Ian O’Riordan’s Miles to Run: An invitation to madness?

Ireland is in the middle of a boom – a running boom.

Chances are, even if you have never run a step yourself (apart from some painful P.E. classes many moons ago), someone you know has taken up running over the last little while. Road races in Northern Ireland and in the Republic have seen record-breaking numbers of participants this year, as they did the year before and the year before that. A new book by the athletics correspondent for the Irish Times, Ian O’Riordan, Miles to Run, Promises to Keep (Boglark Press, 2010) captures some of that zeitgeist.

For those of you who think distance running is mad, it may come as a surprise to you that O’Riordan agrees. Three of the 20 chapter titles in the book actually contain the word ‘mad’ or ‘madness.’

Indeed, O’Riordan positively glories in the madness of it all – chronicling the extreme training regimes of Olympic champions; the sagas of common-variety club runners who mail order Siberian ginseng, hoping to gain an edge; and the boundless enthusiasm of the ‘fun runners’ who are driving Ireland’s running boom.

First, a confession. I am an avid runner myself and devotee of O’Riordan’s weekly athletics column, my favourite feature of the Saturday Irish Times. I acquired the book thinking that it would be a compilation of his columns over the past decade – so I suppose it says something about me (as much as about the quality of O’Riordan’s writing) that I bought a book thinking I would have previously read most of it anyway.

I was pleasantly surprised. The book covers some of the same ground as his columns, but they have been expanded and woven seamlessly together into substantial chapters featuring a range of personalities and topics.

So, the book relives some of Irish athletics’ most memorable moments: Sonia O’Sullivan and her mixed fortunes over four Olympic Games, John Treacy winning the 1979 World Cross Country in Limerick, Ronnie Delany’s run for Olympic gold in the 1500 in 1956, Eamonn Coghlan’s quest to break the 4.00 minute mile at age 40, and so on. There are insights into the careers of international stars like Roger Bannister, Paula Radcliffe, Haile Gebrselassie and Paul Tergat.

I was especially fascinated by O’Riordan’s account of the training regime of the Czech champion Emil Zatopek, whose training included becoming a human washing machine by running for up to two hours over a pile of dirty clothes in his water-filled bathtub. He also subjected himself to punishing slogs through snow-laden forests, wearing army boots. It made my attempt today to run up Black Mountain in the snow seem positively pedestrian.

The Irish Times review of the book by Catherina McKiernan, Ireland’s four-time silver medallist in the World Cross Country, identifies even more stories and highlights.

O’Riordan also discusses the promising career of Portaferry’s up-and-coming young talent, Ciara Mageean, who won a silver medal in the 1500 at last summer’s World Junior Championships. Of all the distance running medals on offer at that event, Mageean’s was the only one taken home by a non-African. She has already been labelled the ‘next Sonia’ – a challenging burden, O’Riordan admits, because those are some pretty big shoes to fill.

At the same time, O’Riordan considers the seeming invincibility of the Ethiopians and Kenyans on the international scene and the decline in elite distance running standards in Europe and North America. It’s not just that the Africans have gotten faster, the Europeans and North American elites have, on average and with few exceptions, gotten slower.

But O’Riordan also moves beyond the stars of the sport, telling the stories of the masses who run for charity. He highlights the extreme task taken up by former Sawdoctors drummer Johnny Donnelly, who is in the middle of a quest to run a marathon every month over a period of four years.

O’Riordan is a runner himself, and his descriptions of what it is like to run alone on a frosty morning in the Dublin Mountains; or participate in events such as the New York, Athens, Honolulu, and Dublin Marathons, are as illuminating as any of the stories of the stars. In these sections of the book, O’Riordan chronicles running’s intoxicating mix of pleasure and pain, and in doing so helps to explain why so many people are getting hooked.

