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N.Y. runners recall one of their own: Pete McArdle

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Dave Hannigan

They celebrated the small legend of an Irishman called Pete McArdle again on the last Sunday in November. One hundred or so hardy enthusiasts braved the wind and rain to run 9.3 miles through Van Cortlandt Park in his honor. Fifteen years ago, McArdle suffered a heart attack and died on this undulating stretch of ground in the Bronx and the New York Road Runners’ Club devised this annual event as a way of paying homage to his memory. At the finish line, every participant files past a plaque that bears his name.

McArdle came to America from Louth in 1956, 27 years old and with several Irish distance titles already to his credit. Blaming the internecine squabbling between the different athletic bodies back home for his lack of progress on the international front, he eventually took out U.S. citizenship and enjoyed a late-blooming representative career. A stunning victory over a star-studded field in the 10,000 meters at the 1963 Pan American Games in Brazil was to prove the high point.

"He was a great champion," wrote Frank P. Lucianna, a contemporary of his. "McArdle’s graceful stride and trim form never failed to evoke admiration in all who saw him run. More than that, he was a considerate and warm-hearted human being who, above the strife and tumult of the race, never forgot to help others. A very fine gentleman, he left behind a legacy of good will and sportsmanship that will endure."

The Pan-American triumph seemed to tee McArdle up nicely for a place on the U.S. team for the following year’s Olympics but he was surprisingly beaten in the 10,000 trials and only qualified for the marathon. Closing in on his 35th birthday, he finally made his debut on the highest stage, finishing 23rd in the marathon at the Tokyo Games in 1964, a marvelous achievement given that he was running in spite of a case of acute tendonitis that all but forced his retirement.

"The little man in the Fifth Avenue Bus yards, oil smeared and working under one of those noxious-smelling monsters, has a case of itchy feet," declared the March 1965 edition of Long Distance Log. "His name is Pete McArdle, a small, dried-up looking man and he doesn’t smile very much. He gets paid $130 a week for being a mechanic, but what he really is, down where his juices flow, is a runner. He’s devoted his life to running and all he ever got out of it was some hardware you can’t hock and tendonitis in the legs so bad there are some days he can’t walk, much less run."

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McArdle’s was a different, more Corinthian era, a period when serious athletes still juggled jobs with sporting passions. He began his working life in New York washing the grime off the city bus fleet before graduating to the ranks of the mechanics. His co-workers supplemented their income by doing odd jobs after their shift had ended, but his spare time was already spoken for, every minute sacrificed in the hope of some day getting to an Olympics.

"This guy Joe McClusky was supposed to help me when I got here, but he was no help at all," McArdle said in 1965. "I thought he was a big American who would help me, but all I did was wash buses for three years. Those were supposed to be the best years of my career and I never had a chance. I should have gone to college, but I was pretty dumb and green. Later on, nobody wanted me, maybe because I was bald or something. Just to look at me, I don’t look like much."

His lack of physique and profile caused him various problems. His daily training runs through Van Cortlandt Park could be perilous affairs as the local kids enjoyed hurling debris at passing joggers. He loved to tell the story of the time he stared down one juvenile miscreant who flung a tin can in his direction. The police were called that day as the teenager brazenly accused McArdle of pulling a knife. Just before they asked him to come down to the station to explain himself, one of the cops recognized his face from the papers and sent him on his way.

In truth, McArdle should have pulled out of the U.S. team for Tokyo. The injury was already bad enough to warrant that, but he kept the pain to himself, unable to give up his shot at Olympic glory. Thereafter, he gave up serious running before returning to the sport with gusto almost two decades later. The same doggedness that hallmarked his first career was still evident and soon he clocked 34 minutes and 8 seconds for the 10,000 an age-group record for the over-55s. A second coming that promised so much was cut short when his heart gave out one June evening in 1985 as he trundled along his favorite route through Van Cortlandt Park.

"He died doing what he loved best," said his wife Barbara, the mother of his four children, and everybody who knew Pete McArdle agreed.

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