Jim McNamara: ‘Pain is temporary, glory is forever’

Funeral mass hears of an athlete with an extraordinary ability to get the best out of himself

 Jim McNamara was different in that he didn’t just touch the elite end of distance running, he also “touched the ordinary end”.  Photograph: Tomás Greally

Jim McNamara was different in that he didn’t just touch the elite end of distance running, he also “touched the ordinary end”. Photograph: Tomás Greally

 

One of the stories told at the funeral of Jim McNamara was about the day he convinced one of his Donore club mates to go altitude training in the Dublin Mountains. It was around this time of year – a magnificently unseasonably warm spring morning which caught them both off guard, and slightly overdressed for the occasion.

Setting off from Dundrum, they headed up through Tibradden, Cruagh, and into the open expanse that is Glencullen, suddenly realising they were hopelessly lost. It was sometime in the early 1970s and they didn’t wear stopwatches in those days. Turning back wasn’t an option so they hammered on, a couple of hours in and pouring sweat already but in no way bothered by the relentless pace of their effort.

Then just as suddenly they came to a crossroads, where Jim spotted a black and red Guinness sign, appearing like a mirage in the desert. It was just after noon and Johnnie Fox’s was already open for business, and without a moment’s hesitation they walked in and ordered two pints. So bemused was the barman that he’d no hesitation insisting the drinks were on the house.

It was on the back of stories like this that Jim was selected for the 1976 Olympic marathon in Munich, at age 37: the 2:14:57 he ran to qualify that year would put him well in contention for selection for Rio, 40 years later. Why the story is also still relevant is that in this ever increasing debate about enhancing performance – legally, ethically or otherwise – Jim always embraced that most reliable method of performance enhancing of all: hard training.

There was certainly no evidence that running at a few hundred feet in the Dublin Mountains qualified as altitude training, nor indeed if drinking alcohol during a training run would somehow impair performance: what was certain is that Jim believed he was enhancing his performance as long as he was training hard, and ultimately he had the performances to prove it.

He would, as another Donore club mate recalled, “tear strips off you at training”, which was a polite way of saying he pushed those training runs well beyond any measure of comfort. “Pain is temporary, glory is forever,” Jim would say, long before such nuggets sounded so banal.

Indeed he was constantly seeking ways to enhance his performance until shortly before his death, last Thursday, aged 76: he won titles and broke records in every veteran age category that he competed in, including a world record 31:51 for 10km at age 50.

That so many fellow Olympians attended his funeral in Cabra West this morning was testament to the esteem with which Jim was held: Ronnie Delany, Eamonn Coghlan, Dick and Pat Hooper, and also Catherina McKiernan, who like Jim could claim to have run over every blade of grass of the Phoenix Park by now.

Although Jim, as Delany pointed, was different to each of those in that he didn’t just touch the elite end of distance running, he also “touched the ordinary end”. Nowhere was that more evident than in the esteem with which Jim was held by his club, Donore, and particularly the women’s distance runners who he coached and guided to several national titles on the road, track and cross country in recent years.

What Delany meant was that Jim wasn’t necessarily an extraordinary running talent, but did have an extraordinary ability to get the best out of himself: that’s what he instilled into the ordinary club runner too, whose only dream or aspiration is to improve on their own personal best.

When he was diagnosed with inoperable cancer just a few months ago the first thing Jim asked his doctor was could he still run: after a brief hesitation the doctor told him why not. Later Jim told his son Shane “this guy thinks I’m a jogger, like” – although truth is not many people are still running at the pace Jim McNamara was at 76.

He was one of those a rare specimens that don’t come along very often: as he was removed from the Church of the Most Precious Blood this morning another Donore club mate wondered aloud “if only someone could bottle his blood”. It would certainly be performance enhancing.

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