Distance runners contemplate the price of pushing pain barriers

Frank Murphy helped mask his pain with a colossal and graceful stride

Frank Murphy was awarded  the Hall of Fame award at the National Athletics Awards. Photograph: Barry Cregg/Sportsfile

Frank Murphy was awarded the Hall of Fame award at the National Athletics Awards. Photograph: Barry Cregg/Sportsfile

 

Frank Murphy doesn’t run anymore, except in the near distance of his long and perfect memory. Because even at age 67 he can recall every single one of his many championship races like yesterday, especially those that involved breaking through perhaps the greatest pain barriers of all.

“Men, today we die a little,” said Emil Zatopek, before the start of the 1956 Olympic marathon, and no athlete knew more about the suffering of distance runners. Zatopek broke 20 world records, over 10 different distances, all marked by his tortured running expression, as if someone was twisting a knife into his back.

No athlete touches on greatness without breaking through a barrier of some sort, physical or psychological, no matter what their sport. “And you would get used to it,” says Murphy, who unlike Zatopek helped mask his pain with a colossal and graceful stride. “Not that it becomes easier, but you become more willing to embrace it. I just wonder a little, now, did we really understand just how far we were pushing ourselves.”

Murphy is telling me this at a hotel in Santry, shortly before collecting a Hall of Fame award from Athletics Ireland. He grew up around Santry, in every sense – the Morton Stadium the scene of many of his breakthrough runs – and he still lives a short distance away, in Swords. “Always a northsider,” he says. He seems uneasy about entering a hall of fame – “usually a waiting room for something else” – although there’s no denying his right to be there. Murphy may not be Ireland’s greatest athlete, but he could be the most underrated.

The first of many great barriers he broke was four minutes for the mile, on June 1st, 1968. By then, Murphy was already running beyond the norm. His schoolboy records helped convince Jumbo Elliott to offer him a scholarship at Villanova, and in his first summer home in 1967, just turned 20, Murphy won his second successive Irish senior mile title.

Back then, there was still considerable mystique about breaking four minutes for the mile. When Murphy ran his 3:58.6, only three other Irishmen had run sub-four, in the 12 years previous, beginning with Ronnie Delany’s 3:59.0 in 1956. Indeed 60 years after Roger Bannister broke that barrier for the first time, it still hasn’t got any easier.

First Olympics

Mexico didn’t kill Murphy; it simply made him stronger. In 1969, on the back of winning an American collegiate indoor title over 800m, he enjoyed his best ever season. He demolished and demoralised his opponents to win a British 1,500m title, then went to the 1969 European Championships in Athens gunning for gold. Britain’s John Whetton got a slight run on him, on the last lap, and although Murphy threw everything into the chase, he fell just short – Whetton winning gold in 3:39.4, Murphy taking silver in 3:39.5. “I definitely remember that race like yesterday,” he says, when reminded it’s actually 45 years ago.

Still, another barrier broken, Murphy’s 3:39.5 an Irish record. And for years afterwards he broke several more, very nearly breaking Keino, too, at the 1970 Morton Mile – Keino winning in 3:59.2, Murphy second in 3:59.3. Murphy later ran both the 800m and 1,500m at the 1972 Olympics in Munich, before retiring a few years later – the first Irish athlete to have broken 1:48 for 800m, 3:40 for 1,500m, and 14:00 for 5,000m.

Pain barriers

He watched some of the hits the Irish players took against Australia last weekend, including so-called lighter players such as Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton, and wondered did they really understand just how far they were pushing themselves.

It’s only recently that Murphy has begun to wonder the same about his own sporting career. Firstly, he had a complete knee replacement – “purely wear and tear from my years of running”, he says – and then, after experiencing some vague discomfort in his back, and a mild slurring of his speech, began to wonder what else was going on. Not long afterwards, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, part of the obvious surprise about that being so too have many other former distance runners, including Bannister himself.

“It could be something for some neurologist to look into, because this might be more than just coincidence,” says Murphy. Indeed it could be something to do with breaking pain barriers, although part of the problem with Parkinson’s disease, or any neurological degeneration, is that no one knows for sure what brings it on, or why exactly the nerve cells in the brain begin to die off.

Gentle irony

Now, more than ever, it seems no athlete, no matter what their sport, should ever stop wondering about that.

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