No. 21: 60 Seconds with Harrier Peter McDermott

Now wise words from one of the country’s top coaches and the star of “Coaching Corner” Peter McDermott.

Bio: I’m a retired schoolteacher. I served two life sentences teaching English and Maths. to the sound lads in St.Aidan’s Running Academy.

When did you take up the sport of athletics? I didn’t start running until I came to UCD in 1968. I ran for the College for four years and then joined Clonliffe.

Why Clonliffe? A friend of mine in UCD, Maurice Ahern of Donore ,
wanted me to join his club but I always knew that I would join the Black and Amber. Perhaps it was the stadium and the famous track where Elliott had set his mile record or, perhaps, it was the magic of Billy Morton ; but for whatever reason , to me Santry was the Mecca of athletics. I competed for Clonliffe for fifteen years and then turned to coaching . I got the imprimatur of Laro Byrne- he even gave me his stopwatches! I have a Level 3 Coaching Qualification but I learned most of my athletics knowledge in the University of Clonliffe. 

What is your most cherished or proudest moment in athletics (athlete/coach)? As an athlete I was just a half decent club runner, so I don’t have very many memorable performances to recount . I did turn in a few decent ones : I still remember the sense of satisfaction I felt at making the Scoring 4 on the Clonliffe team that won the National Senior Cross-Country title in 1981. Dick Hooper once wrote in the Irish Runner that you wouldn’t be served a pint in the Clonliffe Bar if you didn’t have at least one National Senior Gold medal in your pocket – now I had my passport ! Later that year I was pleased  to run 1 hour 45 minutes for the Clonliffe 20. Not  a bad time but good enough only for 9th. It was won in 1:38 ! An interesting footnote to that race was the fact that Jerry Kiernan finished 5th. It was his first time to race longer than 10 miles yet, just three years later, he finished 9th. In the Olympic Marathon ! Finally, I was 2nd to Ronnie Carroll in the Dublin 10 mile Championship in 1984 , just a shade outside 50 minutes. I was pleased with my performance but ragin’ that I didn’t break 50. And,  sadly , I never did . Consequently, the Great Hairy One still tells me my PB is ”very shabby”.

Favourite training workout? My favourite training session was a 10 mile tempo. I liked to do this with Denis Noonan and Rashers Tierney, tough guys who took no prisoners. We often did these runs in slightly under 53 minutes, which was probably too fast but you can’t put an old head on young shoulders. I didn’t like short intervals on the track as my basic speed was very limited. But you got to do the workouts that you don’t like , especially if you and your coach know they are necessary for you to improve. I don’t have a favourite workout for the athletes I coach : I prescribe the sessions which I believe are most appropriate to the race distance they’re training for and, of course, the time of the season in which they’re training.

