King of the road

Limerick’s own Neil Cusack saw a lot in America, like hillbillies with shotguns chasing athletes, but for a moment he owned America too. This weekend 40 years ago he won the oldest and most celebrated city marathon in the world, a moment that brought a welcome sense of joy and colour and even the exotic to Ireland 1974

It probably depends on your age. If you’re under 45 and from anywhere outside of Limerick, you probably haven’t heard of him the way you’ve heard of his contemporary and friend Eamonn Coghlan.

But if you’re that bit older, well then the memory jogs, the years reel and the heart tends to lift at the mention of Neil Cusack.

Forty years ago this week he won the Boston Marathon, the biggest and oldest 26-mile race in the world. At a time when most TVs were still black and white and the country itself seemed even more dreary and dull with images of bombs in Dublin, Belfast, Monaghan, Guilford and Birmingham dominating those screens, Cusack’s triumph brought a welcome sense of joy and colour and even the exotic to Ireland 1974.

Here was another Ireland – young, talented, and with his tan, mini-Luke Kelly afro and goatee, hip; cool.

Here was something to be proud of. And the great thing about it was he was proud to be Irish too.

In nearly every paper in America the following day, on coast-to-coast TV with Walter Kronkite that evening, there were images of this lean figure crossing the line sporting a massive shamrock on the front of his white vest.

At the time Cusack was one of the best middle-distance runners in American collegiate sport.

Eighteen months earlier in the colours of East Tennessee State University he had won the NCAA cross-county title. He always seemed to race better for the college than he ever would for Ireland in 13 world cross-country championships.

“With Ireland they (the officials) would nearly talk the confidence out of you,” he says in that honest, engaging, genial way of his. “You’d go to an international championship and there always seemed to be a priest as part of the delegation. He’d be more concerned that we’d be at mass at 11 in the morning than how we’d race. In America all they’d say is ‘Hey, you go, man, you go!’ Belief. Belief!”

Yet, even though the college had paid his way to Boston, Cusack, convinced that he’d win, wanted to show the world what part of the world he was originally from. So the night before the race in a friend’s apartment, he took the crest from one of his Irish shirts and sowed it onto a fishnet vest he’d bought in Dunnes Stores.

He and his wife Imelda now live in Clare, around the Cratloe-Bunratty area, but he was made in Limerick. His father Connie smoked 80 cigarettes a day and would often ask his son to run down to the local shop to buy a pack, so Neil would fly off during the TV breaks and try to be back before the ads were over. Connie’s unhealthy habit would cost him his life at just 53, but Neil’s habit of running as fast as possible proved to be a lot healthier, and after some inspired tutoring at Limerick Athletics Club and St Munchin’s College he would find himself at 17 in the late summer of 1969 on a plane to the States on an athletic scholarship.

Cusack had never been on a flight before. Dublin had been about as far as he had ever travelled, taking the train up there once to head up to Santry and find out if he could run the track there barefoot like he did nearly everywhere else. As it turned out, he would use spikes in those national championships where he’d finish second, half a lap behind Eddie Leddy from Leitrim, but his own gracious, almost effortless style had impressed enough for coach Dave Walker to recruit him as well as Leddy for East Tennessee State.

So here he was, on a plane to JFK, all dressed up in a new three-piece suit and a navy overcoat with a special pocket sown in his pants to accommodate his dollars. He’d soon learn the suit wasn’t right for this trip.

It was 80 degrees when he touched down in New York. That night in the hotel he barely slept. “All the people, the bustle, the yellow cabs, cars honking... I thought I was going to be robbed.”

Tennessee was another world again. Coach Walker collected him at Tri Cities airport the following morning and drove him to Johnson City where campus was. What he remembers most about that half-hour trip is the sound of crickets chirping. Running through that countryside then a few weeks later would really shock the system.

“At times it was like that movie ‘Deliverance’. We’d run up into the mountains (the Appalachians) which were right beside the university and you’d come across guys shooting beer cans. One day this guy was swinging on a hammock and I was running with my T-shirt off, tied around my neck, the sweat dripping off me. Next thing I hear, “Hey, boy, get your clothes back on or I’ll shoot your ass!’

“We had a black guy on our sprint team called Clyde. Good-looking black guy. He was going out with this white girl. One day we were all down on the track when her father arrived with a shotgun. ‘Where’s that goddamn son of a bitch?! I’m going to kill that boy!’

