Thursday 16 August 2018

Born to run and still in love with the sport

Ray Flynn returned to his home town of Longford to share fond memories with friends and rivals

Ray Flynn running in the 1500m at the 1987 World Championships in Rome Photo: Billy Stickland
Ray Flynn running in the 1500m at the 1987 World Championships in Rome Photo: Billy Stickland
John Greene

John Greene

Another time. Another place. A stellar field of international superstar athletes gathered in the Mardyke in July 1982 to chase a world record. It was a big deal, but it was not uncommon.

For those of us of a certain age, the sporting landscape may have been dominated by the big sports then, much as now, but where fans of today might dip in and out of international success for boxers and rowers, back then it was more likely to be the runners and show jumpers who we turned to.

Frank O’Mara, Marcus O’Sullivan, Ray Flynn and Eamonn Coghlan after setting a world record for the 4 x 1mile relay in a time of 15:49:99 at Belfield in 1985 Photo: Ray McManus
Frank O’Mara, Marcus O’Sullivan, Ray Flynn and Eamonn Coghlan after setting a world record for the 4 x 1mile relay in a time of 15:49:99 at Belfield in 1985 Photo: Ray McManus

It was a golden era for Irish athletics. It was a time when the magical distance, the mile, sparkled. And it was a common sight to see the world's great practitioners on these shores - John Walker, Sydney Maree, Steve Scott, Steve Ovett, Steve Cram - and the leading Irish athletes too, Coghlan, O'Sullivan, O'Mara . . . and Ray Flynn.

The week before the Mardyke, Flynn had been part of another red-hot line-up at a meet in Oslo. Scott and Walker were targeting a world record performance, while Flynn had a target of his own. "We were all chasing that night," Flynn recalls of the Oslo race. Two weeks earlier he had run on the same track and had come agonisingly close to going under three minutes and 50 seconds. He knew that on the right night, with the right conditions, he could be the first Irishman to break that elusive 3:50 barrier.

"There were places you raced that were fast and you went there to run fast and you were wired for it, and it was all you thought about, and that's what we did. We were just machines. Just running. It was all we knew how to do."

On the night, Scott and Walker came up short of their target - although they finished first and second respectively - but Flynn didn't. He ran the mile in 3:49.77. He remembers throwing up at the side of the track afterwards and being a little incoherent at first. But he recovered quickly. Job done. And ran back to his hotel. Two nights later he was on the start line at a race in Budapest and knocked out a 3:56. That was how it was. Machines. "We just did it."

Enda Fitzpatrick, Eamonn Coghlan, Ray Flynn and John O’Shea watch a video of that run in Longford last week
Enda Fitzpatrick, Eamonn Coghlan, Ray Flynn and John O’Shea watch a video of that run in Longford last week

He was 25 and in his prime. He may have been running in the shadow of Eamonn Coghlan, who was five years older, but between 1981 and 1983, Flynn ran 44 sub-four-minute miles, and 89 in total in a career that lasted into his early 30s. No Irishman has beaten his Oslo time. Coghlan came close the following year at an indoor event and they remain the only two Irish athletes to break 3:50. Thirty-five years later and Flynn's record for the mile is intact. He set an Irish record in that race for the 1500m (3:33.5) and that too has never been beaten.

* * * * *

Ray Flynn loved to run. "When I was born I came feet first and the first thing they said in the hospital was, that's a real Ronnie Delany."

Some of his earliest memories of sport are watching the Olympics with his father, Paddy, and he particularly remembers the Mexico games. His early heroes were the likes of Kip Keino and Jim Ryun, and then David Bedford. They inspired him to run.

It was when he went to St Mel's College in Longford that he first began to blossom. He had always felt the pull of running and even though St Mel's is more renowned as a Gaelic football nursery, his talent was spotted. The school is one of the most successful football colleges in the country but there had always been a running tradition too and although pictures of the many storied football teams of the past are dotted through its hallways, Flynn and a number of other athletes - such as Enda Fitzpatrick, now the director of DCU's athletics academy - also take their place on those walls.

