“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes – and ships – and sealing-wax
Of cabbages – and kings
And why the sea is boiling hot
And whether pigs have wings.”
‘The Walrus and The Carpenter’
So, a while back, when I started out on this unironed journey, I promised to tell some tales of races past. And so today, being a bank holiday, I need few excuses to while away an hour or so trawling through the dregs of events long gone.
I was never much of a runner, but I was always athletic in school. I owe my interest to running to the late Matt Cunningham, who was instrumental in getting Leixlip kids out into a field, and some onto the track. Matt was a legend. And so was his late wife Mary. The Cunninghams were neighbours when my brother and I were nippers, and we lived in ‘the big house’ on the Lane, and the Cunninghams – a family of five – grew up in one of the cottages a few doors down. As I type this today, I am looking out my home/office window in the same row of cottages. Across the road, outside the fire station, is an old cast iron pump. I say ‘pump’ but in reality, these were the later versions of the old hand-cranked pumps. Essentially, they were taps; a place to get mains running water, and they were public, and they were free. These days (long before Irish Water came into being), the local authorities started shutting these down. Alas, they did so in a fairly ugly fashion by removing the cast, round lids and pouring concrete down into the innards, lest anyone should feel the urge to help themselves. The original hand-cranked ones are now a pretty penny in salvage yards, and if they appear in a village these days, they are purely ornamental, and are often features of flower beds and shrubberies.
Well, in those days (and I am talking about the seventies), this was the only place the Cunninghams and other cottage-dwellers could get their water, and I still recall Mattie getting a pail of water and shaving with a cut-throat razor.
I enjoyed sports of all kinds, and though I started out in teams, I seemed to gravitate towards individual events, like badminton. By the time I had reached my twenties, all thoughts of sports were so far in the back seat, you’d swear I was driving a coach. That is a common refrain, no doubt. Life is what happens when you’re busy making plans, and other assorted clichés.
Roll the clock forward to about 1997, and I am about 30 years old. In reasonable shape, despite efforts at dragging my health into the dark ages with countless nights of beer and cigarettes. If I said one’s body was one’s temple, then it would be fair to say it was desecrated on more than one occasion.
My uncle Rob has been an inspiration. I followed in his footsteps, career-wise (ish) by becoming a graphic designer, albeit in a circuitous route. I then attempted a more literal version of footstep following, when he established himself as something of a nifty marathon runner. He tells his own tale in a wonderful book which may be hard to find now, but I would heartily recommend it (and yes, unashamedly, that is my Amazon review on his page…). He trained for, and completed, the London Marathon, and then this seemed to trip some switch in his head, and he went forth, evangelizing about the wonders of running to all his family and friends, mostly with success. He managed to rope a few bods in and drag them over from England for the Dublin Marathon in 1997. I scoffed pints whilst they filled up on pasta. I can’t recall whether I marveled at their bravery, or just ordered more beer, but there is a part in every human being that responds to an event. It doesn’t matter if it’s gathering to watch your favourite team in a final, or watching the lunar landing; once a number of people gather together, there is a synergy that is created. Perhaps this is why dictators the world over (to this day) ban the gathering of people. Instinctively we can achieve more as a collective.
In the Kenny family, we call this the Oisin Syndrome. The Oisin Syndrome essentially describes how people just don’t want to be left out of the craic. Wherever something is happening – that’s where they want to be. Oisin was our old hound, and his canine radar would pick up the buzz, and he would be drawn to it. This would manifest itself in much door-scratching (it’s odds-on the dog is always on the wrong side of the door). Once he had established which room contained the ‘happening’, he would lie in the doorway. He may not always have been taking part, but he was damn sure no-one was getting in or out without his knowledge. That’s the Oisin Syndrome.
I had my own take on that. I quite fancied the buzz. It seemed like an achievement; one that instilled some wonder and not a little head-scratching.
Wow. A Marathon, you say? That sounds tough! Fair play.
