Clubs Virtual 4 Mile
Our Virtual Series continues this week with our 4Mile taking place between Tuesday and Wednesday as previously advertised.
Our Virtual 5Mile will be on in May and we are hoping people will use the Midleton 5 course. I have the course marked if people want to familiarize themselves with it. The start is on Dwyer Road just down from the Social Welfare Office and I have a white mark on the right hand side for the start. The rest of the course is clearly marked but you will have to jump the gates. We hope to have them open on the night.
Nice new series coming up in Youghal also. Full details
Read All About Our Coach
The Villanova Irish - Donie Walsh
“I couldn’t run the 440 in 60 seconds before Jumbo started coaching me. Now we work once a week on speed. I’m huffing and puffing, but I’m improving.”
One might regard Donie as an incongruity, a student athlete at an august and affluent Villanova . Notwithstanding this misperception, it was young Irish students like Donie who contributed to the greening of Villanova. Donie is popularly regarded as a ‘character’ largely because of his easy way with people and his good nature. There is much more to him than that, however.
In an amusing irony Donie is defined by his complex simplicity. His self-effacing and genial demeanour belies a man who has a profound knowledge of athletics, and a keen insight into the cultivation of athletic talent. He has been at the heart of Irish athletics for more than 40 years both as an athlete and coach, particularly in his beloved Cork. He is still fond of a pint or two and keen on the dog racing.
As a youngster growing up in Cork, Donie Walsh would have known nothing about Villanova. He does remember vividly when Ronnie Delany won Gold at Melbourne. “I remember watching him in 1956. A friend of mine had this old TV, a rarity in those days, and he had an antenna or ariel. He brought it out the road to the house to look at it. There was a Mrs. Baylor living in the house. But he managed to get the race live, and the memory of that stayed with me. Little did I know that I would be heading to Villanova in later years.”
His first foray into competitive athletics was in 1964 when he entered and won an 800m race at the North Mon Schools Sports Day. “I was up at home one night and Brian Murphy and Kevin Barry (RIP) arrived in and asked me to run with Montenotte AC. So I joined up with Liam Leahy (now a priest in the US). The first race we ever ran, Kevin’s father drove us in an ice cream van. The next race we thumbed a lift. They were great aul races though, and we were lucky in that as we grew up we learned to race. We ran against individuals which made us better competitors.”
His initial success was modest but as he competed more in South Munster and Munster Colleges’ meets he gained more experience and his form improved. His cross-country potential surfaced early. “The first cross-country race I ever ran was in a club race for the Fr. Matthews’s Club and I was fourth. I was disappointed and I thought I should have won.” His knowledge of pacing was non-existent but he caught on quickly and it showed. “I never lost a championship race under the age of 18 in cross-country and that included two schools, two colleges and two All-Ireland titles.”
Leevale AC was founded in 1967 from the amalgamation of the Hilltown and Fr. Matthew’s athletic clubs. “When we saw that there might be unity in 1967 we knew there was a need for a strong base here in Cork. People forget that it was Father Nessan who was the driving force because of his involvement in both clubs. He was one of the people who got me started in athletics.”
Walsh continued to improve and success followed: “In 1967 we had a trial for the Europa Cup. I was still a junior at the time and I knew I wasn’t good enough to win the 5,000m so I ran the 10,000m. I won that race up in Belfield in 30.52.” This performance established Walsh as 6th in Europe and 10th in the World junior ranks.
In the spring of 1968, the All Ireland cross-country championships took place in Mallow, the first national championships under BLE rules. Walsh finished in a noteworthy 6th position, and was then selected on the Irish senior team for the International Cross Country Championships in Tunisia.When asked about Irish runners and athletes he admired in those years he pauses before giving an answer. “I suppose it would have to be Jim Hogan,” he says, “when he won the European marathon in 1966 in Budapest. Hogan had several rows with the athletics governing bodies in Ireland, and that he was driven to declare for England was a disgrace.