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    I declare an interest. The last running boom was in the early 1980s and as a newly married man living in a particuarly beautiful landscape, I found myself taking up running, culminating in running my one and only Marathon.
    Id always had an interest in following sports.
    You mention that John Treacy won the World Cross Country Championship (Limerick 1979). In fact he retained the title he won in 1978 in Bellahouston Park, Glasgow. As I was on an assignment from work in Scotland, I was at that event…made more pleasurable because of the awful weather. (Treacy was at his best in mud). Never emulated his cross country form on the track (in strictness his 1984 Olympic silver in the devalued games in Los Angeles was in the marathon and on the road).
    Treacy had a laboured style of running always looked in pain and I recall being in the Stadium in Moscow when he led a 10,000 metres heat in temperatures approaching 100 degrees. As the small group of Irish supporters cheered each time he passed us, the laboured style did not concern us………but he suddenly veered across several lanes and collapsed……stretched from the stadium.
    Incredibly brave runner he actually finished sixth in the 5,000 metres final (Coghlan finished fourth as he had in the 1,500 in Montreal) but by that stage I was back home.
    If I recall correctly Treacy was a late addition to the 1984 team……he was “not in good standing” with BLE at the time. Many of the countries leading athletes were in open war with the National Federation……..over money.
    In those days runners were officially amateurs but it was known that European and American promoters liked big names and paid unofficially. There was a compromise by which money offiicially should have gone to “Trust Funds”.

    Ironically Treacy is Head of the Sports Council now. I was a big fan (until the controversy) of Coghlan but frankly he under-performed when it mattered. Bad tactics meant he finished fourth to John Walker in 1,500 in Montreal. And possibly he blew it too in Moscow.
    In fairness he took gold in the very first world championships (Helsinki 1983) which I watched in a hospital matrnity ward with my wife and first born. And he had won silver to Steve Ovett in the Europeans in 1978.

    For all Coghland reputation as the Chairman of the Boards……the indoor 1500 and mile was his domain for years, he under-performed in championships. Of course the Madison Square Garden events and the North American circuit was lucrative.
    But I hope Ian O’Riordan is not hyping Ciara Mageean too much. A lot of people have told me that shes special and I hope they are right………but frankly Irish distance running is littered with names who promised a lot and did not deliver (Mary Purcell-Treacy, John Hartnett, Gareth Turnbull, Ray Flynn).
    Ian O’Riordans father Tom was a distance runner himself (Olympics 1964) who became the most prominent athletics correspondent 1970s 1980s and his columns in the Irish Independent were required reading for atletics fans. But ultimately his reports on how the latest scholarship athlete was wowing the American college scene was ultimately to lead to a a snse of disappointment for many of us.

  • Mark

    Middle Distance Runing had some great athletes back then . Coe , Ovett and Cram to name but a few . The Moscow game’s were brilliant . The 800 and 1500 finals , Classic . And the various world record attempts . As big back then as football is now , having said that , so was showjumping .

  • Mark

    The Zola Budd / Mary Decker saga !

  • Fitzjameshorse – it sounds like you would enjoy the book! He also covers some of those stories you mention and provides an insight into his father’s career as well.

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    alas ..the mere mention of running makes my knees ache. In a way I think the book would disappoint me because there were too many false dawns in following Irish athletics……sadly a lot of it was down to the curious relationship between “elite”athletes, the national federation and sheer favouritism as promoted by journos. Too many of our public heroes were not privately so…..and rather greedy.
    Possibly this is because the late 1970s/early 1980s was a curious “in between time” of amateur and professional era. (with just a hint of drugs creeping in).
    Those of us at the fringe of running at that time were eventually left disillusioned. Nothing quite like th old BLE Nationals at windy rain-swept Belfield when athletes were doing their best to get that qualifying time, height, distance for Europe or Olympics.
    I omitted Frank O’Meara and Marcus O’Sullivan from the list of ultimate failures.

    And of course sports fans are naive. Hundreds of athletes who left Ireland on scholarship got mis-used by that system and most settled for it as a way of getting a good non-sporting career. Others saw it as a money-spinner and settled for an athletics career where representing Ireland was a mere optional extra rather than something “in itself”.

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    oh if I could read the book, it would primarily be to find the REAL story behind the Jim Hogan aka Jim Peters fiasco.

  • O’Riordan doesn’t go too much into the Jim Hogan story in this book, but there is an entire book about it called ‘The Irishman Who Ran for England,’ http://www.amazon.co.uk/Irishman-Who-Ran-England/dp/1856079589

  • Mark

    The role of the pace setter in any record breaking attempt is an interesting one . These guys can be specialists and sometimes are hand picked by the runner who is going for the record . They normally drop out after 700 / 800 metres and rarely finish a race. Steve Crab ( usa ) is one I remember . I think one of the records changed feet about 3 times in a week . ( Coe , Ovett , Coe or the other way around ) Ovett was always the people’s champ ( and abba tribute band lookalike ) whereas Coe always played the bollox .There’s no messin before the start of an 800 metres race . It’s a mad 5 metre dash to gain postion and you could lose the race in the first few strides .