Flynn with fomer coach Brother John Dooley outside St Mel’s Cathedral after last week’s paced mile in Longford organised by Athletics Ireland and Longford Marathon. Photos: Tomas Greally
Flynn with fomer coach Brother John Dooley outside St Mel’s Cathedral after last week’s paced mile in Longford organised by Athletics Ireland and Longford Marathon. Photos: Tomas Greally

Flynn is remembered in the school as a humble student who was dedicated to his sport and to his studies. He was also a gifted singer. He is also remembered for his positive outlook, a characteristic which jumps out to this day.

He was a familiar sight on the roads around Longford town at the time as he pounded out mile after mile. "I didn't really know what I was doing at first and back then it was very unusual to see people out running. If you saw someone out running it would be like, 'what are you doing?'"

Others around him could see that this boy had something special, and even if they weren't quite sure if they had the required skills to help him develop, they knew enough to know they needed to help him. Local man PJ Quinn read up on training techniques and introduced Flynn to interval training. Fr Peter Brady in St Mel's College went in search of expertise.

"I was determined and I was training every day and you can recognise a young person if they are doing something well, running well, and better than everybody else locally, so in fairness to people like Michael Wall and PJ and Fr Brady they exposed me to people who knew more, or were more in that sphere of running," says Flynn. "That exposed me to people like Brother John Dooley, who was a good runner back in his day. He coached me. When I became a senior at St Mel's I won the Irish Schools Championship 1500m and then I went on to represent Ireland in the British Schools Championship and won. By then I was 17 and very quickly I got a bunch of scholarship offers to go to America and within a month I was gone. And that was it."

Flynn's neat summary skips the fact that he worked tirelessly through his teenage years to improve himself as a runner. When you talk to people in Longford who remember him in those days, it is his dedication which they say stood out.

With the scholarship offers flowing in, he chose East Tennessee State University. "It wasn't a very sophisticated choice," he admits. The coach wanted him to come and Dave Walker was a persuasive man, something of a legend of the sport, although Flynn didn't quite understand that at the time. The Leddy brothers from Leitrim - PJ and Eddie - were students there and they also had a word in his ear. And so in 1974, he joined the Irish brigade at ETSU, which included the likes of Frank Greally, the Leddys, and Neil Cusack, who had just won the Boston Marathon.

Being dropped into the environment of big league sport in America was a massive culture shock for a man from a small town, and it was a struggle in the first year.

"The biggest thing is you go from training, doing 30 miles a week, and you thought you were doing a lot. So when I was training and doing runs around the town, I thought I was doing it at a high level. But when I went to America it was tripled, we were doing 100 miles a week. I struggled with that. You struggle because you are continuously fatigued, and you're discouraged because you can't keep up because you're not at the same level as the other boys who are used to doing it. And you're young, and you're body has to mature. It's sort of like going to boot camp if you're in the military. That struggle was about enduring, just getting through it.

"The critics of it [the US collegiate system] say it kills a lot of athletes, kills them off, because it's one-for-all and it's not very scientific, and on that point they are correct. But having said that, I think that's the normal attrition I would say in being a great athlete. You've got to endure it, you've got to get through it. I came out the other side of it. I'm sure other people would disagree and say a lot of people didn't come out the other side. And they have a point but nevertheless I think it was warranted. But I did struggle the first year."

In his excellent autobiography, Running Full Circle, Frank Greally chronicles his struggles settling into life in East Tennessee, and to meet the standards of the notoriously tough taskmaster, Coach Walker. Flynn acknowledges this, but it is his firm conviction that he would not have succeeded in athletics if he had stayed in Ireland.

"I would never have made it without just getting thrown in. We couldn't come home. I see the young kids now when they go out on a scholarship they come for a weekend, they're home for Christmas, they're home for holidays. Back then in the '70s we weren't coming home. Dad bought me a ticket and it said June next year, so you knew you were there so you just had to suck it up and do it. I'm not saying they are softer now but it's easier to bale if you want nowadays. It was not easy then. It sounded grandiose heading away but when the weekends came and all the students were gone it was just the runners on the campus, it was quiet. When holidays came and students went home, we were left . . . it was a little empty. But we had each other. It helped having familiar faces."

