FOR the first time in 13 years, the streets of Cork were empty of runners this Bank Holiday Weekend as the annual marathon and associated events were yet another victim of the Covid-19 pandemic.
When Alan O’Shea led home over 1,300 marathoners back in 2007, it bridged a 21-year gap since the city had last hosted such an event as during the period from 1982 to 1986 Cork followed most major cities with a mass-participation marathon.
In October 1980 the inaugural Dublin City Marathon took place, followed in March 1981 by the London Marathon. Cork did have a marathon that year of 1981, but it was unlike what runners today are accustomed to.
On a wet June Sunday, the BLE National Marathon took place on the western side of the city. Starting near the County Hall, it headed out the Carrigrohane Straight, through Ballincollig and on to Farnanes. Here, the competitors simply turned around a petrol pump before retracing their steps.
With the County Hall like a mirage in the distance, the final two miles weren’t the most appealing. However, it didn’t deter Dick Hooper from winning his third national marathon in a time of 2:15:37 with Carey May recording 2:42:39 to take the women’s title.
Six months later, Brendan Mooney wrote in the Cork Examiner: “Cork city will at last have its own marathon,” going on to say that the Management Committee of BLE had given the County Board the go-ahead. The event, launched at the Imperial Hotel, would be sponsored by adidas through Three Stripe International who marketed the brand in Ireland.
Reg Hayes, Chairman of the Cork BLE Board, stated it would be the first of a series of such events. He added it would be a people’s marathon for the people of Cork and would depend largely on voluntary effort.
Michael O’Connell, Manager of Three Stripe International, announced that invitations would go out to a number of countries and that runners rejected for the second London Marathon would receive an invitation.
The Examiner and Evening Echo, along with RTÉ Cork Local Radio, were to promote the marathon. The Lord Mayor, Councillor Paud Black, said the event would be of tremendous benefit to the City of Cork.
Stevie Bolger and Donna O’Sullivan, two presenters on Cork Local Radio, volunteered to train from scratch to run. Michael Joyce, the Associate Editor of Irish Runner, was given the task of compiling their training programme.
A number of courses were submitted to the Garda Authorities for consideration. Jack O’Leary, one of the country’s leading marathon runners of the 1960s and 70s and an engineer with Cork Co Council, measured the selected route.
It started on the old Mallow Road and came through Blackpool, MacCurtain Street, Penrose Quay, North Gate Bridge and down the Mardyke to the five-mile mark. Out the Carrigrohane Straight, on to Rossa Avenue and Wilton before returning to the city centre and Patrick Street at 11 miles.
Halfway was reached on the Marina, then through Blackrock and Ballinlough and out the Douglas Road and on to Tramore Road and the 20-mile mark in Togher. Another two miles brought the runners through Glasheen and down Barrack Street to the finish on South Mall.
Easter Monday of April 12 finally arrived. In ideal conditions at 11am around 700 runners started out in what for many was a step into the unknown. The thousands originally hoped for hadn’t materialised, but it was still a good entry considering - somewhat bizarrely - that another marathon had taken place in Galway the previous day.
Before a mile was covered, eight runners had broken clear. They included Michael Walsh (Leevale), John O’Toole (Tullamore), Willie Fitzgerald (Millstreet), Willie Hayes (Reenavanna), Seamus Cregan (Croom), Tom Jordan (Waterford) and John McNiff, the latter visiting Cork from New York.
At the eight mile mark near the Regional College, Hayes and Fitzgerald were sharing the lead. Shortly after, Walsh and O’Toole started to take control and went through 10 miles together in 52:53.
Coming out of Blackrock and the 15-mile mark, the 23-year-old O’Toole made the move that mattered. He was now in unknown territory, having never raced beyond this distance before. But he did not falter and after running the final 11 miles on his own crossed the finish line outside the Imperial Hotel to a tumultuous reception.
His time was 2:20:40, while Walsh - brother of 1972 Olympian Donie - was closing again on the Tullamore man towards the finish but had to settle for second in 2:21:03. He was well pleased, considering it was only his second marathon.
The late Tom Jordan also finished strongly to take third in 2:24:16. Willie Hayes, the early leader, held on to sixth in 2:27:47.
The women’s race also saw a change of fortune over the final stages. Marie Buckley of Leevale, better known as a cross-country runner, was also making her marathon debut and passed Dublin-based Catherine Sutton around 15 miles to win decisively in 3:08:17.
“It was a perfect day for such a race. I was a bit nervous setting out but when the gun went I really enjoyed every stride, chatting away with other runners and getting loads of support,” Marie recalled. “I must have been good and fit then as it didn’t knock a thing out of me and I went back to work as usual the next day.”
An amazing feat from that first marathon was the accomplishment of Donal Burke from Whitechurch. A colleague of Jack O’Leary’s at the County Hall, Donal had also played a role in laying out the route.
But now he planned a double marathon weekend – to break three hours in both Galway and Cork. With a sub-2:35 best to his credit, he held back in Galway on Easter Sunday to finish in 2:52:16. After travelling to Tuam for physiotherapy that evening, he journeyed back to Cork.
Monday morning saw him lining up on the Mallow road and despite some early stiffness he ran another consistent race to clock a remarkable 2:49:18 for 37th position overall.
The Cork City Marathon had arrived and there would be many more exciting and dramatic stories over the next four years.
1 John O’Toole 2:20:40
2 Michael Walsh 2:21:03
3 Thomas Jordan 2:22:41
4 Seamus Cregan 2:24:16
5 John McNiff 2:26:15
6 Willie Hayes 2:27:47
7 Roddy Burke 2:29:43
8 Michael Culligan 2:32:17
9 Pat Kerrigan 2:32:30
10 Willie Fitzgerald 2:33:37
1 Marie Buckley 3:08:17
2 Catherine Sutton 3:19:08
3 Teresa Dwane 3:31:27
4 Noreen O’Brien 3:38:53
5 Lucia O’Sullivan 3:43:25
6 Carmel Lyons 3:45:24
Other well-known names amongst the finishers included:
Liam O’Leary of the Cork Fire Brigade – who’s son Cillian would go on to win the 2015 marathon - finished 18th in 2:41:51. “That was my fastest; I ran the first mile which passed Blackpool Fire Station in 5:10 as all my colleagues were out cheering!”
One place behind was Michael Joyce in 2:41:59 with Jack O’Leary finishing first veteran in 2:45:32
Army-man Willie O’Riordan, still winning prizes in Cork BHAA races, ran 2:48:44
Another regular on the local scene, Batt Kearney of Leevale, was just 34 seconds outside three hours when finishing 63rd
Michael Dunne from Blarney made the top 100 with his time of 3:10:00
Two well-known GAA referees taking part were John Motherway from Aghada (3:12:42) and Charlie McAllister from Midleton (3:15:10)
Well-known BHAA official John Mohally finished in 3:16:35 with his good friend Alex Crowley recording 3:20:34
Dick O’Brien from Castlelyons had a time of 2:58:07 while his brother Donal recorded 3:24:16
Michael O’Connell of sponsors adidas finished in 3:18:38 with his 11-year-old son Brendan recording a remarkable 3:42:48
Eamonn McEvoy, now one of the leading masters’ in the country with St Finbarr’s, finished in 3:25:15