Echo Sport Replay: McNamara- The giant of Irish athletics who ran from the soul

By Stephen Leonard

PRESSING on along the roads that ran into the heart of Limerick City on Sunday, April 11, 1976, his stride composed and his breathing remarkably steady, Jim McNamara was closing in on a dream.

To the applause of the crowd that lined the streets a couple of miles out from the finish line and with the voice of his younger brother, Mick trumpeting ‘Montreal Jim, Montreal!,’ the Donore Harriers athlete knew he was on course for a top-two finish in the National Marathon and, with it, a coveted berth on the Irish squad that was bound for the Summer Games in Canada just three months later.

Jim McNamara 1

The late Donore Harriers stalwart Jim McNamara was one of the true greats of Irish athletics, amassing a huge amount of national senior titles, representing Ireland in the 1976 Olympics and setting global records on his way to World and European Masters Championship honours

Given that the near 37-year-old was ranked outside the top ten marathon runners in the country at that time, McNamara’s achievement in finishing runner-up to Danny McDaid in a huge new personal best time of 2:14:54 was outstanding and it helped banish the bitter disappointment of having twice before missed out on qualification for the Olympics in both 1968 and ’72.

The Dubliner would continue on to finish a brilliant 39th in the Olympic marathon that year, beating, by just one place, the great American runner Bill Rodgers, a four-time winner of both the Boston and New York Marathons.

McNamara, himself, is widely regarded as one of the most inspirational figures of Irish athletics both for all that he achieved as a senior and masters runner and all that he gave back to the sport and his club as coach of the Donore Harriers ladies section right up until his passing in March of 2016, just shy of his 77th birthday.

With three straight National Marathon titles and as many Irish 3-Mile Track honours to his name, along with nine National Cross-Country Team Championships gold medals, he was unquestionably one of the most dominant figures in Irish athletics throughout the 1960s and early ‘70s.

Nevertheless, in the wake of two failed attempts at Olympic qualification, some might have believed his star was on the wane by the time he took to the streets of Limerick for the 1976 trials.

Yet McNamara batted any doubts regarding his ability to deliver on this occasion right out of the ball park with a most dogged performance that brought him home behind McDaid and ahead of local man Neil Cusack.

For McNamara’s brother, Mick, it was a day he would never forget as he told The Echo, “Jim was almost 37 then and so he was relatively old for marathon running at that time.

Jim McNamara 1966 1

Jim McNamara (213) leads a field that includes Paudi Lavelle, Tom O'Riordan, Tony Murphy and Frank Murphy, during the 1966 Amateur Athletic Union Championships in Santry Picture credit: Connolly Collection / SPORTSFILE

“So when he made the Olympics it was a big shock because most of the young guns like Tony Brien were coming through, and you also had the likes of Danny McDaid and Neil Cusack.

“The general feeling was that Jim had missed out on his opportunity to make the Olympics and it was now the turn of these young athletes who were expected to really perform on the day.

“We were all down in Limerick for that, the whole family. We were wishing it, but there were a lot of young guys coming through, guys who would have been expecting to make the team that year.

“But Jim hung on to qualify and that was sensational. To make the Olympics at that age was great.

“Although my sport was soccer and Gaelic, he encouraged me to run with the successful Donore youth teams and he had always encouraged me in my running career. 

Jim McNamara with fellow former Olympians Pat and Dick Hooper 1

Jim McNamara with fellow former Olympians Pat and Dick Hooper

“I shared in the disappointment of his failures to make the Olympics of 1968 and 1972, so when he finally qualified for the Olympic Marathon in Limerick in 1976, it was a day of great excitement for him and for all our family. I consider that day to be the greatest sporting day of my own life” he said.

As a young sickly child who had suffered with rheumatic fever and TB, there was very little in his early years to suggest a hugely successful sporting career lay ahead for McNamara.

Born in London to parents Margaret (Peg) Sullivan from Wexford and Michael (The Captain) McNamara from Limerick, Jim was the second of seven children behind his older brother Maurice, who himself sadly passed away in Australia only last month.

