Monday Memories with Peter McDermott

Today Peter takes us back to “Clonliffe training in the rare auld times”! When you arrived at the Clonliffe Club House for the first time back in the 70s, you could easily be underwhelmed. Back then  the “ clubhouse “ consisted of a rusting Nissen Hut which at some stage had been painted green but was now of indeterminate colour. Nissen huts were used by the LDF. ( later known as the FCA)* during the Emergency years of 1939-1945 to accommodate this auxiliary defence force. The huts were half cylindrical structures which were like ovens in Summer and fridges in Winter. When you approached the entrance you were assailed by dense smoke and fumes coming from the coal furnace which was kept stoked by two faithful men , Jack Sherlock and Charlie Rothell. This furnace heated the water for the showers – or at least that was the theory. A narrow, dimly lit corridor led to the dressing rooms.

1958: Billy Morton, Herb Elliott, Ronnie Delany

On entering, the first thing you noticed were the posters and photos. The one that instantly captured your attention was that of a beaming Billy Morton surrounded by Herb Elliott, Merv Lincoln , Murray Halberg, Albie Thomas and Ronnie Delaney . This was taken in the immediate aftermath of the famous world record mile in 1958. It was then it struck you : in spite of the rather dilapidated surroundings, this place was special. This was a Centre of Excellence which produced great athletes.

A giant poster also captured your attention : it was a magnified version of Kipling’s famous poem “If”. Obviously it was placed there with the intention of inspiring young athletes with the sentiments expressed : “ If you can keep your head while all around you are losing theirs …..If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two imposters just the same ….If you can fill the unforgiving minute  With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run …..”. There was a cartoon of a club member called Larry Reid sipping a cup of Bovril and ,on the notice board ,a ruled sheet of paper with the week’s training outlined in neat handwriting . But the thing that really emphasised the special character of this modest hut was the sight of several Irish international runners getting ready for training. Two Olympians , Frank Murphy ( Big Frank ) and Danny McDaid , veterans of Mexico and Munich , are lacing up their Adidas Gazelles . Beside them are Paddy Marley , a Senior Irish track international and a very young Pádraig Keane who had ran for Ireland in the senior World Cross despite being still a junior . There too was Des McCormack who had missed out on Olympic selection in ‘72 by 0.2 of a second in the Steeple . A very young Jerry Kiernan is there but at this stage he is just a promising kid who had finished a close second to Eamonn Coghlan in the 1971 All Ireland Schools’ 1500 final. It could be an intimidating atmosphere but these guys are quite friendly.

Clonliffe legendary Coach Laro Byrne

A man introduces himself as Maurice Ahern . I’m a little overawed as I’ve read about this man in the national press as the coach to the wunderkind , Tom Gregan. The whole gathering seems to be orchestrated by a jovial man with a large ruddy face and a very welcoming smile . He makes us newbies feel at home while at the same time engaging in continuous banter with all and sundry . He has an elite corps of Junior athletes who hang on his every word : Mick Byrne , Derek Carroll , the Greene twins Martin and John , Gerry Finnegan , Philip  ( Sheila ) Campbell , Gerry Brady , David Ball and Derek Reilly . This man is the great  Larry Byrne but is better known simply as Laro . Soon he announces that “The Eliza Jane is leaving “ . This is the signal for McDaid , Marley and Murphy to lead out the troops . If you’re not ready , tough luck . The Eliza Jane waits for nobody.