But he was the first Irishman in my time that really went out and did it. You had the likes of a Noel Carroll as well but that was a different distance.” Donie shares a birthday with Hogan, 28 May, but he also showed similar characteristics as an athlete. Neither man was blessed with blazing speed but they raced to win regardless of the opposition.
Donie speaks fondly of his years at Villanova even though his initial months were lonely and uncertain.
“The first person that got me interested in going to Villanova was Ian Hamilton from Cobh. Before that Hugh O’Callaghan was also encouraging me to go. When Ian was a student there he used to send me a training schedule and I started working on it.
Hamilton was an accomplished half miler, and even though he missed a season through injury, he made a noteworthy contribution to the Villanova team. In February 1968, Hamilton, Charlie Messenger, Frank Murphy and Dave Patrick set an indoor world record in the two mile relay (7.23.8) at the Mason Dixon Games in Louisville, Ky.
He was also a member of Villanova’s NCAA winning teams 1966, 1967, and represented Ireland in the 800m in the European Championships 1966 in Budapest. His training advice to the Cork youngster would have contributed to his development, and the decision to go to Villanova was an easy one for him to make.
“To make a long story short, I headed off in late August 1968. Going to the States that time was a big experience. I remember getting on the plane at Shannon with a one way ticket and a hundred pound from my mother. When the plane was taking off I started crying. I was thinking to myself, flippin hell I might never see home again.
My father was after dying one and a half years beforehand, and there was no way my mother could bring me back. I was met by two old ladies, cousins of mine, who lived in Rhode Island. I loved the short stay I had there before they drove me down to Villanova. I didn’t know anything about the place really. Anyway they had this orientation and I remember this fella roaring and shouting and I said to myself, forget it, there’s no way I can put up with this nonsense and I walked out!
It was a difficult transition for the Cork youngster. “The study was difficult and unfamiliar. Multiple choice was a new concept entirely. I had a lot of trouble with Maths. Jumbo was great in that you could always go and talk to him if you had a problem and he would try and sort it out. He got me a tutor and I got through the first year. My grade point average went from 1.8 in the first semester to 2.2 in the second. I was struggling but improving.
“The first Christmas was very lonely over there. My outstanding memory of that time is watching Joe Namath and the New York Jets winning the Super Bowl on TV.I met up with Davy Wright from England who was also going to Villanova. (Wright had read about Villanova when he was 9 years old) We both started bawling crying and there and then we made a pact that we would never spend another Christmas in America. I’ll never forget my first time in the city of New York. We were amazed at the skyscrapers. One day during our stay in a hotel there, we were on the 15th floor and a terrific thunderstorm came up. I was afraid of my life.
We couldn’t run Varsity events our first year, only freshman events. That was to change in 1969, the first year freshmen were allowed to compete in Open competition. We ran in the national championships in Van Cortland Park. Villanova was after winning the NCAA Cross Country title and we had a very strong freshman team. The varsity team won that day and the freshman team finished third. There was a great team spirit and camaraderie that year and in the years that followed.
One of the highlights of Donie’s collegiate career took place in Williamsburg, Va. On 23 November 1970. He recorded what has rightly been regarded as one of the greatest performances ever by an Irish runner when finishing runner up in the NCAA cross-country.
Neil Cusack, his friend and future training partner, would win the title two years later for ETSU, the first Irishman to do so. Even so, Walsh’s performance was a defining one. He finished 8 seconds behind the legendary Steve Prefontaine and left many of the bigger names in his wake. Prefontaine’s story does not need any retelling here.
Walsh learned a valuable lesson in his first year at Villanova. He finished a respectable 11th in the same competition but was perhaps over ambitious and excited in going through the first mile much too fast. “The mistake I made that year was that I went out too fast. I went through the first mile in 4.15 which was a second faster than my personal best for the distance at the time. I said this time I would go out slow, and went through the first mile in 4:30. They were all gone from me; I was way at the back.
