Noel Carroll: ‘You either ran today or you didn’t’

Before Twitter, the late, great Irish runner was a master of motivational quotes

Noel Carroll in October 1998, shortly before his sudden death.   Photograph: Ron McGarry/Sportsfile

Noel Carroll in October 1998, shortly before his sudden death. Photograph: Ron McGarry/Sportsfile

 

Wake up and smell your runners – this is the first athletics column of the rest of your life. Or it might be the last, depending on how these kind of quotes actually work. Who can even tell anymore? 

It’s tempting to stop right here, given how annoyingly hard it has become to go through any single day of your life without being assaulted with some wise old words of inspiration. Or, worse still, some desperately worn-out line of encouragement. 

For the next 15 seconds let go of any expectations you have of yourself . . . Turn your cant’s into cans and your dreams into plans . . . Live like there’s no tomorrow, and if tomorrow comes, live again . . . If you are laughing, check that you don’t really want to cry.

I am not making these up. Both Twitter and Instagram force-fed me these quotes during my last coffee break. Intended to provide some sort of powerful adrenaline rush to kickstart your day, or some Zen-like insight to help wind it down, they are more likely to have the opposite effect.

Not only are they beginning to lose all purpose, but all meaning too – the same as having one too many electro-shock treatments on the brain: after a while you start burning out the circuits. Given they typically come suitably masked and anonymous, or as some bastardised adaptation of a properly heroic quote, who even cares?

Soft target

The world has always had its fair share of motivational junkies, before social media simply opened the floodgates. And, for better or mostly worse, the simple art of running has become a soft target for these crimes against originality. I know that because I occasionally post the odd one myself, none of which will last any longer than the 24 hours of an Instagram story.

Part of the problem is these often-uninspiring quotes can also dumb down the process, or else madly exaggerate it, like when running a Saturday morning parkrun is celebrated as if conquering the north face of the Eiger. Then there are those who go around acting like they’re some sort of running guru just because they didn’t die when finishing a marathon.

Carroll not only talked the talk, he ran the run, never once losing his properly competitive instinct

It wasn’t always this way. There was a time when the running quote had purpose and meaning and no one had a greater share of them than Noel Carroll. I know that because I’m still quoting them today, 20 years after his sudden death – mid-stride, as it were – after his regular noontime training run around UCD, in October 1998.

Carroll was only 56, the embodiment of clean living and physical fitness, the sadly gentle irony being he died of a suspected heart attack doing what he loved to do all of his life. So much of what Carroll achieved came from the heart of distance running, and when it came to the art itself, he lived by his first and most lasting mantra: “You either ran today or you didn’t.”

Carroll not only talked the talk, he ran the run, never once losing his properly competitive instinct, nor his proper appreciation of running. For a man who left school at 13 and held a series of jobs before beginning his running career with the army, it was never anything less than inspiring.

Noel Carroll (centre, white T-shirt) takes part in the inaugural Dublin City Marathon in 1980, which he helped start up. Photograph: Jack McManus/The Irish Times
Noel Carroll (centre, white T-shirt) takes part in the inaugural Dublin City Marathon in 1980, which he helped start up. Photograph: Jack McManus/The Irish Times

He went on to compete in two Olympics over 800 metres, in Tokyo 1964 and Mexico City 1968, one of the dominant runners of his time – setting a European indoor record in 1964, winning three consecutive European and British titles, plus 14 Irish titles in all.

Mid-race machination

Carroll’s ability for mid-race machination was once described as “like a scene-shifter at the Abbey Theatre”. When Villanova’s famous coach Jumbo Elliott first saw how fluently Carroll moved around the old Madison Square Garden, he offered him a scholarship on the spot, repaid when helping Villanova set a world record in the 4x800m relay. When he beat Canadian Bill Crothers, who won 800m silver in Tokyo, Sports Illustrated described Carroll as “one of the best middle-distance runners in the world”, which he was.

He was always quick to share his wit and wisdom, long before Twitter made it so convenient. One of his first lessons to budding young runners was reminding them that “athletics is a way of proving you’re better than someone else at something that’s of no use to anybody”.

The last time I met him, a few months before his death, he gently punched me in the stomach while asking, “Have you run yet today?” and, 20 years later I also quote, on a daily basis, his other lasting line, “If you find yourself too busy to run on any given day, then you’re too busy.”

When Carroll helped start up the first Dublin Marathon in 1980, he of course had to run it too, which meant every quote came from experience. “It’s not the distance that kills, it’s the pace,” he said of the marathon, which no one can deny.

Next Sunday in his home village of Annagassan in Co Louth they’re unveiling a memorial seat with another of his quotes – “There’s a time to train and a time to rest; it is a true test of the runner to get them both right” – which for every runner I know still has lasting purpose and meaning.

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