Early coaching days with St. Aidans CBS, All Ireland Schools, Tullamore

Any cherished days as a coach? I have far more exciting memories as a coach than I have as an athlete and this is entirely due to the marvellous young men that I have advised over more than three decades. My early successes were with St. Aidan’s, winning several individual and team All Ireland Schools’ titles . I also got great satisfaction in helping many lads get athletic scholarships to the USA. There are conflicting views on the merits of these scholarships and, indeed, I would be the first to admit that they are not suitable for every young athlete. There can be “ a survival of the fittest “ element about the programmes in some colleges .But, in the Ireland of the 70s and 80s, when jobs were scarce and it was difficult to get into college, those American scholarships were a godsend. Some say “ Oh , we never heard of those guys again “. But we should remember that they couldn’t all be a Coghlan, a Treacy , an O’Mara or an O’Sullivan . They got worthwhile degrees, good jobs , got married and raised families. Their scholarships opened doors for them which otherwise would have remained forever closed . The majority of my great coaching memories are, naturally, connected to Niall Bruton. Seeing him win the 800/1500 Senior double at the All Ireland Schools C’ships. in ‘89, his victory in the World Student Games in ‘91, watching him outkick World Indoor Champion  Frank O’Mara (despite giving O’Mara a 10m. lead with 200m to go) , to win his first Irish Senior title in Belfield in ‘93, being present in Gothenburg in ‘95 when he qualified for the 1500 final of the  World C’ships, being trackside in Madison Square Gardens NY when he won his second Wanamaker mile title and …..well, so many more . I got a big thrill from Colm Rooney’s victory in the National Senior 1500 in 2008. It was a slow, tactical race , which played into Colm’s hands and he just blew the field away over the final 200. You’d have to be mighty quick to out kick Colm back then – indeed you still need to be pretty fast to beat Papa Rooney ( as Karl Nolan calls him ). I also got great satisfaction from Jayme Rossiter’s win in the National Intermediate XC in 2012. The course was a mud bath and, as we all know, Jayme loves the mud! Derek Waters (St. Aidan’s and Clonliffe) won several All Ireland schools and under age titles but his victory, by a huge margin, in the National Junior XC in ‘93 was the one that shines brightest in my memory. It was always a pleasure to work with Killian Lonergan. A young man of immense talent he was , sadly , predisposed to chronic injuries. He was such a smooth runner you would think he could never get injured, as Laro Byrne once said “ When I look at young Lonergan I know how God intended people to run “. With just six months of uninterrupted training he ran that excellent 28:37. Undoubtably, Killian could have been an Olympian if he hadn’t been plagued by injury. He continues to make a huge contribution to the Club and is unremittingly helpful to other athletes. There are so many other great memories: Mark Kenneally’s first National Senior XC win , Mark making the final of the European U/23 5000m C’ 2003, Sergiu Ciobanu winning the National Novice XC just a few months after coming to Ireland and joining our training group, Cathal Doyle taking chunks off his PB and eventually running 3:42 last year and qualifying for the European U/23 C’ships., Seán O’’Leary winning the National Intermediate XC last year and making it look as if he was out for an afternoon stroll. I have fond memories too of Gareth Williams winning an All Ireland Schools Senior Steeplechase title ( despite the fact that neither Gareth nor I knew a whole lot about the steeple ) , of Michael MacDiarmada coming all the way through our Juvenile and Youth ranks to eventually finishing 7th. in the National Senior XC ( you can now get a pint too, Michael, in the Clonliffe Bar) and running 2:25 for the marathon the very first time he attempted the event. And of Shane Dowler , winning an All Ireland Schools’ XC title and a National Junior track title before getting an American athletic scholarship. A very shy as a  young man , Shane now owns his own restaurant in Johnson City , Tennessee and is married with two children. His  oldest , a boy , is a seriously talented young footballer ( soccer ,of course). A successful product of the the athletic scholarship system.  …….and many, many more . I had the huge honour of being appointed coach to the Irish International Cross Country team for 5 years from ‘98 to 2002 (inc.) I had the massive thrill of being present in Marrakech in ‘98  to witness Sonia’s extraordinary double success in the World Cross ( Short and Long Course ) . It was also a privilege to be the coach to the Irish men’s team that won Bronze in the European Senior XC in Malmo in 2000. Peter Matthews,  Seamus Power, Keith Kelly , Gareth Turnbull, Ken Nason and Fiachra Lombard: what a team ! And what a great bunch of lads. I am very lucky to have a treasury of great memories from that phase of my coaching career.I would like to thank all the people who have helped me with my coaching: Tony Murphy ( for many years ) , Brian McDonald, Gerry Cullen and, more recently , Stephen Bateson. Alan O’Neill who keeps supplying us with athletes from the St. Aidan’s conveyor belt . And , of course, Joe Cooper . Without Joe , I probably would have no athletes at all to coach as he unselfishly passes on his charges to me when they reach the age of 18 or 19. And he continues to do this , year after year.

Any funny stories you’d like to share? We didn’t win the National Senior for a few years back in the 90s. But we won the National Vets.’ XC and National Vets Road Relay during one of those lean years  On hearing this Barry Ryan remarked , with an utterly deadpan expression, “ Nice to see our Youth Policy is paying off at last.”     

Favourie athletics meet/race? My favourite Athletics Meet is, of course, the Morton Games. I have a love/ hate relationship with the National Senior XC. I love it when we win the team title but it’s nerve wracking during the race if the outcome is in doubt . I’m very fond of the National Road Relays as the atmosphere is always electric. And I have to mention the Armagh International Road Races. What a night ! What a feast of top class running! It has been described as “a microcosm of the World Cross”. High praise indeed.

What advise would you give to a young athlete? As regards advice for young athletes (how about “Go away and find an easier sport “ ? ) Ah no ; must not be cynical. 1. Be consistent in your training: consistency is the key. 2. Be patient: it takes time become a real runner.   ( Read Ron Hill’s autobiography The Long Hard Road ). 3. Be realistic in your targets. 4. Be specific in your training. No point in training like a marathon runner if the 800 is your main event. 5. Try to enjoy the PROCESS and don’t think too far ahead to the desired outcome. 6.Don’t get discouraged by the odd bad performance: everyone has had bad days at the office.    

What was your worst injury? As regards injuries, I had trouble for a number of years with a torn abdominal muscle. Let it go too long without seeking professional help. But that was the culture of the time : you just got on with it . But it was a foolish , macho type of mistake. The athletes of that era were tough : Clonliffe greats like Danny McDaid, Pádraig Keane and Paddy Marley worked on the buildings for many years but still clocked 100 miles per week without injury. Perhaps the lifestyle when they were growing up was a factor: people walked or cycled everywhere. They did hard physical work on farms and building sites. A “ Kenyan “ lifestyle in a way . Now, because of our easier lifestyles , there is a greater need for strength and conditioning work .  