But as the race went on I was coming through and coming through and with about a mile to go I was able to see the leaders. I then just picked them off one by one. Prefontaine was dying ahead of me but he got there before me, if there was another couple of hundred metres left I might have caught him, but he judged it better than me.”
In a track team loaded with future stars, Walsh had announced his arrival. He might never have their speed but he was always going to be formidable in cross-country. Prefontaine’s time for the flat 6 mile course was 28:00, while Walsh was credited with 28:08. In third place, two seconds behind the Corkman was Don Kardong of Stanford. He would go on to finish 4th in the 1976 Olympic marathon in Montreal before becoming a journalist and author as well as founding the famous Lilac Bloomsday 12km road race in Spokane Washninton.
Greg Fredericks of Penn State finished 4th in 28:12 and two years later set an American record for the 10,000m and also qualified for the 1980 Olympic team. “I could never beat Fredericks on the track but in the cross-country I had the upper hand on him,” says Walsh. In later years Walsh always got the better of Neil Cusack over cross-country.
Marty Liquori was the second scorer for Villanova that day, finishing ninth in 28:37. Liquori was a precocious talent and three years before gained national prominence when becoming only the third high school runner to break four minutes for the mile. After reaching the final of the 1968 Olympic 1500m (the youngest ever to do so), he went on to win indoor and outdoor NCAA and AAU mile titles and in 1977 was ranked number one in the world for 5000m after setting an American record of 13:15.1.
Walsh was a formidable opponent in cross country and learned how to run a sustained but even pace for the distance. As a junior (1971), Walsh gave a clinical performance over the storied Van Cortland Park course in New York, and it did not go unnoticed.
“Donal Walsh of Villanova,” wrote the New York Times correspondent, “with the lilt of Cork in his voice and the lift of Mercury in his heels, won the 62nd Annual IC4A in 24.10.l4 at Van Cortland yesterday. Walsh, a 21 year old Junior and runner-up last year to Art Dulong of Holy Cross, took the lead after three and a half miles going into Cemetery Hill. He sprinted away from Gregory Fredericks of Penn State at the finish winning by 35 yards. ‘I was thinking about my freshman year when I was leading going into the stretch and Greg passed me and beat me by a foot,’ Walsh explained. His victory led the wildcats to their 6th IC4A title and fifth in a row.
Away from the track and athletics, Walsh had what are best described as adventurous experiences. “I was running a ten thousand metres held in Knoxville, Tenn. I had very long hair at the time and didn’t have enough money to get a haircut. Even worse, I didn’t know how I’d get home for the summer because I had no money. I used to make a few bob baby sitting and other odds and ends. I remember one night I left the gas on after making a cup of tea, and it was still on when the people got home around four in the morning. I could have set fire to the place!
Jumbo gave me the money to get a haircut and my roommate took me down but the shop was closed. Anyway we headed out the Turnpike and we got in a car accident. Sure we were only driving an aul Volkswagen but I ended up in the hospital with a few stitches. I thought no more about it and went back to college and headed for training the next day.
still had no haircut but when I explained what happened to Jumbo he was grand. My roommate was Carl Kinsichers from New Jersey. Any weekend we weren’t running I’d go with Carl to his parent’s house in Peapack, NJ. We roomed for the four years and most of our free time was spent in New Jersey. We are still great pals.
Anyway, his father told me to put in a claim after the accident, which I didn’t want to do. I mean the people concerned were very kind and attentive to me but eventually I followed his advice and put in a claim. The insurance guy came to make a settlement and I got $500 plus expenses. The expenses were about $80. At that time a return ticket to Ireland cost $75 to $80. I knew a travel agent in New York and rang him and booked two tickets, one for myself and one for my roommate.
Donie encountered more trouble after arriving in Tennessee for that years NCAAs. “It was desperately hot, about 100f with 95 humidity. I finished 6th in the 10,000m. I remember crossing the line and going up in the lift. I collapsed in the shower totally dehydrated.
