Blessed Among Women – An Irishman’s Diary about ‘Gentleman Jim’ McNamara

One of the big advantages of becoming a born-again runner in middle age is that, for several years now, I have had special dispensation to train with the Donore Harriers women's section. And a big advantage of that, charming company aside, was that I got to know their long-time coach, the great – and now, alas, late – Jim McNamara.

He was a permanent fixture in the Phoenix Park Polo Grounds on the Tuesday evenings of summer, announcing that tonight’s session was 10 x 600m; or in the Fifteen Acres on Thursdays, supervising the “Tempo” run; or on the hills around the Magazine Fort on Saturday mornings, gently outlining today’s prescribed tortures in a way that always made them sound reasonable.

On winter nights, he would be at the track in Chapelizod, or on the footpaths of Conygham Road. And on the many Siberian occasions when a warm bed or an even warmer pub got the better of my commitment to athletic excellence, I would know, guiltily, that he was out there, because he never missed training without a very good (usually life-threatening) excuse.


He was one of those quiet heroes on which all successful clubs depend. But his own utter devotion to the cause never led him to be impatient with others. He was eternally easygoing – smiling, encouraging, dispensing advice. When he shook your hand, as he generally did at the end of a session, he made you feel heroic too.


Like the several other men who run with the group, I was never officially part of his responsibility. Even so, he wanted us to do well too, and had a subtle way of getting the best out of you.

Once, a couple of years ago, I received a late, free entry for a half-marathon. Being underprepared, I intended to treat the race as a training run and drop out after 10 miles. But on the day, at exactly the 10-mile mark, there by the roadside was Jim, strategically positioned to stiffen our resolve for the hardest part of the race.

Inner reserves

So I quietly revised my plan, now deciding that I’d keep going until the next bend, where he couldn’t see me, and then stop. But somehow, in the act of passing him, I discovered inner reserves. He wouldn’t quit, I knew. I finished the race.

We always marvelled at the contrast between the soft-spoken “Gentleman Jim” and the ferocious competitor he was said to have been in his prime – the man who, for example, was part of an unbeatable Donore men’s cross-country team that won the national title for 16 consecutive years.

Then there was what may have been his finest moment, the 40th anniversary of which he didn’t quite live to celebrate.


Bad luck and injuries had deprived him of qualification for previous Olympics. But in 1976, aged 37 and when he had slipped, by his own estimation, to being about the 12th fastest marathon runner in


, he produced the performance of his life and finished second in the national championships, in 2:14:57, thereby qualifying for Montreal.

After that, he seemed only to get better, winning a plethora of European and world titles in his forties and fifties. And even when he stopped beating others, he was still competing with himself. When he turned 75, he spent a summer establishing records for his age group at distances ranging from 1,500m to 10k.

One of the last things he won was a gold medal from the International Association of Athletics Federations, for his lifetime’s contribution to the sport. Few people deserved one as much.

He had suffered a few ailments in recent years, including a mild stroke that did indeed cause him to miss training briefly (although it didn’t prevent him issuing instructions from hospital).

But in early January last, he received a grim cancer diagnosis. Typically, even after treatment began, he still showed up for training. Then, in February, he stopped coming. And so strange was his absence that, in recent weeks, the club was already bereft.

Great athlete

If he couldn’t beat this opponent, however, nobody wanted him to suffer. When we heard on Thursday that his race was finally run, there was relief as well as sorrow.

I’m proud to have known Jim McNamara, however briefly.  He was a great athlete and a wonderful man. Not the least impressive of his achievements was to die loved and mourned by many women. In that respect, at least, we should all be so lucky.