There are 30 plus runners in the peloton . These “pack runs” have become legendary in the Club. It’s a Thursday night and the atmosphere is relaxed . This is due to the fact that a simple, steady run of 17 miles at “about 6.30 mile pace” is the prescribed training. I learn later that the atmosphere becomes a lot more tense on nights when “ sessions” are done. That’s when men can be heard puking in the toilets at the prospect of the pain to come .
I am amazed at how these guys are dressed. In my last club we often went for road runs at night wearing only shorts and tee shirts . But these guys are wearing layer upon layer of clothing. First lesson taken on board : a cold muscle is a muscle at risk , so keep yourself warm . This was in an era before running tights had been invented but a diverse array of “leggings” were on display by this inventive group . Many were wearing white “ long johns” under their shorts ( ask your grandad ) while others sported women’s sheer tights despite the jeers of the young lads . But these cheeky young bucks were quickly put in their place by a reminder that they had neither wife nor girlfriend who would provide them with this item of apparel . But others are also strangely clad . One man who is a scholar and a gentleman ( indeed a genius and a gentleman) is dressed as if he was in a Zoom conference.( Of course , Zoom is still 50 years away in the future). He is wearing his smart business shirt and a pair of shorts. He is living up to his reputation as the absent minded professor and has forgotten all his running gear except shoes and shorts . This man also likes to run fast from the get-go and zips down the road ignoring the shouts of P. Keane to “ come back you f…ing eejit , it’s not a race “. I’m running beside a friendly man who introduces himself as John O’Leary. He tells me that these “pack runs” are the lifeblood of the Club and , in his opinion, are the main reason why Clonliffe has become such a powerhouse of distance running. He emphasises that everybody is welcome regardless of his standard .         

The Great Padraig Keane

The pace in the peleton is sedate for the first couple of miles . It picks up going down by Plunkett’s school due to the sharp decline but levels off again along Griffith Avenue. We pass young couples holding hands or having a quick snog. P. Keane can’t resist a bit of devilment  and pats the amorous young man on his shoulder saying “ Less of that in public please.” By the time the poor lad has recovered from the shock , Keane is at least 30 metres ahead and so all the offended Romeo can do is shout “ F..k off , ya bleedin’ culchie ya”. There is a further injection of pace going down Mobhi Road but the hill up by Smurfit’s puts a little smacht on us and we ease back on the horses . Whitworth Road is also downhill and once again the pace picks up . One night the pace becomes so brisk that Kiernan ( with his deadpan humour ) says  “ Ah lads, would ye at least slow it down to 5K pace ?”.  Perhaps it’s the pace that’s responsible, but flatulence also seems to increase at this stage . Anytime somebody detonates a whopper, his team mates shout out “ Get out and walk”. The smog is also at its worst in this area and , when we get back, we will be spitting black phlegm into the toilet . There seems to be considerable banter between the runners and the public . One little lady enquires “ Are yez not freezing’? “ Another guy dismisses us with “ Yez are all f…ing mad”. And, of course, there are regular groups of young wans who, as we pass by , start chanting “Lift dem hairy , hairy legs”. 

And they were hairy . ( Unless modestly concealed by the famous Long Johns ). Shaved legs had not as yet become de rigueur among the running fraternity. The first recorded instance of a Clonliffe man appearing with shaved legs was that of a young fella back from athletic scholarship in the US . Turning up for a track workout ( he was also using “Yankee” terminology) he enquired of Paddy Marley what he thought of this new aerodynamic look . Paddy didn’t reply but his look said it all . Not impressed. Standards slipping .

As we cruise into Fairview a guy in a car almost creases a member of the pack . Rashers Tierney , normally the mildest of men , doesn’t take this lying down and decides to exact retribution. He first thumps the bonnet of the offender’s car and then gives it a kick for good measure. Rashers had played GAA with Liam Brady and Tommy Drumm for St.Aidan’s and he was now displaying some of the skills learned on the football pitch . The driver is not amused and decides to follow us for several miles shouting threats and obscenities at us , questioning both our legitimacy and our sanity. At Marino the pack breaks into two. Most of the juniors and some dilettante seniors continue straight on, eventually turning left onto Malahide Road and returning via Griffith Avenue for a so-called 10. But “The Panzer Division”, as Laro called the big mileage men, cross the pedestrian bridge at Marino Mart and head out the seafront. Here we are confronted by a new menace , the bane of every runner’s life : dogs. A little shitzu ( every dog that attacked us was called a shitzu , something to do with the name ,perhaps ?) starts harrying and harassing us , snapping at our heels and buzzing us like a Spitfire . He is a right nuisance, tripping us and knocking us off our stride. All our efforts to get rid of him prove futile . At last , Paddy Marley gets tired of this and, displaying all his Donegal football skills , gives the nasty little pest an almighty kick up the arse . He is literally lifted into the air and the last we see of him he is about to go into orbit over the Bull Wall. We compliment Paddy on his beautiful, clean  strike and run on 