I was taken to hospital in the back of the old style American ambulance and I could hear the radio emergency saying athlete collapses at championships being shipped to hospital. And I remember thinking, Jesus am I after coming all the way over here to die. I was on a drip for 24 hours and it turned out okay. When I got back to Ireland I couldn’t run at all.
In the meantime Carl had written to me but I never got his letter. So he arrives into Shannon and there’s no me. I was at a sports meeting down in Youghal and next thing on comes Carl. He gave me an awful bollickin but he stayed with me for two weeks that summer and we enjoyed ourselves greatly.”
When he returned to Villanova for his sophomore year, Walsh’s running had improved considerably. He acquitted himself well in all of the cross-country meets and his track times had also improved. The young man was well used to life as a student-athlete and his academic progress continued. In the summer of 1970, Walsh competed in races all over Ireland and Europe. He was unlucky at the World University Games held in Turin where Mike Tagg passed him 80 metres from the line to get a bronze medal.
His confidence was high as he competed in his third year. He only ever lost one dual meet when defeated by Liquori. He was runner-up to Gerry Ryan of Pittsburgh in a time of 24:31. “We were always capable of going out and breaking 25 minutes at Van Cortland park,” he explains.
“ Athletes are struggling now to achieve that time. I think that’s because we did a lot more distance work. People have forgotten the basics – if you’re a runner you run. I always favour distance with a bit of quality. There’s a lot of fancy jargon that you read about. A tempo run to me is just a hard run. You did a hard run when you felt able to do it. I wouldn’t be too rigid about schedules; you have to adjust and be flexible.
“The 1972 NCAAs were held in Eugene, Oregon. We got a loan of a car from Jumbo and drove up into the mountains. I’ll never forget the fresh air and the scenery. You were running against the likes of a Kenny Moore, Frank Shorter, Prefontaine. That was an Olympic year and I was hoping to qualify in the 10,000m. I teamed up with Neil Cusack and we took every second lap. Yerra we ran them into the ground because with only 6 laps to go there was only Harstack (South Africa) left.
So I waited, and when it was Cusack’s turn to lead, Gordon Minty, Haversack and myself were left. I should have went with Neil but I didn’t and I’d say it cost me the race. I finished second in 28:53 just three seconds outside the Olympic qualifying time. It was disappointing to get that close and not qualify.
I had to put that setback behind me in quick time and two weeks later I ran the marathon in Athlone in 2:15.21 - I had enough distance work done. I failed to qualify for the 10,000m so that was the only reason I ran it. That was my ticket to the Olympics. I didn’t consider myself a marathon runner as such but neither was I a sprinter. I was always capable of running a 68 second last lap or 28 second 200m.
Jumbo was a great man to get a person up for a race. There was something about him if you listened to him. He worked an awful lot on pace, we never did any weights or circuit training. I was a runner doing about 120 miles a week. You couldn’t do much more when you were studying as well. Unless you’re a full time athlete tis impossible to make out schedules and other exercises. To me the most important thing is to get them out running.”
There was a quieter reflective side to Elliott that Walsh encountered a few times. “I remember one day I was down at the track with Jumbo. I was captain of Villanova at the time and I had finished my workout. I was sitting down alongside him and we got to talking. We were talking about money. Jumbo was wealthy that time, worth at least 2 million. He was a shrewd investor in big construction equipment.
He turned around to me and he says, ‘Donal, money is worth nothing. Says I what do you mean? Look at you. See all the money I have in the world. I’d give every penny I own to have my kid right.’ He had all the money in the world, but all he wanted was to have kids like us. It sunk into my head and I still never forget it to this day. I tell people if you have your health you have everything.
Here I am now, back in the health industry if you like which I should have been doing years ago. Jumbo had several children ranging from Tommy, the oldest, and he had Jimmy, Joy all the way down to Jeff, the youngest, who was handicapped. But he couldn’t buy his health even with all that money. It was a very valuable lesson regarding the value of money. In the end it’s worth nothing.”
