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March 15, 2018

Five Ways Track Fans Can Celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, plus The Weekend’s Best Matchups

Jesse Squire’s Thursday Morning Trackstravaganza and Field Frenzy runs every Thursday morning at Citius Mag. You can follow him on Twitter at @tracksuperfan.

FIVE WAYS TRACK FANS CAN CELEBRATE ST. PATRICK’S DAY

St. Patrick’s Day is coming up on Saturday. My 22-year-old self might have been at the bars that open at 5:30am, but I and my achilles tendon can tell you I most certainly am not 22 years old any more. In what other ways can I, a track fan and/or runner, more sedately celebrate the day?

WEAR VILLANOVA GEAR
Ireland has produced some great runners over the years, and a large portion of them crossed the Atlantic and ran for the Villanova Wildcats in what they called the “Irish pipeline”.

The whole relationship started at the 1948 Olympics, where Irish sprinter Jimmy Reardon befriended Villanovans George Guida and Browning Ross. Then-Wildcat head coach Jumbo Elliot offered him a scholarship along with two others, miler John Joe Barry and thrower Cummin Clancy. Dozens more came over the next seven decades.

Ireland’s only Olympic champion in the distance events was Ronnie Delaney. He won the 1500 meters at the 1956 Games in Melbourne, just a few months after winning his first NCAA mile championship for Villanova. He went on to win three more NCAA titles (two mile, one 880). He was dominant indoors and had a 40 race winning streak on the boards, including four world indoor records.

Two more great Irish men ran for Villanova, Eamonn Coghlan and Marcus O’Sullivan, and both were great indoor runners just like Delaney. Coghlan was a four-time NCAA champion and broke the world indoor mile record three times. He made three Olympic teams and twice finished just out of the medals, and finally broke through and won gold in the 5000 at the 1983 World Championships. O’Sullivan never won an NCAA title but made four Olympic teams and won three golds at the World Indoor Championships, and is now the head coach at Villanova. Coghlan and Sullivan still hold a world record: they ran the first two legs on Ireland’s 4 x mile relay team in 1985, when they ran 15:49.08 in Dublin.

The greatest Irish runner of all time, though, is doubtlessly Sonia O’Sullivan. She was a five-time NCAA champion for Villanova and, over a 15-year span, was internationally competitive over distances ranging from 1500 meters to the marathon. She has only a few gold medals to show for it, the 1995 Worlds 5k and both long- and short-course World Cross Country in 1998, but she was handicapped by racing against a cadre of opponents who were pretty clearly doped to the gills. She is among the nation’s best-loved sporting heroes.

There are other options if you don’t have any Villanova gear: Providence, Arkansas, and even East Tennessee.

Providence’s list of great Irish runners includes brothers Ray and John Treacy (current head coach and ’84 Olympic marathon silver medalist respectively), Keith Kelly, Sarah Collins, Mary Cullen, Marie McMahon, Geraldine Hendricken, Sinead Delahunty, Martin Fagan, Mark Carroll, Gerard Deegan, and Richard O’Flynn.

Arkansas’ longtime head coach was John McDonnell, a native of County Mayo, so it’s no surprise that some top Irish talent came to run for him. The greatest was Alistair Cragg, a seven-time NCAA champion and three-time Irish Olympian. Other notable Irish Razorbacks were Niall Bruton, Niall O’Shaughnessy, David Taylor, and Paul Donovan.

Among the first universities to base their entire cross country team around foreign talent was East Tennessee in the early 70s. Coach David Walker’s “Irish Brigade” took second at the 1972 NCAA cross country championships with five Irish runners: Neil Cusack, Ray McBride, Kevin Breen, and brothers P.J. and Eddie Leddy. Another ETSU alum is Ray Flynn, one of the top milers of the 80s and one of today’s top agents.

READ A BOOK
Calmly sitting down and reading a book is not a traditional way to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, but maybe it should be.

The King of Spring: The Life and Times of Peter O’Connor is an excellent look at what track and field was like at the turn of the 20th century. The subject broke the world long jump record several times, the last of which was 24′ 11¾” (7.61m) and stood as the record from 1901 to 1921 (and stood as an Irish record well into the 1990s). He was also a standout high jumper and triple jumper.

The great thing about this book is getting to really understand how different field events were at the time. To say that they were rudimentary is an understatement. For example, a long jump “pit” was nearly always a plot of turf turned over with a spade just for the day’s competition. And much of Ireland was producing top field event talent, including the world’s best throwers (more on that later). But Ireland was not an independent nation until 1922, well after O’Connor’s career was over, and that Irish nationalism constrained at events such as the Olympics is a large theme of the book. It’s a fascinating read.