Flynn, Greally and others in the Irish Brigade formed their own music group and played bars at weekends to earn some extra money. Flynn remained pragmatic about being so far away from home, recalling the dearth of facilities for him to train and the lack of career opportunities away from sport given the state of the Irish economy. For him the choice had never been whether to stay or go, it was simply where to go.

"If you are a top runner and you run with people of the same level you may get a little better but you're going to stay around that same level. But if you go to a totally new level and run with people who are better than you, you will eventually get there - if you are good enough and have the talent. The races are what really prime you; the experience and the aptitude to racing at a better level . . . that's really what brings on maturity and makes you a better athlete."

* * * * *

The mid-'80s was an extraordinary period for Irish athletics. Coghlan won gold in the 5000m at the 1983 World Championships, John Treacy took silver a year later in the Olympic marathon, Frank O'Mara won gold in the 3000m at the World Indoor Championships in 1987, and Marcus O'Sullivan won the 1500m at the same championships.

In 1985, Flynn, Coghlan, O'Mara and O'Sullivan broke the world record for the relay mile on a memorable evening in UCD. "It was a big deal," says Flynn. "Think about it: you were asking four guys to run under four minutes for the mile consecutively."

On Monday night last, in Longford, a celebratory paced mile was run through the town to celebrate Flynn's achievement in 1982. At a function afterwards in the Longford Arms Hotel, that 1985 relay in aid of GOAL was shown. Watching it for the first time in some years, Flynn was struck by how easy the four had made the run look. GOAL founder John O'Shea and Coghlan were among the guests who took Flynn by surprise on the night.

"It was a great quartet," says Flynn. "I would have been the weakest link in retrospect because Marcus and Frank were later world champions but ironically they wanted me to anchor because I was the fittest of anybody at the time. The weight was on my shoulders because if we were behind I had to make it up. As it turned out I had a big lead.

"John O'Shea was saying last night, 'Flynn all you had to do was run through it', but I still ran 3.56 solo. It's no mean feat on any day. But having said that I was ready for it, and I agreed to anchor. I had nightmares about getting the stick and hearing, 'you're two seconds off it you gotta go for it now'. But it didn't happen that way. Actually, Marcus and Frank made the record. They put in the work, they ran super from the middle and brought us underneath the time. We all had to do it. Other teams who have run this kind of race effort, somebody always messes up. If you have four guys in a relay running a long distance together, one guy will have a bad day. It's the law of averages, it's what happens. But we all did it on that night and that was what was special about it. And it was special because we did it on home soil, with guys I have the greatest respect for and were a privilege to run with."

Flynn and Coghlan were rivals then, but with the passage of time they have become closer. "Our history has connected us," says Flynn. And when Coghlan came through the door of the function room last Monday night, the two embraced warmly.

Flynn enjoyed that run last week in his home town. He turned 60 last January but still makes a point of running three or four times a week. "My wife showed me a video of me running last night and I think I'm a different guy than the guy I saw in the video, which is kind of funny watching it. 'Who's that? I don't know that guy, he's like shuffling along' . . . and I thought I was running pretty fast!

"When I was running five-minute-mile reps, or running out at a certain pace like six minutes, six minutes was like a jog, now I can't even touch one six-minute mile. In your brain you're still thinking half-an-hour that's probably six miles but it's not, it's like three miles . . . I only run because it's all I ever knew. I'm sort of wired for that."

* * * * *

Flynn met his wife Jan in college and they made their home in Johnson City, Tennessee. He gets back to Longford as often as he can to visit his mother and his siblings. These days he runs a very successful company managing athletes and counts the likes of Ciara Mageean among his clients.

He didn't quite drift into that career after his running days ended, but having completed a business degree in college, and having had to work hard to make a success of himself as an athlete, it was in hindsight a natural progression.

"What happens is, slowly, the wheels come off. When you get past 30, and other athletes say the same thing, you suffer minor injuries and niggles that hurt your training and inhibit racing. It doesn't happen overnight.

