Limerick ’79 Revisited: John Treacy brings it all back home
Waterford man retains special memories of a glorious world title triumph on home soil
John Treacy crosses the finishing line after his victory in the IAAF World Cross Country Championships at Limerick. Photograph: Allsport UK/Getty Images
He arrives armed with three souvenirs and a small folder of newspaper clippings and we set to work.
Limerick racecourse, the last Sunday in March, 1979 – the story of defending his World Cross Country title on home soil and what could be titled the unbearable lightness of being John Treacy. Where to begin?
“You know, in all the 40 years since, I’ve yet to meet a single person who wasn’t in Limerick that day. And it seems most of them were sitting on the roof of the stand.”
That’s the fun part about any nostalgia trip: separating the unfiltered images from the gently distorted facts and revisiting the truths that lie in between. Treacy has nothing but fondly timeless memories of that day, only they may not exactly fit with the memories of the 25,000 who were there to watch.
Still only 21, carrying the expectation of the nation on his bony nine-stone frame, the pressure to win had been mounting all week; all year actually, ever since Treacy had become the youngest winner of the World Cross Country in Ballahouston Park in Glasgow in 1978, escaping on a fast downhill stretch close to the finish.
“I remember waking up in the hotel room in Limerick that morning, turning to my brother Ray, who was in the bed opposite, and telling him ‘I’m going to win today’... I just knew it.”
What did Ray say? “He just looked at me.”
Moments later Treacy looked out the window to discover it was pouring rain, having started about 7pm the previous evening. It had been dry throughout the week, Treacy returning from his US base at Providence College in Rhode Island to spend some down time with his family in Villierstown in Waterford, five miles from Cappoquin, where he’d first laid his distance running foundation.
By race time on Sunday, 3.50pm, it was still pouring, many of the 25,000 spectators trying to find some shelter around the old stands at the Green Park racecourse, long since buried under concrete. At least the wet muddy course would suit Treacy, they reckoned; his prayers for rain had been answered on that grey afternoon.
“Bullshit. I didn’t care if the course was wet or dry. I knew some runners would be immediately blown away if it was wet. But my last race before Limerick was a two-mile, indoors, on a rickety old track in Providence, where I ran the last mile in 4.10. The same as Glasgow the year before, where I won the NCAA three-mile in 13:10, up in Detroit. The course didn’t make a blind bit of difference to me. I was flying.”
Indeed he was – hitting the front halfway through the second of the five u-shaped laps around the 12km course, seven and a-half miles in old money. At that moment in time the World Cross Country was considered the hardest race to win in distance running, bringing together the track specialists and the endurance men of the roads.
They were all there: Léon Schots of Belgium, the 1977 winner; the Russian Aleksandr Antipov, built like a tank, runner-up the year before; Bronislaw Malinowski from Poland, who a year later would win Olympic gold in the steeplechase.
“When I hit the front you could just sense this lifting of emotion, the buzz of the crowd. I took a quick glance at Schots, he took a quick glance back, then I just put the boot down. That was it, race over, because any time I opened a gap in cross country, I was never caught.”
Just don’t get too cocky. Starting into the penultimate lap, Treacy looked back to check on his 100m lead, then moments later slipped sideways onto the mud.
“Serves me right . . ... I’d just said in my own mind, about two seconds before, ‘this race is over’. Then I came down on my hands. I was cursing myself for a second, but there was never any danger that day.”
At least not until the final run-in, when a large section of the crowd suddenly amassed around the finishing chute, a couple of youngsters deciding to run alongside Treacy during his moment of glory. One of them managed to keep pace for a few strides.
“I remember telling him to go f*** off! I know that because I met him years later, in Tralee, and he told me that’s exactly what I said. We got a good laugh out of that. But I was afraid the race could be abandoned, because the crowds were closing in on the finish, and I’d still a bit to go.”
There was no danger, nor indeed any pain, Treacy finishing nine seconds ahead of Malinowski, with Antipov in third.
“It’s true, Limerick was as close to perfection as any race could get, and if there was another lap I wouldn’t have minded one bit, I was just in cruise control, enjoying every single minute of it.”
Or so he thought: moments after crossing the line it felt like every one of the 25,000 in attendance were slapping him on the back with similar gusto.
“Now that hurt. They wouldn’t stop and I can’t blame them, but when you’re nine stone, like I was, I had to get out there. So I just kept running, jumping over a gate in front in the stand, and into the back of an ambulance. That’s exactly how I got out of there.”
No prize money
And with that prompting the following public address announcement: “Can anyone open a lock without a key?”
Then came those three souvenirs [there was no prize money], Treacy presented with his individual gold medal, with the simple engraving IAAF Cross Country International, plus the same medal in silver, the Irish men’s team recording their highest ever placing in second, behind England, and ahead of the old Soviet Union in third. Nine to run, six to score, his brother Ray was 79th, nine places ahead of Eamonn Coghlan, who a month earlier had won European Indoor gold over 1,500m; the Donegal postman Danny McDaid surpassed all expectations to be the next best Irish finisher in 11th.
Treacy was also awarded a simply cut Waterford Crystal trophy, as suitably engraved as the memory itself: senior winner, IAAF cross country championship, Ireland, 1979.
In truth, it was the near perfect Irish team effort, Mary Purcell finishing a brilliant sixth behind Grete Waitz of Norway, who also defended her women’s title. Bill Coghlan, father of Eamonn and president of the then Irish athletics body BLE, had also invited one Tom O’Riordan, a previous competitor, to serve as Irish team manager, possibly to also help ensure some unbiased coverage in the Irish Independent that Monday morning.
It also made for the perfect celebration party back at the Irish team headquarters at the old Limerick Inn, on the Ennis Road, even if the hotel ran out of hot water by the time some of the athletes got back.
By then Treacy had slipped off quietly to his room, needing nothing more than the reflection and satisfaction which came when sitting alone in the bath. For a two-time world champion, at age 21, part of the joy was in seeing others celebrate, family and friends, but most of it was felt within.
“I was on a plane out of Shannon Airport the following morning, back to Providence. The homecoming, the celebrations, I hated that shite. But the memories now, 40 years on, are every bit as special. I think if you could capture one or two moments in your life, then winning in front of those crowds that day is definitely one of them.”
Treacy made another seven attempts to win back the title, finishing fifth in 1985, only by then the Europeans were taking a back seat to the rising East Africans. Sonia O’Sullivan’s win in 1998, and Catherina McKiernan’s four successive silver medals, briefly bucked that trend, but with the 2019 World Cross Country set for Aarhus in Denmark next weekend, how long before an Irish athlete medals again?
“Probably not in the next 40 years anyway.”
Where to begin?