DRINK A PINT OF GUINNESS
Don’t mind if I do! But how does this relate to track and field?

Doubtlessly you’re aware that Guinness has long sponsored a book of world records. It holds a world record itself as the best-selling reference book of all time. But you may not know how it began. In 1951 Sir Hugh Beaver, then the managing director of Guinness breweries, found that he could not settle a dispute that arose on a huting trip regarding the fastest gamebird in Europe. He was inspired to create a book to address that kind of question. But the idea didn’t go anywhere until Guinness employee Chris Chataway—one of the men who paced Roger Bannister to the first sub-4:00 mile—suggested brothers Norris and Ross McWhirter. They were research specialists whose hobbies included cofounding the Association of Track and Field Statisticians. Everyone was taken by surprise when the book became a runaway hit.

But while Guinness is an Irish invention and product, the men who worked on the book were not, and the relationship between the Brits and the Irish has at time been, um, strained. Ross McWhirter was active in right-wing politics and advocated restrictions on the freedom of the Irish in the UK, in a manner reminiscent of today’s right-wingers wish to do regarding Muslims. This was during the height of The Troubles and the IRA assassinated McWhirter in 1975.

So sip your Guinness and have a good time but if you order an Irish Car Bomb and think the name is funny, just remember that more than 3,600 people lost their lives in three decades of senseless violence.
WATCH YOUTUBE
When we Americans think of Ireland we often picture a rural, pastoral environment. That’s not how most Irish live today, though. Nearly 40% of the country lives within the greater Dublin area.

In the video below, JuJu Jay explains his desire to move out of Dublin and into the countryside in search of a less complicated life. Shortly after doing so he began running because it, too, made his life better. Not easier, but better. The video shows he and his friends, the Mud, Sweat, & Runners, running Ireland’s Wicklow Way, the most popular of the nation’s long-distance paths. Tool around on Youtube and you can find many other examples of runners sharing Ireland’s stunning beauty – and you won’t even have to suffer through its often cold, windy, and wet weather.

SPORT THE WINGED FIST
Around the time that Peter O’Connor was competing in Ireland, his Irish-American counterparts in New York started up one of the most dominant track and field clubs of all time. Initially known as the Greater New York Irish Athletic Association, they later shortened it to the Irish-American Athletic Club. Their symbol was a winged fist with the inscription “Láim Láidir Abú” (A strong fist is victorious).

Back then, the nation’s few permanent track and field facilities were built and maintained by the athletic clubs that formed the Amateur Athletic Union. By 1898 the IAAC built Celtic Park in Queens and made it into one of the world’s best training and competition facilities. And they assembled a formidable club.

The best of the club were some of the “Irish Whales”, the Irish and Irish-American athletes who dominated the throwing events at the time. Every Olympic hammer throw champion from 1896 through 1920 was a member of the IAAC, as well as several discus and shot put champions.

The IAAC was no one-trick pony, though. They were good at all events. They won ten out of thirteen AAU club championships between 1904 and 1916, and members won 56 Olympic medals between 1900 and 1912, including 26 golds.

The heart of the team was of Irish heritage, but they recruited and accepted athletes based on their abilities rather than their ethnicity. Many Jewish athletes were members, including Myer Prinstein and Abel Kiviat. Blacks were welcome too; John Baxter Taylor, Jr, the first African-American Olympic gold medalist, was a member. Compared to the New York Athletic Club, which still had a ban against Jewish and black membership into the 1960s, the IAAC was unusually progressive.

The club began to fall apart after the USA’s entry into World War I disrupted athletic competition, and the club’s grounds at Celtic Park were sold off for public housing in 1930. But you can still buy Winged Fist merchandise at Café Press thanks to the efforts of the Winged Fist organization.

THE WEEKEND’S BEST MATCHUPS

For several weeks my column here at CITIUS Mag has been an attempt to steal the style and format of Drew Magary’s Thursday Afternoon NFL Dick Joke Jambaroo at Deadspin.com. I feel as though I’m not doing Magary justice nor playing to my own strengths.

I am first and foremost a fan. I write because I’m excited about some track meet coming up, or I daydream about some track related thing, or I think way too deeply about some topic only tangentially related to track. It appears that some readers find these things entertaining and/or informative. Thank you for reading.