“Coach Walker would talk him out of it while Clyde slipped away but it was a close one. Another time we went through this town in North Carolina where they apparently once hung an elephant and that’s not all they may have hung through the years. Well, we watched Clyde slide down at the back of the bus.

“Even when I was back to be inducted into the Hall of the Fame in the 1980s I heard there had been a (Ku Klux) Klan march the previous week just 20 miles away in a town in Virginia.”

If he’s to be honest, Cusack’s most difficult adjustment was to training twice a day. The body really struggled with it. In his first NCAA national cross-country championships he would finish 186th . That summer when he returned to Limerick he didn’t want to return that fall to the States.

But within a month of being back home, he was ready to go back. He could feel himself getting stronger.

He’d assert himself more forcibly too. Initially he was on a semi-scholarship. He had to work in a canteen cleaning dishes. One day work caused him to miss a track session. He cycled down to the track with his kitchen apron still on and told coach Walker that he needed to be training more, not less, than the rest of the team. Walker was suitably impressed by his directness and ambition and within a few weeks into his sophomore year, Cusack was on a full scholarship and one of the team’s leading lights.

It was quite a team. The Irish Brigade everyone knew them as. As Cusack puts it, the Irish were the Kenyans of that time. You had Eamonn Coghlan and John Hartnett and Donie Walsh in Villanova following in the steps of Ronnie Delany and Noel Carroll but East Tennessee was especially loaded with Irish talent. There were the Leddy brothers from Leitrim, Eddie and PJ. Ray McBride and Frank Greally joined a few years later.

Kevin Breen from Birr. Ray Flynn from Longford. And Cusack. For the first half of the 1970s they would dominate the Ohio Valley Conference and at a time when the football and basketball teams weren’t going well, that gave them first-class status on campus.

Cusack’s star in particular would rise in 1972. That summer he would compete in the Munich Olympics, setting a new Irish 10km record though it wasn’t enough to make it out of the heats.

Then that winter as a junior he would dominate the cross-country scene.

He would win the NCAA cross-country championship in Houston. Six days later he was in Chicago for the open cross-country national championships. Only one other athlete had ever pulled off the double of winning both the collegiate and national cross-country championships. In the closing stages Cusack was in the lead with Frank Shorter, the Olympic marathon champion, trailing in second. Then fate took a cruel turn – literally.

“The markings on the course were all made out in white chalk around trees and it was snowing right on the lake. So I was coming towards the finish, just around this corner, and I said to the steward, ‘I go left (of this tree) here, yeah?” And he says ‘Yeah,’ so I go on until he calls me back about 200 metres later, ‘Hey, no, you’re supposed to go around the other side of the tree!’

I went on and Shorter finished a good bit behind me. He says to me, ‘Neil, you were flying today, there’s no way you were been beaten today.’

“I said ‘No worries, Frank, sure you’ve probably been living the high life since Munich.’

“But when we went to the medal ceremony it was announced I had been relegated to fourth place. I said ‘What?!’

“They said ‘Frank Shorter said you went the wrong side of the tree.’ “I said ‘Well is he here?’ Frank wasn’t there. I wonder why. But I parked that a long time ago. I know I won the race. That’s the most important thing.”

Then 18 months later he’d win Boston. They couldn’t take that one away from him.

There was something about him and marathons. He found the track was for another beast and he wasn’t it but over cross-country and on that road he came into his own. When he was 19 he and a few more of the Irish Brigade flew down to Atlanta to race in the Peach Tree Marathon. “We hadn’t the money to go home that summer so we went down there for the craic. One of the lads said we should write down what time we’d think we’d run so I wrote down 2.18. He looked at me as if to say ‘Yeah, right.’ I ran 2.16. At the time that was a world record for a teenager.

“So I had that belief when it came to the marathon. The morning of the race in Boston, there was this gym they brought about 40 of the elite runners into. Patsy McMahon, a Clareman who had finished second in the race in ’68, was in there. He shook my hand and said (in an Irish- American twang), ‘Hey, man, how do you think you’re going to do?’ I said, ‘Pat, I think I’m going to win.’ He looked at me as if to say ‘You arrogant son of a bitch!’ But my confidence at the time was sky high.”

