Long-distance record that runs and runs
ATHLETICS:Frank Greally set an Irish record for the 10,000 metres in 1970 and, while he regrets not taking his running talent seriously, his record still stands today, writes IAN O'RIORDAN
MOST OF you probably forgot that this week marked the special anniversary of the longest-standing record in Irish athletics. Well guess which event? (Hint: it’s the longest distance on the track). Or when was it set? (Hint: before I was born.) Or who holds it? (Hint: not someone you’d readily suspect.) I could easily tease this one out for another while, so I’ll put you all out of your suspense.
Exactly 40 years ago last Thursday – as in the evening of August 19th, 1970 – Frank Greally ran 30 minutes 17 seconds for the 10,000 metres, on the old cinder track in Santry. Frank had just turned 19 years of age, and his time established an Irish junior record.
It was, by any standards, an exceptional effort for such a young athlete, and despite several assaults at bettering it over the years, by several more famous athletes, the record remains intact. Chances are this longest standing record in Irish athletics will remain so for several more years yet.
These days, Frank is better known as the long-standing editor of Irish Runner magazine, his indefatigable enthusiasm for athletics still as inherent now as it was when he first left his small Mayo town of Ballyhaunis, sometime around 1968. I’ve written before about how Frank gave me my first start in this old-fashioned craft of sports writing, and introduced me to such masters as that tower of song from Castleisland, Con Houlihan. But it’s always worth reminding myself that Frank is still a runner, first and foremost; he’s got that great big heart of a runner, and the passion to go with it. There’s no way Frank could have run 30:17 for 10,000 metres, at age 19, without both.
He’d moved to Dublin full-time earlier that year, and in 1970 the first stop for any aspiring young distance runner was usually the clubhouse of Donore Harriers, down on Hospital Lane. Frank overcame his moderate shyness and was soon training with the many Olympians within the club. To Frank, these men were gods, and when a couple of them agreed to help pace him for a crack at the 10,000 metres junior record, at one of the old Dublin graded meetings, he knew there’d be no letting up.
At the time Santry was still known as the John F Kennedy Stadium (in the hope of attracting some American patronage to ease the debt). The old cinders, which Billy Morton claimed were the fastest in the world, may have benefited the shorter distance races, but were potentially burning for the longer ones.
Indeed one of the Donore Olympians who set the pace early on dropped out with a blistered heel – although when I asked my dad last night was this true he denied all recollection.
Anyway, Frank was true to his word, and never let up. He kept a metronomic pace over the 25 laps, his winning time of 30:17 also good enough to beat Des McGann of Civil Service (who later ran the 1972 Olympic marathon) and Eddie Spillane of Donore. Such was his satisfaction afterwards that Frank spent almost 30 minutes on the phone to his close friend back in Ballyhaunis, Pat Gribbin, recounting how he felt on each lap. Eventually the phone ate up all his money, and he hadn’t a penny left to buy himself as much as a bag of chips on the way out of Santry.
But I’m not recalling Frank’s record simply for nostalgia’s sake. It’s no coincidence three other Irish junior distance running records also still hold from the 1970s: John Treacy’s 5,000 metres mark of 14:04.6, set in 1975; Ray Flynn’s 1,500 metres mark of 3:41.5, set in 1976; and Brendan Quinn’s 3,000 metres steeplechase mark of 8:42.5, set in 1979. It could be argued one reason why Frank’s record has stood for so long is because so few Irish juniors run 10,000 metres on the track these days, although it could also be argued that’s why Irish distance running standards have unquestionably declined.
There are plenty of 19-year-olds running 10,000 metres on the tracks in Kenya and Ethiopia. Either our junior distance runners are over-protected, or else they’re getting soft.
So I rang Frank yesterday to inquire about how he celebrated this special anniversary, and also what he thought about our junior distance runners of today. Frank, thankfully, is not weighed down by nostalgia. He speaks of an awareness of the past only in terms of what we can learn from it, not a desire to relive it. And he remains a man of unfailing modestly. If anything, Frank has become more modest with age; because when it comes to most other athletes I know, age has the opposite effect.
He told me he went out to Santry on Thursday night, 40 years on, and yes, for nostalgia’s sake, ran one lap of the track – which was recently resurfaced with the finest Mondo tartan, the same as they’re putting down in the new Olympic Stadium in London.
“I reckon if I was 40 years younger, on that track, I might well have broken 30 minutes,” Frank said, and then laughed.
“But seriously, at that time I was just so gung ho, afraid of nobody, and eager to take on all comers. I was reading about Dave Bedford, Brendan Foster, mixing it with all the Donore greats. And I think that in general the Irish junior athletes of that time had a type of inner steel, a bit like their British counterparts. It didn’t seem to be any big deal to be running 10,000 metres on the Santry cinders.”
Later in 1970, Frank went on scholarship to East Tennessee State University, in the legendary Deep South, and while his imagination grew considerably, his commitment to running gradually waned.
“Later, in Tennessee, I ran 29.45 for 10,000 metres, but I was young and foolish and I didn’t fully value my talent. That’s the message I still try to give young Irish runners today, the likes of Colin Costello, and a good few others. Life passes quickly and if you waste talent when you are young, it leaves you with a sense of guilt that you can never shake off. Do I have regrets? You bet I do.
“I didn’t take my running talent seriously. Once I went to America I know in my heart that I could have made at least one Olympics. I think that I also suffered from what I often describe as crippling loneliness in America. But I still feel blessed to have at least been able to devote much of my life to running, maybe giving a little bit back along the way.”
Frank may have his regrets, will never know just how good a senior runner he could have been, and yet what he achieved as a junior is lasting, and lasting.