Basically every week at my previous writing gigs I did something called The Weekend’s Best Matchups. It came about because what I really care about is competition and I didn’t feel there was enough attention paid to that aspect of track and field. I think I’ve been hammering away on this idea for about a decade now and it’s finally gained some traction. So I thought I’d try my hand at writing something else…but I found myself more or less writing out a list of the coming weekend’s best matchups anyway just for my own benefit.

So I’m changing up the format here and going back to it. You’ll find a list of what I think are the most interesting competitions in the upcoming weekend along with a who/what/when/where/why/how to watch for each.

Veterans vs a rookie
Men’s race, New York City Half Marathon
Sunday at 7:30am

Watch via ESPN3

This race has most of the top American men’s half marathon talent, plus a rookie making his first attempt at the distance.

The best half-marathoner in the USA right now is probably Galen Rupp, followed closely by Leonard Korir and Sam Chelanga. Rupp ran in Italy last weekend and Korir and Chelanga are running in the IAAF World Half Marathon Championships next weekend. Pretty much everyone else in the top dozen or so Americans is here: Abdi Abdirahman, Shadrack Biwott, Andrew Bumbalough, Chris Derrick, Noah Droddy, Scott Fauble, Haron Lagat, Matt Llano, Tim Ritchie, Parker Stinson, Tim Young, and the umpteenth comeback version of Dathan Ritzenhein.

The rookie is Ben True, who has been just almost good enough to make US national teams on the track; fourth in the 5000 and 10,000 at the 2013 USA Championships and fifth in the 5000 at the 2016 Olympic Trials. When he did make a national team he made an impact: 6th at the 2015 IAAF World Championships 5000 meters, and 6th at the 2013 IAAF World Cross Country Championships.

Tom Walsh vs Everybody
The Big Shot
Kilmore & Durham Streets, Christchurch NZL
Friday, 5:30pm local time (Thursday at 11:30pm ET)

Meet website

Tom Walsh is the reigning World indoor and outdoor shot put champion and riding a hot streak at the moment. He’s hosting a series of three elite shot put competitions; one was on Wednesday, one tomorrow, and one next week. His opponents include the USA’s Ryan Whiting and Poland’s Konrad Bukowiecki, plus others getting ready for next month’s Commonwealth Games in Australia: Jamaica’s O’Dayne Richards, Australia’s Damien Birkenhead, and Canada’s Tim Nedow.

Prairie View vs Texas Southern
Men’s 4×400 Relay, Texas Southern Relays
Alexander Durley Stadium, Houston TX
Saturday, 6:00pm local time (7:00pm ET)

Meet website

Most of the teams at the Texas Southern Relays are HBCUs from the Texas-Arkansas-Louisiana area. Just one month ago Prairie View edged out Texas Southern to win this event at the SWAC Championships and it’s rematch time.

RANDOM THOUGHTS, NEWS, AND NOTES

There were a ton of records at last weekend’s NCAA Indoor Championships and that drew the lion’s share of the attention. Some things you may not have noticed…

The women’s high jump final went to a jumpoff between Cincinnati’s Loretta Blaut and North Carolina’s Nicole Greene, and it took seven attempts to resolve. Seven! The first four were misses by both (with the bar dropping 2 cm after each), then both made a height, then both had a miss, before the championship was finally decided a 1.82m. Each woman took sixteen jumps in the competition, which is a massive amount for a high jumper.

The women’s long jump had a qualifier that maybe shouldn’t have been. Minnesota’s Ayesha Champagnie qualified with 6.56 meters (21′ 6¼”) at the Minnsesota-Wisconsin dual meet, a mark that puts her in the world’s top 20 for the 2018 indoor season. She had never before even reached 19 feet (5.80), and her best jump for the rest of the year was 5.95 (19′ 6¼”). Two-foot outliers aren’t unheard of (see: Beamon, Bob) but definitely are unusual. But, according to TFN message board member BWC, another jumper in the competition claims the measurement was misread as an error (first digit recorded as a “6” instead of a “5”), and both Champagnie and her coach were award of the error — and the officials refused to correct it when the other competitors brought the error to their attention. Champagnie fouled three times on Friday and finished last. Situations like this are one reason why the IAAF is going away from single-mark qualifying for its championships.

Mount Union won their first indoor men’s Division III championship on Saturday. The Purple Raiders were 1 point behind North Central going into the 4×400. They won the first heat and had to sweat out the second; if North Central posted a faster time then their goose was cooked. Mount Union held on thanks to a blistering 46.88 from their anchor, who had been DQed from the 400 final. This is that anchor leg:

Yes, anchor leg AJ Digby is a paralympian.

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