Cusack had a clear race strategy. Stay about a hundred metres off the front for the first six miles, then ease your way up. And that’s what he did. At the halfway point he was a minute ahead, a lead he would pretty much maintain. At the 21-mile mark he hit the legendary Heartbreak Hill which lasts for over a couple of miles but he attacked it. Tennessee was full of hills – and shotguns – so he was conditioned to fly up them.

It was only after the race, when he’d look at all the photos, that he realised there had been so many cars and cameras following him. And it was only later too that he realised just how big it was to win Boston.

He was crowned with an olive wreath upon crossing the line. Every paper in America seemed to interview him. Ex-pats stuffed $10 and $20 bills into his bag.

When he returned to Tennessee the envelopes kept flying through the letterbox with similar contributions and sentiments: Proud to be Irish. Way to go! On his way back to Tennessee the airline promoted him to first-class and announced his presence to the other, applauding, passengers.

On the runway in Tennessee the fire brigade, police and college president were there to give him a limousine-driven cavalcade back to the campus. He was king of the world, or close to it.

“I went for a run the following day, trying to come down from the high. I was euphoric. I remember thinking, ‘Jesus, what am I after achieving?’ Next thing I hear this booming voice. ‘Hey boy!’

And honestly, for a minute, I thought it was Jesus himself. ‘Wow, that’s God calling me! Yes, Lord?’ “Who was it? A state trooper. ‘Get your ass off the road, son, or you’ll get yourself killed!’ I looked around and right enough I was running on the outside of the lines. ‘Sorry, officer.’ So that little episode helped literally bring me back down to earth.”

The years would eventually do that anyway. He would race in the Montreal Olympics marathon but overtrained for it, finishing 55th and running a disappointing 2.36. A few weeks later he would run 2.14 in Louisiana. By now he was back home in Ireland, living with the parents, trying to get some work. It wasn’t easy. He hadn’t really taken his course in Health and PE Education that seriously, just about graduating in it, and so now he was doing menial gigs like putting flyers on cars for an aluminium company, or working in sales for a chicken company.

In 1979 he would not make the national team for the world cross-country championships. It was his first time in a decade not making the team. What made it all the tougher was that it was in his hometown of Limerick.

What was he doing that weekend? Well he was there on the Sunday evening to see John Treacy win the race in the rain but on the Saturday evening he was working in a bar-hotel in Southill.

There was a travellers’ wedding on which was now into its third day and buckets of Pat Grace’s finest Kentucky Fried Chicken had been ordered. Just as the chicken bones were being chucked across the dance hall, who streamed in but the American and Canadian cross-country teams, eager to see the workplace supposedly owned by ‘the legendary NCAA athlete, Mr Neil Cusack....’

“There was a big bench along the wall and they all sat down there, watching these chicken bones flying around the place. And they were all there, ‘Wow, Neil, is this what a real Irish céilí is like?!’

‘Man,’ I said, ‘don’t talk to me!’”

Cusack had other troubles and joys at the time. He had just married the lovely Imelda but they were living in rented accommodation. He had £2 in his bank account when he asked for a bank loan of £1,000 to take out a deposit on a house. A man in AIB called Mick Barry was kind enough to give it to him. “All we had was a Cortina with all our belongings in it. I walked in through the door of our house with two cavity blocks and a second-hand television, put two pot plants on the cavity blocks, plopped up the TV and said, ‘Imelda, we’ve arrived!”

A few weeks later he A year later, so would their son, Neil, and then a few years later again, Tony.

Neil Senior meanwhile would re-establish himself as an elite marathon runner, finishing second in the 1980 Dublin marathon and then winning it outright in 1981.

Years later the younger Neil would follow somewhat in his dad’s footsteps, winning the Dublin half-marathon. He’s a fit lad, young Neil, runs every day. Neil Senior was hoping to run in Boston too this weekend to pay his respects for the victims of last year’s horrific tragedy but for some reason the organisers didn’t invite previous winners like they had invited for the 25th, 30th and 35th anniversary of Cusack’s golden moment.

So he’ll watch from a distance, and run from a distance, around the woods and hills of Cratloe.

“I’m getting back out doing a bit more because it keeps me sane. Running is great for the mind.”

He’s keeping well. He and Imelda are probably going to move to a smaller house. The kids are long gone, with Neil Junior’s wife expecting a kid of their own this summer, so it makes sense to make a change.

But some things he’ll always keep.

That good-natured humour. That photo of crossing the line first in Dublin. In Boston. And that medal. That moment he will always have.

Just as for those few days in 1974, it belonged to us all.


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