Paddy Marey: Ireland V Switzerland Santry 9/6/69

The grassy prom. gives a little respite from the hard road . I later got to know this prom. as the setting for 9 mile fartlek sessions : 3 miles down split into long cruise intervals, 3 miles back at tempo pace, 1.5 miles down divided into short reps.and 1.5 miles back at tempo pace. We would also run 3 miles down to the prom.from the Club and 3 miles back . A cool total of 15 miles even on the nights we did workouts.

As we run out through that Southside oasis north of the Liffey known as Clontarf, we gain strength and inspiration from the sea, with the waves almost lapping over the low wall and the wind now truly in our sails . But just then the lights go out. Pitch blackness .  And no : we do not rage against the dying of the light , in fact we don’t bat an eyelid. It’s part of the by now familiar ESB’s savings plan. After the Yom Kippur war, the Saudis cut off the West’s oil supply to a trickle . This results in a massive recession  in Europe and the USA and electricity is rationed . So, we run through some areas which are brightly lit as normal and other areas which are totally dark . But our eyes quickly adjust and we run on without a care. If it was a 15 mile run we would turn up Watermill Road which had a very nice hill to add a little extra resistance to our training load. But on a 17 there is no turning until we reach the Black Banks in Sutton. And woe betide anyone who cut across the grassy “ peninsula “ at this point . Even though it meant cutting only 5 yards at most from the distance, this was seen as a sign of appalling weakness. One young lad did indeed cut the course here once . He never did it again . And he never recovered from the slaggin’ he got either . We run down through Raheny ( they’re not even The Noisy Neighbours at this point) and downhill into Killester . As we turn onto Collins’ Avenue , Tony (Blisters) Murphy has the misfortune to say “ There’s quite a bit of a hill here lads”. Like a school of piranhas , the peloton smells blood . “ Ah Tony, what hill ? God Blisters , you’re very unfit. Tony , what age are you now ? Not bad for an auld fella. You’re definitely failing Blisters. Gone past it Tony, But sure you hadn’t a bad innings.” And so it continues. Just as well that Tony can take it and dish it out equally well . He is universally acknowledged as The Supreme Slagger .

The Hairy One, Jerry Kiernan

The pace builds and builds as we run along Collins Avenue. As Jerry Kiernan said in a fairly recent interview with Ian O’Riordan : “ It was hard, unremitting stuff. Only toughened  us up”. Some guys have actually rested up for this pack run and they are now really going for glory . It’s significant, however, that the truly experienced runners like McDaid , Murphy , Keane and Marley are ignoring all this competitive madness and just keeping it steady. They know that there are no medals for training. We get back to the Nissen hut and there’s a scramble for the few showers available. The furnace has gone cold . The water is tepid at best and, at worst, absolutely freezing. Men jump under the icy water and for the next 15 minutes all that can be heard are cries of shock and pain intermingled with curses against the guys who did short runs and then used up all the hot water . We dry ourselves off while trying to avoid the arctic breeze that’s blowing in through the ever broken window . Sometimes the man known as The Colonel is there and he , after apparently enjoying his cold wash , keeps affirming that there’s nothing better  or healthier than an icy shower. Laro is still there , having a quiet word of advice or encouragement for each one of us. And then we jump up on our bikes and cycle off into the night looking forward to the Saturday session and the 20 mile Sunday morning run around the Hill of Howth .

Now we know what happened to the Likely Lads!

Ah yes, those were the days my friend ; we thought they’d never end, We’d sing and run forever and a day ……                   

* FCA = Forsa Cosanta Áitiúil = Local Defence Force .(Needless to say all those incidents didn’t happen on one single run ; they are an amalgam of typical events on many, many such training runs . But there was one thing common to every run : the craic was only 90 ! )