After the family moved to Dublin, McNamara took up Gaelic football with Naomh Fionnbarra GAA and joined Donore Harriers with whom he captured the Dublin Novice Cross-Country Championship.

Moving back to London in search of work, he ran with Thames Valley Harriers for three years before returning home to Dublin and linking back up with coach Eddie Hogan under whom he would enjoy great success over the following years.

Jim McNamara and the Donore Harriers womens team in 2013 1

The late Jim McNamara and the Donore Harriers Athletic Club women’s team in 2013

“Jim did everything from mile to marathon, so that just showed you his range” remarked Anne Curley, one of Donore’s top athletes whom Jim coached to National Championship success.

“He was going for the Olympic marathon in 1968 in Mexico, but he blew it in the trials, going out too hard and Mick Molloy, who was a fantastic marathon runner of the time, beat him. So he missed out.

“You see Jim just ran from the heart. It was just the way he ran. Runners now are running to the watch and they're much more calculating. Jim would just run from the soul.

“A lot of the times he just blew a lot of his races, but he couldn't run any other way. And he always said 'Ah well, I took a chance.' He just ran with such honesty.”

One of the many great athletes who can attest to that is 1964 Olympian Derek Graham from Northern Ireland.

The late Jim McNamara pictured with his daughter Andrea and grandchildren Brian and Jade when he was inducted into The Echo Sports Hall of Fame in 2014 1

The late Jim McNamara pictured with his daughter Andrea and grandchildren Brian and Jade when he was inducted into The Echo Sports Hall of Fame in 2014

“Jim had been trying to finish ahead of me since our paths first crossed around 1960” explained Graham.

“And he had the opportunity to beat me in 1966 when running as team mates for Ireland, but he refused to do so.

“He knew I was in difficulty with a stitch and he ran alongside me, encouraging me and then he pushed me into position to finish before him.

“He explained after that he wanted to beat me on true form and not take advantage in such circumstances.

“After the 1967 split in Irish athletics we were unable to compete as team mates, but our friendship continued until Jim’s death. He was a true gentleman and I was so privileged and grateful to have been his friend” he said.

Jim McNamara was a true giant of Irish athletics 1

Jim McNamara was a true giant of Irish athletics

It was a game of football with a few friends that put paid to any chances of McNamara making the cut for the Munich Olympics in 1972 as Anne Curley explained

“A few days leading up to the trials, he was resting up and was just bored and he saw a group of pals out playing football.

“And sure he went out and had a hard game and I think he injured his knee or pulled a muscle and he wasn't able to run. So that was that chance gone” she sighed.

These were two major setbacks for an athlete who had otherwise mopped up so much on the domestic front and represented Ireland at high-end senior internationals.

“He competed in the World Cross Country in Ostend in Belgium in 1965, Rabat in Morocco in 1966, Wales in 1967 and San Sebastian in 1971” continued Anne.

Jim McNamara was hugely proud of the achievements of the Donore Harriers womens team 1

Jim McNamara was hugely proud of the achievements of the Donore Harriers women's team

“He won the National Marathon in 1964, '65 and 66 and also held the National 3-Mile title at that time as well, 1964, '65 and '67.

“Jim would run hard and also liked to drink, as it was for the time. He was a working class man. He was doing hard physical jobs, jobs that didn't suit his running.

“But this year in 1976 he really committed to his running in a way that he hadn't before. He said he put in three hard months, training with the Hoopers, Pat and Dick, and he wouldn't drink. It got him into really good shape.

“At the time he was ranked only about the 12th best marathon runner in the country so people weren't really expecting him to do anything in the Olympic trials.

“But Danny McDaid came in first, Jim was second and Neil Cusack was third.

“His family were all there that day. His dad was from Limerick, so it was nice that it happened there. He was delighted. It was his dream to get to the Olympics and he got it when he probably didn't expect it.

“He finished 39th in the Montreal Olympics Marathon and was the first Irish man home in 2.24. He also finished ahead of one of the favourites Bill Rodgers from America” she smiled.

