This pilgrimage, as we all know, is the annual New York City Marathon, a riot of color and festivity, now in its 32nd year. It is also one of the most celebrated and competitive running events on the planet.
For followers of Irish distance running — the sport is, after all, embedded in the Emerald Isle’s DNA — this year’s NYC Marathon will offer cause for singular excitement. For the first time since the event’s founding, there is a strong possibility of a front-end showing by Irish competitors in BOTH the men’s and women’s divisions.
Back in 1988, Waterford’s John Treacy, a two-time World Cross Country champion and the silver medallist in the marathon at the 1984 Olympic Games, raced home to place third in New York in a time of 2:13:18. Fourteen years later, it is distinctly possible that one, if not two, Irish competitors may surpass the legendary Treacy’s accomplishment.
Greatest attention will focus on the big-time marathon debut of Sonia O’Sullivan. As an Olympic silver medallist (over 5,000 meters in Sydney in 2000) and as a multi-world champion, the 32-year-old native of Cobh, Co. Cork, can mount a powerful claim to be the greatest track and field competitor in Irish history. She made an unofficial debut over the 26.2-mile distance in Dublin in 2000, entering the event just the day before, running in training shoes, but still winning in a 2:35:42. In contrast, O’Sullivan’s New York appearance will be deadly serious.
“I’m not thinking about time,” O’Sullivan said when announcing her participation in September. “The competition and the race are much more important to me than the clock.”
Nonetheless, O’Sullivan will have to run more than 10 minutes faster than her Dublin time if she is to contest for the victory in New York. Toeing the line alongside her will be the 2000 NYC Marathon winner, Ludmila Petrova, from Russia, and defending champion Margaret Okayo, from Kenya. Okayo recorded a time of 2:24:21 in taking the New York laurels last year and 2:20:43 in winning in Boston in April of this year. Further testimony to the speed O’Sullivan will have to bring to this race lies in the fact that her perennial rival on the track, Great Britain’s Paula Radcliffe, clocked a world record of 2:17:48 in Chicago on Oct. 13.
“I ran the Dublin Marathon as a one off,” O’Sullivan explained. “It’s only in the last couple of months that I’ve thought about what it really means to run a marathon.”
O’Sullivan, of course, has countless weapons in her arsenal — enormous strength and great speed, and a competitive temperament that is legendary in international track circles — all of which indicate that she can produce a marathon of world-class proportions. This year alone, after the birth of her second child, Sophie, in January, she has produced some of the fastest track times of her career, including an Irish 10,000 meter record of 30:47.59, while also competing superbly on the roads. Most recently, in the Great North Run half marathon in England, a race with 47,000 participants, O’Sullivan blistered to victory in a time of 1 hour, 7 minutes and 19 seconds. Earlier in the autumn she raced to a world 10-mile record of 51:00.
Such form illustrates that O’Sullivan has the ability and the fitness to claim the first-ever Irish victory at the New York City Marathon; however, it is not inconceivable that, when she reaches the finish line, she may be the second Irish winner of the day. Also making his New York debut is Mark Carroll, like O’Sullivan a native of Cork and a competitor with intimidating credentials over the shorter distances. Since his days as a collegiate standout at Providence College, Carroll, now 30, has vied with the best in the world in European and world championships and in the Olympic Games. In that time he has won a European indoor title at 3,000 meters, set Irish records at 3,000 (7:30.36), 5,000 (13:03.93) and 10,000 meters (27:46.82), and taken the gold medal in the Wanamaker Mile in the prestigious Millrose Games in Madison Square Garden.
But Carroll has also illustrated great dexterity on the roads. Especially illuminating was his victory in the Grete’s Great Gallop Half Marathon in New York City’s Central Park on Oct. 6. Carroll combined this race with the official announcement of his Marathon participation. As if placing an exclamation mark after the announcement, he went out and soloed to a 3 minute victory in 1:03:11. In places, he covered the very asphalt over which he will race Nov. 3. Comparable dominance is inconceivable. Comparable placement, though? Well, that’s possible.
“I plan to run a 2:06 or 2:07 marathon before my career is out,” Carroll said. The rolling New York course may not be the venue in which that happens, but the Corkman will almost certainly have his sights set on John Treacy’s Irish record of 2:09:18, set in Boston in 1988. “I see New York as a great place to make my marathon debut,” Carroll said. “I’d like to run a great debut here. I love New York. I feel very comfortable running longer distances. Training is easy, running slower than I usually do. I feel confident about running a marathon.”
To place at the forefront of the field, however, Carroll will have to cope with an intimidating array of African competitors who have dominated international marathon running over the last 10 years. Among these will be defending champion, Tesfaye Jifar of Ethiopia and this year’s Boston winner, Rodgers Rop of Kenya. “I don’t want to pick a time,” Carroll said. “I want to compete well. That is my foremost goal.”
In making his debut in New York, Carroll is emulating a man that he has been emulating his entire athletic career. There is no greater icon in Irish track and field than Eamonn Coghlan. The Dubliner, who will turn 50 on Nov. 21, placed fourth twice in the Olympic Games, won a world 5,000 title in 1983, claimed the Wanamaker Mile title a historic seven times, set a world indoor mile record of 3:49.78 and remains the only man in history to have run a sub-4-minute mile after the age of 40. Coghlan made his marathon debut in New York in 1991 — running 2:25:13 for 42nd position — and returns this year for his first serious attempt at the distance since then. Though he has no hopes of running as fast as he did 11 years ago, Coghlan’s objective remains impressive.
“I won’t be trying to run 2:25,” he stated from Dublin last week. “I’ll be looking for something about half an hour slower — round about 2:55. As I approach the half century, I realize that it’s not as easy to flog my body around the roads as I used to do 25 years ago.”
Coghlan will be leading a group of 120 runners from Ireland who are hoping to raise in the region of euro 500,000 for the Children’s Medical and Research Foundation at Our Lady’s Hospital For Sick Children in Crumlin, outside Dublin. This is the 10th anniversary of the occasion on which Coghlan first brought this group to run in New York, a milestone that prompted his desire to contest the distance once again. “I’ve done a few 20 milers and a lot of 15 milers over the last six months,” Coghlan said.
Inevitably, the Irish legend also brings a singular insight to the aspirations of both O’Sullivan and Carroll.
“This will be a special year for the Irish in New York,” he said. “Sonia and I were in communication about three weeks ago. At the end of our conversation, she said, ‘Have you got any advice for me?’ I told her that the New York Marathon is like no other in the world. It’s so easy to get carried away with the excitement. You have to be very disciplined and run the exact splits that you want to run. If you don’t, you’ll pay for it in the last six miles.”
Coghlan offers similar cautionary advice to Carroll: “I know Mark’s objective is to break John Treacy’s Irish record. That’s going to be very difficult, as the marathon is something really, really special. I wouldn’t go out to break the record, I’d go out to win the race — then the record will come.”
At stake in this year’s New York City Marathon is a first place prize of $80,000 plus a Pontiac Vibe. The elite women’s race starts on Sunday at 10:35 a.m.; the elite men and the masses start at 11:10. Will the Irish sweep the men’s and women’s laurels? For the first time in the race’s 32-year history, the answer is, definitely maybe.