These comments would have all been bandied around in the pub. And I wanted in. The only snag was that I had missed the boat by some considerable distance, and it wasn’t due to dock again for a year. So the buzz faded. And the promised training never happened. No runners were purchased, and this was a time before internet plans. 1998 rolled around, and the English crew were due to head over again to take on Dublin town and environs once more. I made a rather rash decision to join in, at the eleventh hour. With no training under, over or anywhere near my belt, I suggested I would do the first few miles – say about five – and then see how we felt. If things were not so good, we would drop out and walk back to the city centre and meet up with family and friends. No biggie. Everyone would understand. You hadn’t trained, they would coo, sympathetically. Don’t worry about it. Next year. Mañana.
Well I set off, and before I could get into my stride, I was looking for portaloos. Somewhere around Donnybrook, I recall, I noticed runners were forgoing the privacy of the plastic cubicle, and were letting loose behind a low wall. This was my baptism. My realisation that running marathons and other similar events are not like any other. I joined in, and then gamely soldiered on for a few more miles. The route has changed now, but from memory, they used to send you out on three ‘spurs’ that took you out and back from the city centre into the suburbs. Three chances to bale out. I didn’t take any of them.
By the time I hit halfway, I was in trouble. And I knew it. I was no longer running. I wasn’t even jogging. I was crawling, but still upright. Not a pretty sight, I would imagine. I had long given up hope of running the whole thing. I had tried the run/walk plan (which wasn’t something I was aware of at the time; it was self-imposed). I met a friendly lady doing the race for charity, and she extended that charity a little to me for a few miles, but in the end, she realised she needed to finish and this bloke was dead weight.
I shuffled on the final leg of the race. This took us out towards Kilmainham and Islandbridge. You could smell the roasting of the barley from James’s Gate brewery. By now I was semi-delirious. I had no sense of time, other than it was late, and there seemed to be few other competitors on the route. As I wandered down Conyngham Road towards Park Gate Street, a few dyed-in-the-wool Dublin ladies, who were walking the race, offered me some bars, and lots of encouragement. Keep going they said. You’re doin’ grand! Am I last? I asked. No answer.
I staggered on down into the city centre and finally turned the corner onto O’Connell Street, which as locals know, is the capital’s widest and most central thoroughfare. It was the finish line for the marathon, and hours before, would have been a hive of activity as proper athletes streamed across the line, collected their goodie bags and smiled for the cameras. No doubt there were hordes of cheering people, and press galore, all eager for the shot of the winner.
I missed all of that. By some distance.
As I trundled up O’Connell Street, I was vaguely horrified to find it was open to traffic again. Christ Almighty. Just how late was I? Wind-blown post-race detritus blew around in little eddies as council blokes chucked crowd barriers on to the backs of trucks. One or two remaining officials seemed genuinely contrite that they had no medals to hand out. Or indeed, anything at all. But the bandwagon was all packed and ready to trundle out of town, and if I didn’t get out of the way, I was going under the wheels.
I trudged off to meet my family and friends at the appointed meeting place, convinced they would have long since gone home, perhaps to ponder on the wisdom of allowing some eejit to attempt a Marathon with no training as they downed pints of Guinness in the Salmon Leap pub. Or perhaps they were nervously fidgeting in a nearby police station as they contemplated sending out a search party for my remains.
But lo! There they were in the Harp Bar as agreed. Probably half-cut, if truth be told, but I can’t recall. I just remember pausing at the door, and a paper vendor in a hi-viz jacket stopped me and said ‘hey, have you just done the Marathon?’
Indeed I have, I mumbled, and he thrust a copy of the Evening Herald into my hands. There on the cover was the Kenyan runner, Joshua Kipkemboi, crossing the line in a time of 2 hours 20 minutes. It had taken me so long to finish, the papers had had enough time to get the winner’s picture onto the cover and distributed around the city.
I wouldn’t say I dined out on that tale for years, though I do admit I laboured under the impression that I was officially last in the Dublin City Marathon. Alas not. A Mr. James Trider holds that honour, and I tip my hat off to you sir, wherever you may be.
Three years later I would tackle the beast once more. And this time, we would do some training…