Boston Marathon memories come flooding back for Treacy

A runner carries a US flag as he runs up Heartbreak Hill in Newton, Massachusetts during the 100th running of the Boston. Photograph: Getty

A runner carries a US flag as he runs up Heartbreak Hill in Newton, Massachusetts during the 100th running of the Boston. Photograph: Getty

Sat, Apr 20, 2013, 07:00

Last Sunday evening, John Treacy received a two-line text message from his youngest son, Conor: “Going to watch the Boston Marathon tomorrow. Where was it you finished in that race again?”

“Typical,” he thought to himself – showing the text to his wife Fionnuala. Sure they’d practically reared their four kids on the money he’d earned from running Boston. It remains, with the exception of his Olympic marathon silver medal from Los Angeles in 1984, the race dearest to his heart, the one he tried his absolute hardest to win.

The kids, in fairness, were too young to realise it: in 1983, his form seemingly stalled, mainly due to injury, Treacy packed his belongings and moved with his wife and then only daughter, Caoimhe, back to Providence, Rhode Island, his first home from home, having gone there on scholarship in 1975.

He bought a house in East Greenwich, just outside Providence, with Boston just a 50-minute drive up I-95. Three more kids followed – Deirdre, Seán and Conor – and for the next decade they were a happy family of New Englanders, the place happily adopting Treacy too as their favourite distance-running son.

After his Olympic silver medal, Treacy became hot property in marathon running, yet was reluctant to make a permanent move to the distance, or at least not yet surrender his career on the track. What Treacy vowed was when the marathon next came calling it would be Boston: in 1987, flushed with sponsorship money from John Hancock Financial Services, the Boston organisers came to Treacy and made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.

Hefty bonus
His sponsors, New Balance, also Boston-based, lined up a hefty bonus and Treacy didn’t want to disappoint. Escaping the harsh New England winter, he trained flat out for six weeks in Phoenix, Arizona, and arrived at the start line in Hopkinton on Patriots’ Day in possibly the shape of his life. Boston likes to treat its elite runners like royalty, and arranged to collect Treacy at his Providence home that morning, drive him to the start, then drop Fionnuala off at the finish to await his arrival.

They’d assembled an all-star field too, including the Australian Rob de Castella, winner the previous year in a course record of 2:07:51, plus Japan’s Toshihiko Seko, the Boston champion from 1981 – all well-versed in the race’s history, the prestige and honour in winning it, the olive wreath placed on the victor’s head a direct link to the original Olympic marathon, in 1896, which inspired the first Boston Marathon the following year.

Treacy had been well-versed too in Heartbreak Hill, which comes around mile 20, the same time as the infamous Wall. What he discovered was Heartbreak Hill hurts as much coming down as it does going up, and the breaking leg action soon crippled his quad muscles. By mile 21, he was reduced to a near crawl. It took two hours to be driven through the crowds back to the finish, the whole time Treacy vowing to himself he would be back.

He wintered again in Arizona, training occasionally with four-time Boston winner Bill Rodgers, who revealed the secret to running Heartbreak Hill was to roll with it, rather than against it. The plan was to try Boston again in 1989, but after running a super fast 10km in Bali, then helping the Ireland team win the Ekiden Relay in New York, the Sunday before Boston, everything changed. By the Thursday the lure was impossible to resist, so he called up Pat Lynch, the elite race director.

Held on for third
Not many people get to enter the Boston Marathon with only four days’ notice, but such was the respect Lynch had for Treacy – as did everyone on his team – the deal was signed in minutes. This time, Treacy didn’t disappoint, breaking everyone except the African duo of Ibrahim Hussein and Juma Ikangaa, and while Hussein took the win, Treacy held on for third in his marathon best of 2:09.15 – which 25 years later still stands as the Irish record.

He was back again the following year, 1989, under greater fanfare, and the memory of that race, the crowds shouting “Go John! Come On, Treacy!” – still fresh: again he gave it his all, and again he finished third, in 2:10:24, victory this time going to Abebe Mekonnen from Ethiopia.

That evening, down in the old Eliot Lounge, Boston’s late lamented runners’ bar, he exchanged war stories with his old rivals, still vowing to give this great race one more go.

When he lined up in Boston for the fourth time, in 1991, all the lessons of the past were perfectly executed: Treacy held back early on, rolled over Heartbreak Hill, then closed on the leading group. “Got them,” he thought, that moment, in the heat of battle, when athletes can taste victory. Moments later he was sitting on the kerb, outside Boston College, clutching his right hamstring with one hand, and covering his face with the other.

These were some of the memories that came to mind when Conor, now working in Boston, texted last Sunday evening. Conor called home moments after the double explosion devastated the finish of Monday’s race, easing all fears, and was now a safe distance away, although he had heard the thundering shudder. Treacy’s relief was mixed by both the sadness of what has been inflicted on the many victims and the comfort of knowing Boston will come back even stronger, and the whole time vowing to himself once again to get back there.