While 1976 was undoubtedly a high water mark in his career so far, McNamara would endure some very tough times in the following years.

A bitterly rough experience in the Boston Marathon when he found himself lying down between two cars at the 20-mile point was followed by the tragic passing of his wife Betty at just 39-years-old.

A distraught McNamara was left to raise their three young children, James, Shane and Andrea, but athletics helped see him through the most difficult periods.

“My mother passed away when she was 39” said Shane McNamara. “It was very rough for my father. We were very young, but he was a World champion father.

“Even though he devoted his life to running, he was very much a devoted father as well. He was someone we very much looked up to and idolised for everything he did, what he achieved and what he gave back to athletics.”

Tentatively emerging from that horrendous period in his life, McNamara embarked on a new phase of his sporting career that would lead him to even more success as a master.

Indeed by the time he passed away in 2016, he had chalked up a massive haul of 12 gold, five silver and four bronze medals at European and World Masters Championships

“In a weird way, his career, he often said, really took off as a master athlete even though he had already gone to the Olympics” recalled Anne.

“His first European Masters Championship was in Strasbourg in 1982 and he won gold in both the Over 40 1500m and 5000m.

“In 1984 he went to the European Masters in Brighton and he won gold in all his three events in the Over 45 division and was named the ‘Man of the Games’.

“He still holds the National Over 45 1500m record of 3.59 which would have been a world record at the time. That will be hard to beat.

“Seven of his times are still Irish masters records today, including the Over 45 5000m which he did in 14.48.

“His time of 31.50 for the Over 50 10,000m was a world record at the time too and is still a national record today as are his Over 50 1500m and 5000m times.

“He was training with fellas half his age, doing 200s and 400s and he was killing them all on the track.

“And the coach at that stage, Noel Redican, who was a cousin of his, said 'Look Jim, you're demoralising all my athletes. It's ridiculous at 50. Even the 20-year-olds can't beat you.'

“But the next night he went training and took a turn on the track in Belfield, collapsed and was taken to hospital.

“He was diagnosed with arrhythmia, irregular heartbeat, so the doctor told him he'd have to really lay off and it looked as if his running was over, but, knowing Jim, it wasn't.

“He wasn't going to let it go and he got back training, but he was never quite the same after that.

“When he was running well he did coach Gwen Stanley. She was the first girl he ever coached and she won the Dublin Novice in '88 and had a lot of underage track titles.

“In the club, Jim's coach Eddie Hogan had passed away and the women's group was, for a time, coached by Noel Redican and Ursula Phelan, but that all fell apart. So there was a women's group there that no one was looking after and Jim just decided in 1995 that he was going to take them over.

“They were of mixed abilities, some were good and some were very slow, but he said 'No, I'm going to look after them' and he just took them under his wing and he had some great success.

“They got National Novice Team gold and National Intermediate silver in 1996. That was the start of it.

“There were pretty decent runners there like Josephine Killeen, Geraldine Ward, Anna Quill and Kelly Byrne, but he also looked after the Meet and Train group, the more novice runners.

“Jim always had that mix of elite and ordinary runners which was unusual at the time because most coaches were only interested in elite” she pointed out.

Anne’s sister Florence, who also competed under the tutelage of McNamara, echoed those sentiments, saying “Jim wasn't an elitist at all. He had no favourites. He was interested in everyone and he believed in everyone.

“He spent so much time on his phone, ringing people, texting people, meeting people for a coffee, encouraging them.

“He just put so much time into us, such devotion, hours and hours out in the cold, going to races all over Ireland, from Derry to Kerry to Wexford to Galway, all in his own time and at his own expense, at the expense of his own family commitments.

“And we became a force to be reckoned with. Any Donore women's team was formidable and we were always in the mix for the medals” she recalled.

During his time as Donore women’s coach, the club made the National Senior Cross Country Team Championship podium three times.

They won bronze in Santry in 2005 and again in Belfast in 2008 before going one step better with silver the following year back in Santry.

