of company. He had a great range in athletic events, from 800m to the 3,000m steeplechase and beyond on the track.

He was also a highly valued and reliable scorer in team cross-country. He was, as well, a brilliant Irish dancer, singer and musician and after he graduated from ETSU he went on to become a highly acclaimed and award-winning actor of stage and film, playing leading roles in Druid and Abbey Theatre productions, as well as films, including Into The West.

Ray won a number of Harvey Awards for his acting and continued to run competitively for a few years after his East Tennessee sojourn, winning a national steeplechase title during that time.

And then, 15 years ago, Ray's blossoming acting career came to an abrupt and cruel end when he was diagnosed with a cancer that affected his speech and balance. And yet, through all those years, on not even one occasion have I ever heard Ray complain about what fate handed him.

On the evening of the Streets of Galway race, I met up with two of our former Irish Brigade team-mates, Patsy Durnin and P.J. Leddy - both graduates of ETSU. We walked back together to visit Ray, his mother Kathleen and sister Margaret in their home in the Claddagh - a house that always rings with laughter and good humour whenever I call.

Back up at the finish of the Streets of Galway event, I watched Martin Fagan lead the big field home in an impressive finishing time of 23:38 and I thought about other days in Galway long ago when I often joined Ray McBride for training runs out around Salthill.

Ray's biggest life challenge came 15 years ago when he knew that he would no longer be able to run. He continues to cope with his illness like the true champion that he has always been - on track, road, cross-country and stage and film. He still has that old twinkle in his eye and a deep and self-preserving gratitude for the better days he's known.

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