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A St. Patrick’s Day Toast to Irish Runners Marcus O’Sullivan and Eamonn Coghlan
A week before St. Patrick’s Day, I bought a pair of Saucony Kilkinney Cross Country Ballerinas. They’re a screaming Irish green and pop out like neon.
It reminded me of the Sports Illustrated magazine cover I have on my office wall recording the moment in 1994 when Eamonn Coghlan broke the tape at the finish line to become the first man over 40 to run a mile in less than four minutes.
Any day is a good day to raise a glass of Jameson Irish whiskey to the likes of Marcus O’Sullivan and Eamonn Coghlan, but an even better day when it’s St. Patrick’s Day.
Before honoring these two legends of Irish running, let me first salute another great Irish middle-distance runner: Ron Delany.
Delany ran for legendary trainer Jim “Jumbo” Elliott at Villanova, a Roman Catholic university in the tradition of St. Augustine in Pennsylvania.
Delany became the seventh member of the 4-Minute-Mile Club, but still struggled to make the Irish squad for the 1956 Olympics. Once in Melbourne, he qualified for the 1,500 meters final where Australian rider John Landy is the big favourite.
Landy indeed set the tone as Delany fell behind until the bell lap when he shot a brilliant 53.8 gap to set an Olympic record at the time and claim the first gold medal of Ireland in 24 years.
I think that’s where the great Irish middle distance tradition really took off. I was 12 in 1956, Eamonn Coghlan was 4 and Marcus O’Sullivan was born 5 years later.
Delany would win 4 successive AAU titles in the mile, 4 more Irish National titles and 3 NCAA titles for Villanova and Jumbo Elliott.
Marcus O’Sullivan couldn’t get into any Irish university in his day but would quickly become a world-class runner for Jumbo Elliott at Villanova.
He would win 3 world indoor 1500m titles, compete for Ireland in 4 Olympics over a 12 year period and run 101 sub-4-miniute-miles.
O’Sullivan was generally considered a better miler indoors than outdoors, winning the prestigious Wanamaker Mile 5 times at the Millrose Games in Madison Square Garden and setting the world record for the indoor 1500 meters in 1989 with a time of 3: 35.4.
His personal best for the mile – 3:50.96 – was set indoors in 1987, and his personal best for the 1,500 meters was 3:33.65 in 1992.
After his career as a competitive racer, O’Sullivan returned to Villanova and continues today as Villanova’s head coach for cross country and track.
Guess who also raced for Jumbo Elliott at Villanova? Eamonn Coghlan won 4 NCAA titles at Villanova in the 1500m or mile.
Coghlan ran his first mile in under 4 minutes in 1975, setting a new Irish record of 3:53.2.
Like Frank Sinatra in another venue, Eamonn Coghlan would become known as “The Chairman of the Boards” due to his success on the indoor tracks. He won the Wanamaker Mile a record 7 times from 1977 to 1987 at the Millrose Games in Madison Square Garden.
Coghlan set the world indoor mile record at 3:50.6 in 1981 and again at 3:49.78 in 1983, a record that would stand for 14 years until Moroccan Hicham El Guerrouj ran 3: 48.45 in 1997. Coghlan’s time in 1983 still stands as the fastest mile ever run in the United States, and 1 of the 3 miles under 3:50 clocked on US soil.
Coghlan won an outdoor world title in the 5,000 meters in 1983, but it was absolutely devastating indoors. Coghlan was small compared to many of his competitors and perhaps his size gave him a tiny advantage when negotiating the tight turns on the inside boards.
He also proved he could go the distance, setting the 2000 meters indoor record in 1987 at 4:54.07, which stood for 11 years until Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia snatched a 4:52, 86 in 1998.
Coghlan also had a bit of Irish mischief in him when he won the 5,000 meters at the outdoor world championships in 1983. He watched his Russian competitor ahead of him with glee as he hit the final bend before the arrival, knowing that he could overtake him in the sprint. , then quickly rammed the Russian into the ground as he huffed to win.
Eamonn Coghlan’s personal bests are breathtaking: 800m (1:47.0), 1,500m (3:35.6), 1 Mile (3:49.78), 3,000m (7:36.6), 5,000m (13: 19.11), 10,000 (28:09) and even the Marathon (2.25:13).
His two fourth-place finishes in the 1,500 meters at the 1976 Olympics and the 5,000 meters at the 1980 Olympics did nothing to enhance his remarkable achievements.
He more than caught up in 1994 when he returned to the boards of Harvard’s Albert J. Gordon indoor track and became the first man over 40 to beat 4 minutes for the mile, clocking an astonishing 3 : 58.15 indoors.
Coghlan was 41 the day he set the record. He ran more than a second faster than England’s Roger Bannister in 1954 when he became the first to break the 4-minute barrier on an outdoor track.
It was a breathtaking moment in the history of athletics. Here is a man over 40 who had set the world indoor record at 3:49.78 at his peak, covered 74 miles in under 4 minutes, won 11 Irish titles and spent 30 years racing competitively at his last turn as fans. applauded him.
Eamonn Coghlan, like so many times before, flew into the final corner and sprinted for the strip and, as they say, the rest is history.
“It was like the good old days,” Coghlan said after the race. “Those last two laps reminded me of everything. My eardrums hurt from all that cheering, but my legs responded.”
He cited breaking the 4-minute barrier indoors at age 41 as his finest moment, even better than world records and the Wanamaker Mile winning streak at the Millrose Games.
I sincerely hope that the memories of these exceptional Irish middle-distance runners survive their records. Long live Ireland (Erin Go Bragh!) and the course of the green.
Copyright © 2007 Ed Bagley
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