“2005 was the first time the Donore women had won a National Cross Country team medal and that was a real breakthrough for the club.” remembered Anne.

“Jolene Byrne won the race and then there was Adrienne Jordan, myself and Fiona Mahon, with Mary McDermott and Karen Jackson closing the team.

“We won bronze again in 2008 in Belfast and the scorers that time were Fiona, Adrienne, myself and Samantha Conroy. In 2009 we won National Team silver back in Santry with the same team.

“Jim always wanted to get that gold and I'm always sad that we didn't manage to do it, but we got two bronze and a silver and they're so hard to win. I mean, we haven't won one since 2009 so it shows you how hard they are to win.

“During the 21 years he was coaching the women, we won seven national titles and 15 silver and bronze medals on the road over those years.

“In cross country, novice and intermediate, there would have been a ton of medals, county, provincial and national” she added.

“I've never been a top flight senior runner I think it's fair to say” admitted Florence. “But I've got certain achievements that I'm proud of, and one of the things I'm most proud of is just working with Jim in those years to bring back those medals and encourage people.

“We spoke on the phone every single day about what are we doing this week? what team are we putting in?

“I was happy to help him get everyone to achieve and just get the best out of themselves. I was working with him to do that, but he was the engine of it all” she stressed.

Yet both his family and the club were left reeling when the news filtered through that McNamara had been diagnosed with cancer in November 2015.

It was a heart-breaking blow for the athlete himself and all those he inspired, but nevertheless, the man who had dominated Irish athletics in the 1960s, represented Ireland on the Olympic stage in the ‘70s, broke global records on his way to World and European Masters titles in the ‘80s and led the women’s section of Donore to unprecedented heights from the mid-’90s on, was determined to bow out on his own terms.

“Even after hearing that awful diagnosis, Jim raced his last race in the British and Irish Masters Cross Country in Santry” remembered Anne.

“It was a horribly wet day. I don't know how he even got the mental strength to do it. We were worried about him going into this, worried that he could collapse.

“But it was one of his best runs in his last few years. He somehow just ran out of himself that day. I think his body just gave that one last push, that big effort on that day.

“He was the first Irish man home in his M75 age group and the team won bronze. It was just so emotional, we were all crying. In one way he went out on a high.”

For McNamara’s son Shane, that image of his 76-year-old father pressing ahead towards the finish line in the driving wind and rain and in the knowledge that this would likely be the final race of his life, should come as no surprise to anyone who knew him.

“In running, my father was a very tough character, totally different to what he was like in life. He was very much a gentleman, but a very tough and battle-hardened character to race against.

“My father had to work manual labour jobs on building sites, in the hospital, and had to try and run as a full time athlete.

“He liked to drink as well. He loved the ballads and the session and the drink. That was part and parcel of his life.

“But, can you imagine athletes today trying to hold down a manual labour job and run full time? It's unthinkable. And for that, his achievements are all the more remarkable” he said.

“When I think of Jim, he stood for everything that's good in sport, clean, honest, hard work, integrity, talent” said Florence

“From a coaching point of view, it was just that sheer kindness, belief, dedication, devotion. They were his qualities. I don't think anybody loved running as much as Jim. He was everything that was best about the sport.”

Donore Harriers Director Maurice Ahern paid tribute to his fellow club stalwart, saying “Jim dedicated himself to athletics as a great athlete and coach.

“He encouraged people like myself, when moving up into the senior team, just that quiet word of encouragement before the start to calm the nerves.

“Of course he always led by example and it was an honour to be on the same team as him whenever I was fortunate enough” he added.

“Every club official knew Jim” recalled Anne. “He was at every race the length and breadth of the country. That friendly face.

“Girls from other clubs would tell you, he'd be the only other coach who'd be cheering for them as well as their own. That just shows you the character of the man, that attitude, just to champion everyone as well as his own. He just radiated love and fairness and decency.

“A light did go out in the athletics community and the club that March of 2016. There are still great people there, but he was a special light, he truly was.”

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