There was plenty of time for students to relax and let their hair down when they weren’t competing and Walsh has a memory full of those times, even when competing for Ireland ‘Jesus the time Frank Murphy got stuck in the lift with the shot putter Phil Conway was pure pantomime. The lift only held three but sure Conway was a giant of a man. Word got out and it was reported back in the papers that the Irish were out drinking every night. Actuallly what happened was the weather was very warm and we were drinking loads of coke and ran out of money.
There was another time when we were in Washington DC for a dual meet. It was my first time there so I went out around the town to have a look like and I ended up having a few too many beers. I came in around three in the morning. Jumbo was a man who liked to stay up late and he was at the bar talking and saw me coming in but I never saw him.
The next morning he told Jack Pyrah he wanted to see me. I’m in for it now I thought to myself. I was feeling awful so I took a quick shower, put on my gear and off up to the course with me. My idea was to run for three miles and sweat it out of my system. Then I took a hot bath and went back down around the hotel and somehow managed to keep out of Jumbo’s way. I didn’t see him before the race and I broke the course record by two minutes. Twas a good thing I ran well I can tell you but there was no more about it!
Without a doubt, the majority of athletes would tell you that Jack Pyrah was the mainstay of Villanova more than anything else. Jumbo trusted him which meant he didn’t have to be there himself all the time. Jumbo would post the workouts and he’d come in Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. They were a great combination. You could always go to Jack if you had troubles. He was the go between as regards the athlete and Jumbo.
The thing about Villanova was we wanted to be there because we wanted to run. Not only that, we wanted to go to the Europeans and the Olympics, we wanted to be the best. At Villanova that time you trained with the best. Larry James, Marty Liquori, Dave Patrick come to mind and there were several others in all eras. I always felt sorry for Dave Patrick because he just missed out on the Olympics but we ended up becoming good friends and I went to his wedding.
Running for Villanova gave me a winning attitude. You ran and trained with the best. You never thought you’d lose. It was the farthest thing from my mind ever. To this day I drill people – let them worry about you. Never worry about them. If you can do that you’re in control.”
In the overall scheme of things four years of College life may seem inconsequential and perhaps in many cases they are looked upon as years to be endured, with the pressure of passing exams and graduating with a worthwhile degree. Villanova is a striking exception as far as the Irish student athletes are concerned. Most of those athletes returned to Ireland more mature, self-confident and very capable of settling down to a productive life at home. Moving away from a supportive college environment where promises often seemed like guarantees required an adjustment as Donie explains.
“There’s loads of people with ability but they don’t know how to win. You must have the will to win. I went out and won races that I never should have won. But I won because I wanted to win. If you haven’t the will to win, you’re wasting your time. Everybody can do the same amount of training. Accumulating mileage isn’t difficult.
It’s that extra five to ten percent that’s within, determination, self-belief, not fearing anybody. I mean to say like I ran against Ron Clarke up in Dublin in 1968 and he lapped me. That was when he was the king in the Olympic year (1968) and you’d be inclined to ask what business had I running in that race. That kind of thinking never entered my head and that was one of the reasons I took so much from my time in Villanova.
After Villanova Donie returned to Ireland and eventually got married and settled down. His running career was far from finished. He had what he describes as “an incredible run of eight years.” He won the All-Ireland Cross-Country Championships in 1973, 1974. He was 2nd in 1975, 1st in 1976, 3rd in 1977, 1st in 1978, 4th in 1979, and 5th in 1980. During these years he was going up against world class performers like Neil Cusack, John Treacy and many more. Irish athletics was deep in talent in cross country and middle distance a fact reflected in winning times and performances.
“And remember,” he adds, “we were running in the world cross country championships all the time. Of course winning the Silver in Limerick in 1979 was the day of all days. Two days after that race I had the mumps. I didn’t know until the Wednesday when my neck was swollen. I was actually sick with the mumps while I was racing and that would explain why I wasn’t able to come home stronger as I normally would.