Favourites? My favourite book ? Never ask a former English teacher that question or he/she will go on and on forever ! So, here goes : I never tired of teaching such classic novels as To Kill a Mocking Bird , Wuthering Heights, Lord of the Flies, Animal Farm , The Catcher in the Rye, Of Mice and Men , Hard Times, etc.,etc. Of the more modern novels,  I would heartily recommend the Wolf Hall Trilogy by Hilary Mantel and , one of the greatest books I have ever read , The Choice by Edith Eger( a survivor of Auschwitz). Some of the best Irish novels would be That They May Face the Rising Sun by the inimitable John McGahern , A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry and Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann. Favourite Film : Again , I’m a bit of a film buff ( or as JK would say “a cinephile”) so it’s difficult to just pick one or two. My short list would include The Godfather ( Part 2) , Cinema Paradiso, The Deer Hunter, Manon de Sources, The Remains of the Day, Scent of a Woman , Thirteen Days, Mystic River , Midnight Express, The Lives of Others etc., etc. ( OK , I’ll shut up now ).  And my favourite song( here we go again ): The River -Bruce Springsteen; Dance Me to the End of Love- Leonard Cohen; The Parting Glass – Various Artistes; Thunder on the Mountain -Bob Dylan;  Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien – Edith Piaf; My Way – Frank Sinatra ; I Won’t Back Down – Tom Petty; America – Simon and Garfunkel, etc., etc. Favourite Album : Modern Times – Dylan ; Born in the USA – Springsteen; Graceland – Paul Simon and Ladysmith Black Mambazo;  Revolver – The Beatles ; Rumours – Fleetwood Mac ,etc., etc.(  Wouldn’t you know I’m an auld fella from that list ? )

Sporting Heroes: Irish : Eamonn Coghlan and Roy Keane . International: Jim Ryun ( possibly the greatest Miler / 1500m runner of all time – and the unluckiest) . Laura Muir: I have huge admiration for her sheer guts and bravery . 

Favourite Meal : When dining with the GOATS , we are all under direct orders from the GHO that we can sample only Italian cuisine. So, my favourite is Pollo Al Vino Bianco Con Funghi . Sounds great in Italian, doesn’t it ? It’s just chicken and mushrooms in a white wine sauce. Of course, as an unreformed country man I’d be quite happy with bacon, cabbage and spuds.

Favourite holiday destination: Rome or New York or San Diego ( in normal times , obviously).

Favourite Hobby : reading, going to the cinema, watching box sets and Netflix, watching athletics, football and most sports on television, walking/ jogging- and more reading.

What advice to Seb Coe : 1. Many years ago the late , great P.Keane proposed that cross country should be reinstated in the Olympics . Nobody took him seriously. But when Seb Coe proposed the same thing a few years ago , everyone said “ What an excellent idea, Lord Coe “. So, I would now say to The Right Honourable Gentleman in terminology which he , as a former Tory MP would understand , “ Just get it done”.          2. He should make it more difficult for non-nationals to run for their so-called adoptive country . It is ridiculous to see so many East Africans ( in particular) running for European countries despite they not having spent a wet week in Europe . I think it should be like in rugby where a player had to have lived at least 36 months in a country before being eligible to represent that country. I believe it has now been extended to 60 months. 3. Athletes who test positive for banned substances should be banned for life . Many of those athletes come back after as little as two years and are eligible to compete again as “ clean “ athletes. The reality is they are still in possession of residual benefits from their drug taking – both physical and psychological. 4. Curtail the use of pacemakers in the Diamond League . I am tired of watching these choreographed time trials instead of real races . While many elite athletes are capable of running very fast indeed, they never learn how to truly race – and it shows in championships.

Just because it’s you Peter do you have one more “spill the beans” story ? Jerry Kiernan trying in vain to get Joe to pronounce correctly the word “ bruschetta “. But what happens at the GOATS must stay in the GOATS . Joe selling me a dummy ( of which Joe Brolly would be proud ) in San Sebastián at a European Clubs 20 years ago. Joe goes off with the travelling support corps for pints and crack while I’m left to go to a boring Blazers’ Banquet . But what happens on tour …….If you want fun, just go upstairs to the Clonliffe Bar any Thursday night after training and witness Joe and Fogo conduct a master class in BS with their two acolytes Hoss and The Big Red .

How would my friends describe me ? Grumpy old man .( after this probably : Boring, Long-winded)

How to stay motivated during this crises. Keep reminding ourselves that “ this too will pass”. Motivation has to come from within- and real runners never really lose the fire. As I often say “ When you have been bitten by the running bug , you’re a runner for life “. But I do keep in touch with my athletes via WhatsApp and advise them what to do .

Next Athletic Goal : to help Clonliffe retain the National XC title by managing the athletes I coach to attain peak fitness at the right time.

Coach & Athlete: Peter with Karl Nolan, Jingle Bells Phoenix Park