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 racing flats. They are a screaming Irish green and stick out like neon lights.

It reminded me of the Sports Illustrated magazine cover I have on my office wall recording the moment from 1994 when Eamonn Coghlan broke the tape at the finish line to become the first man over the age of 40 to run a sub-four-minute mile.

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 is St. Patrick’s Day.

Before I honor these two Irish running legends let me first acknowledge another great Irish middle distance runner: Ron Delany.

Delany ran for legendary coach 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 team for the 1956 Olympics. Once he arrived in Melbourne, he qualified for the 1,500 meter final in which the Australian runner John Landy was the odds-on favorite.

Landy indeed set the pace as Delany fell in behind until the bell lap when he ran a brilliant 53.8 split to set a then Olympic record and took home Ireland’s first gold medal in 24 years.

I believe this is where the great Irish middle distance tradition really got wings. I was 12 years old in 1956, Eamonn Coghlan was 4 years old and Marcus O’Sullivan was born 5 years later.

Delany would go on to win 4 successive AAU titles in the mile, another 4 Irish national titles and 3 NCAA titles for Villanova and Jumbo Elliott.

Marcus O’Sullivan could not get into any Irish universities in his day, but would quickly become a world class runner for Jumbo Elliott at Villanova.

He would win 3 world indoor 1,500 meter titles, compete for Ireland in 4 Olympic games over a 12-year period, and run 101 sub-4-miniute-miles.

O’Sullivan was generally regarded as a better indoor than outdoor miler, winning the prestigious Wanamaker Mile in the Millrose Games at Madison Square Garden 5 times and setting the world indoor 1,500 meter record 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 competitive running career, O’Sullivan returned to Villanova and continues today as Villanova’s Head Coach for Cross-Country and Track.

Guess who also ran for Jumbo Elliott at Villanova? Eamonn Coghlan won 4 NCAA titles at Villanova in the 1,500 or the mile.

Coghlan ran his first sub-4-minute-mile in 1975, setting a new Irish record in 3:53.2.

Like Frank Sinatra in another venue, Eamonn Coghlan would become known as “The Chairman of the Boards” because of his success on 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 record in the indoor mile at 3:50.6 in 1981 and again at 3:49.78 in 1983, a record that would stand for 14 years until Morocco’s Hicham El Guerrouj ran 3:48.45 in 1997. Coghlan’s 1983 time still remains the fastest mile ever run in the United States, and 1 of only 3 sub-3:50 miles run on American soil.

Coghlan won a world outdoor title at 5,000 meters in 1983, but he was absolutely lights out devastating indoors. Coghlan was small compared to many of his competitors and perhaps his size gave him a minuscule advantage negotiating the tight turns on the boards indoors.

He also proved he could go up in distance, setting the record for the indoor 2,000 meters in 1987 at 4:54.07, which stood for 11 years until Haile Gebrselassie of Ethiopia ripped off a 4:52.86 in 1998.

Coghlan also had a bit of Irish mischievousness in him when he won the 5,000 meters at the outdoor world championships in 1983. He looked at his Russian competitor ahead of him with glee as he hit the last bend before the finish, knowing he could outsprint him, and then promptly ran the Russian into the ground as he blew by to win.

Eamonn Coghlan’s personal bests are eye-popping: 800 meters (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 at 1,500 meters in the 1976 Olympic Games and at 5,000 meters in the 1980 Olympic Games did nothing to enhance his sterling accomplishments.

He more than made up for it in 1994 when he returned to the boards at Harvard’s Albert J. Gordon indoor track and became the first man over 40 to break 4 minutes for the mile, running an astonishing 3:58.15 indoors.

Coghlan was 41 years old on the day he set the record. He ran more than a second faster than Englishman Roger Bannister in 1954 when he became the first ever to crack the 4-minute-mile barrier on an outdoor track.

It was a stunning moment in track and field history. Here was a man 40+ who had set the world indoor record at 3:49.78 in his prime, ran 74 sub-4-minute-miles, won 11 Irish titles and spend 30 years running competitively when it came to his last lap as fans cheered him on.

Eamonn Coghlan, like so many times before, came flying off on the final turn and sprinted for the tape and, as they say, the rest is history.

“It was like old times,” said Coghlan after the race. “Those last two laps brought it all back to me. My eardrums hurt from all the cheering, but my legs responded.”

He cited breaking the 4-minute-mile barrier indoors at 41 as his most pleasing moment, even better than the world records and the string of Wanamaker Mile victories at the Millrose Games.

It is my fond wish that the memories of these outstanding Irish middle distance runners outlast their records. Long live Ireland (Erin Go Bragh!) and the running of the green.

Copyright © 2007 Ed Bagley