I remember that same day Tommy Brennan (deceased) telling me you were 2nd or 3rd in the team race. I said Tommy stop and don’t be joking me. Myself and Danny McDaid ran over to this pub and I asked the barman for two bottles of Harp. I asked this fella ‘would you ever pay for these and he did!’ Limerick was a great experience. The only regret I had was that Cusack wasn’t on that team in front of his home crowd. I was very disappointed for him.”
Donie knew when it was time to retire from competitive athletics and he did so without any misgivings. “I packed it in around 1980. I’d a very high standard set for myself and I knew I couldn’t meet that as I got older. The Vets scene came on then and I thought it was a good thing initially. Looking back on it now I think the vet scene was a total disaster for the simple reason that people like myself (who like to coach but not compete) are being lost to the vet scene. They should be putting something back into the sport rather than training themselves.
I know many will disagree but I can’t see any point in a fella age 45-50 running 100 miles a week. For what like? Remember one thing. When you become a Vet there’s only one place you’re going and that’s flippin backwards. You’re not going to improve. As I said to myself, what’s this for? I didn’t want to go out there and be competitive then. I did it when I had to do it. I was happier putting a bit of time back into the sport you know. If we had more fellas putting time in we’d be better off, we’d have a better stable of athletes.”
True to his word, Donie has been an ever present at Leevale since his retirement. He has also become an insightful and shrewd observer of the athletic scene. “I have no regrets about my athletic career. There was no unfinished business. Of course you’d have a few disappointments. I never did get one of those prized Penn Relay watches. I ended up getting one from Marcus years later.
My worst memory would have been the 1972 Olympics. I went out there in great shape with a lot of quality training sometimes reaching 140 miles a week. The night before the marathon I got sick, I woke up and I sweated mad. I had to change my clothes three times. Sure I hadn’t a hope given the state I was in. That was the worst part really, knowing that I was in good shape and not being able to produce the goods was worse than anything else.
I preferred the cross country all the time. I had a great love for it. When I ran cross-country I went out hard. I made it hard for myself but it was just going to be as hard for the rest. It was a battle of wits all the time. If you got any bit of a lead in cross country it’s very hard for them to pull you back. I got great satisfaction when I won the 1978 Cross Country in Ballyfin. I hadn’t won a race in 14 months. I remember fellas up at the dog track on the Wednesday asking me how’s the form and I says go way and have a few bob on me Sunday. And a few of them backed me at 6/1 to win. When I was let loose in that race I was like a mad terrier crawling over them!”
After retirement Donie continued to coach. One of the athletes that came to his attention was a young Marcus O’ Sullivan. “Marcus was the only athlete I ever recommended to go to Villanova. If I thought anyone else was good enough I recommended them to go because I knew they would be looked after properly. We always kept in touch and when he became head coach at Villanova we’d kick ideas around. I never had to tell him much apart from ‘keep it simple. Don’t make it complicated. Kids won’t understand it. A lot of people have made athletics too complicated for people.”
Donie is indifferent to the trappings of athletic success. He lost the silver medal won in Limerick 1979. “ I don’t know where it’s gone,” he says. “I never kept any trophies around the house because I didn’t want to pressurise the kids. For years after the kids never knew that I ran the Olympics or anything. That changed when one of the young fellas came home from school (the Principal went to school with me in North Mon) and says, ‘Da,Teech told me that you ran in the Olympics. Is that true?’ I started laughing.
I wanted the lads to grow up normal like and do what they wanted to do themselves. My eldest fella Carl played soccer till he was 16. He came home one day and said he didn’t want to play soccer any more, that he wanted to go running. Within two years he won the All Ireland schools steeplechase, the All-Ireland junior steeplechase, and went off to America on a scholarship. He finished college and became a doctor. He loves it over there.”