Sunday 22 April 2018

One golden April day in Boston

Neil Cusack with his 1974 Boston Marathon gold medal.
Neil Cusack with his 1974 Boston Marathon gold medal.
Neil Cusack Winning the 1974 Boston Marathon.

Frank Greally

It will be 40 years on Monday next since Neil Cusack came striding up Boylston Street to win the famed Boston Marathon in 2:13.39 – a rare and wonderful achievement by the Limerick runner who was then an athletic scholarship student at East Tennessee State University.

Tomorrow night – Good Friday – Irish Runner magazine will host An Evening with Neil Cusack at the Gibson Hotel, in Dublin's Point Village, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of that famous Boston victory.

"Time sure does slip away on you, but the memory of winning Boston on that April day 40 years ago is something that I still savour and I can remember the detail of it as if it happened yesterday," says Cusack.

"I remember travelling up to Boston from Johnson City in East Tennessee, where I was on an athletics scholarship, having my mind already set on winning the event. I was young and confident and I had no fear of the distance or the opposition. I had already won the American National Collegiate Cross Country Championship in 1972 and I was in a really positive zone back then."

Boston was not Cusack's first outing over the classic distance, as he had already posted a 2:16.18 effort in Atlanta, Georgia, a few years previously as a 19-year-old; a world-best time for the age group at the time.

"I didn't put any limits on myself back then and running that first marathon in Atlanta gave me an insight into what it was like to tackle the distance," he said. "Going into Boston, I had no fear."

Cusack had arrived on the campus of East Tennessee State University in the autumn of 1970 after having being offered a half-scholarship by the late coach Dave Walker after his Limerick contact Ronnie Long had recommended him as an emerging young talent.

He found the twice-a-day training at Tennessee hard to adjust to at first and reckons it took him a year to get used to the new training regime. In his first outing in the US Collegiate Cross Country Championships, Cusack struggled to finish 186th and got to know the feeling of going full tilt while the field swept past. It was a feeling that he didn't much like and he vowed to do better.

One year later, Cusack placed seventh in the same NCAA Cross Country Championships and the following year won the title outright in Houston, Texas, after leading the field a merry dance.

By 1972, Cusack had improved enough to qualify for the Irish team at the Munich Olympics, where at just 20 years of age he set a new Irish 10,000m record of 28:45.80, but didn't make it out of the qualifying heats.

The Munich Olympic experience gave him a huge morale boost and when he came back to Tennessee that autumn, Cusack led an all-Irish team known as The Irish Brigade to a second-place finish in the NCAA Cross Country Championships as he won the individual title. That team consisted of Cusack, Eddie and PJ Leddy, Kevin Breen, Ray McBride and yours truly.

In 1974, on Patriot's Day in Boston, Cusack was on target for a 2.09 performance going up the infamous Heartbreak Hill between 18 and 21 miles. "The pace I set just found me out over the final miles, but I was happy to win, no matter what time I ran," he said.

The night before his Boston victory, Cusack remembers sitting in his hotel room in the city sewing a shamrock crest to the Dunnes Stores string vest that he was going to wear.

"Ron Hill, the British runner who had won Boston in 1970, had made the string vest a popular piece of running apparel for marathoners and I had my Dunnes Stores version with me in Boston," says Cusack.

The day after his Boston victory, Cusack was delighted to see his picture on the front of The New York Times – a photo that showed him crossing the finish line, arms upraised and the shamrock set proudly on his chest.

Cusack hit another high when he won the Dublin Marathon in 1981 in 2:13.59. He competed in two Olympics, 1972 and 1976, and represented Ireland in the World Cross Country Championships on 13 occasions. He has a raft of stories to tell and many ideas to share on training, racing and good marathon preparation.

There are still some tickets available for An Evening with Neil Cusack at the Gibson Hotel. For FREE tickets email: putting Neil Cusack in the subject. It promises to be a great night of special celebration.

Irish Independent

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