"The writing was on the wall and I had to face reality. I could run sub-four minutes any day of the year and suddenly you're running four-point-zero-zero and the young kids are coming up and you have to face reality - you can't do this forever. That's when I thought, I can form a career being a business manager to athletes because I've learned so much of the trade on the circuit. I knew the people personally; relationships are everything in life and I knew all the race promoters. In a way it was a smooth transition to do what I'm doing today, but it took a while to build the credibility because you can't just assume a new position overnight. It takes a while to be taken seriously in anything.

"I believe you're preparing for something else all your life. You don't know it at the time, but I really believe that. You're experience in your life is that each day, whatever you're doing, is making you more complete as an entity, and in being ready for the next phase of your life."

Still, it was a major adjustment to come from high-level sport to the world of running your own business. Time has moved on and it will soon be 30 years since his last race. These days his clients keep him firmly on track. "I have learned through my career in the business of sports management that the young kids that I manage now who are 22, 23 years old, they don't know anything of what happened more than five or six years ago, let alone 40 years ago. Many of the athletes I represent have come to me years later and said, 'Mr Flynn, we didn't know you were a runner'. They're not from Longford, they're from Minnesota or California or whatever. I'm doing a different job for them. I'm not representing them because I was a good athlete, it's because I do a good job managing them."

He remains immersed in the sport and is still in love with it, despite all that has happened. He was thrilled by the World Championships in London, and is as excited now by good racing as he has ever been. He sees the positives, the spread of participation across the whole world, and not just the richer countries of the West, and a sport trying to come to terms with its problems.

But the stain is still there. Has been for a long time.

"We always felt that there were people cheating, but we didn't really know much about it," he says of his time as an athlete. "What we didn't realise at the time was that we were always tested when we'd go to the meets, the same guys, and I think that was because they knew we were clean. I think there was collusion sometimes between the organisers and the testers. They didn't want any exposure."

Flynn reached the 5000m final at the 1984 Olympics and before the race the Finnish runner Martti Vainio was taken out of the starting line-up. "Vainio had got a silver in the 10000 metres and was in my final in the 5000 metres. Vainio was pulled because he had tested positive for blood doping the previous day, after the 10. He had blood-doped and they caught him in a test."

He says they knew there were cheats but that "nobody was doing anything about it".

At least, he says, that much has changed in that they are trying to catch the cheats. "People who think they are getting away with this today, and yes they are cheating you out of your opportunity to win if they beat you, but they will be exposed in five years' time or seven years' time when they catch up with them. That's the silver lining.

"It's not a perfect system but I think they feel a lot better about it now. The truth is that we'll never really know until time passes if something is as we see it today. You may see a new champion, a new record set, and it looks all good and in five or seven years time they may discover that there was something that person was taking that was not detectable.

"I ran 3.49 in 1982 and nobody has run faster than that since. I know I never took anything and I think I've always had the belief that if I can run that fast and I didn't do anything wrong and I didn't take anything, it's too easy to say everybody's on drugs. Like, I hate that defeatist attitude that says, 'well I can't beat them because they're faster, they're probably all cheating' or whatever. I have always believed that people are good first; I think the majority of people are trying to do it the right way. It's like everything in life."

* * * * *

It's a bright Tuesday afternoon in Longford town and Flynn is still clearly humbled by the tributes paid to him the night before, and smiling at the fun and the memories he shared with O'Shea, Greally, Coghlan, Fitzpatrick and another local legend, Liam Fenelon, who has run more than 300 marathons, and a host of well wishers and - who knows - a future star.

As our conversation is drawing to a close, he is asked to reflect on what his athletics career meant to him.

"When it's all said and done, it's a personal endeavour. It's an opportunity to do something that makes you feel better about yourself; it's an identity. You could be a singer, you could be a broadcaster or journalist, you could be a doctor, and for me running gave me that.

"At the end of the day the records are going to get broken and everything's going to fade away and new people will come along, and that's good. So I don't go around thinking I could have done that, or should have done that. So maybe I finished second more than I did first, but who cares?

"I did my best."

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