In the days leading up to the World Cross-Country Championship, which took place in Limerick, Ireland on the last Sunday in March, runners trying the windswept Greenpark Racecourse found it lumpy but free of the log barriers and earthworks that often are erected at continental events to help the land resist the runners. True, there was a dead horse lying across the route—destroyed there after having fallen in the previous week's steeplechasing—but it was soon removed. Thereafter, the runners referred to the location—the last good downhill leading to the finish half a mile away—as Dead Horse Hill.
It was there, after warm rains had descended and the course had been churned to adhesive mud, that defending champion John Treacy of Ireland and Providence College's graduate school of business began to pull away from 1977 champion Leon Schots of Belgium and the rest of the field of 200 on only the second of the five laps that made up the 7½ miles of the senior men's race. As Treacy's lead stretched to 40 yards, 25,000 Irishmen along the fence, the largest crowd ever to watch this world championship, burst into full voice. Treacy, as pale as his white shorts and running with a superb cross-country stride in which he planted his heels firmly into the mire for stability, gave no sign of heeding the great cheers that covered him and went rolling on across the nearby River Shannon, although he steadily increased his lead through the third lap to 18 seconds. In response, the now hysterical crowd strained at the barricades, breaking onto the sloppy ground. (Later, the usually immaculate streets of Limerick would be coated with the mud tracked away from the course.) Wild, overcoated men ran along the ropes marking Treacy's way, waving and shouting at him in Gaelic and incomprehensible English. Treacy's wide blue eyes, until now inward and intent on his labor, took on a wary, hunted look. He ran farther from the ropes on the turns, to be away from the reaching arms.
In the stands, Treacy's coach, Bob Amato of Providence, watched, trembling. Treacy's run and the surrounding tumult seemed an affirmation to him, proof that he'd done things right. An unfailingly cordial man, intense behind gold-framed glasses, Amato chooses his runners' races with an eye to enhancing their career-long development, and for many of them that means pointing for the European cross-country runs every spring. Slogging behind Treacy were two other Providence runners, Gerry Deegan (43rd) of Ireland and Danny Dillon (44th) of the U.S.
"I don't believe this interferes with spring track," Amato had said earlier in the week. "The best Europeans all run it and benefit. It's almost ridiculous that college coaches prefer to keep some of our best runners at home for early-season outdoor meets that don't mean anything." A case in point was Oregon's Alberto Salazar, the NCAA cross-country champion and AAU runner-up, who had stayed home to run a 13:59 5,000 meters in a college dual meet. "It's sad to hurt our team like this," said Amato. "We shouldn't be disgraced when we could do so much better."
April 9, 1979
It wasn't a disgrace, but the U.S. men, led by Craig Virgin in 13th place, finished eighth in the team competition with 341 points, well behind England's winning total of 119. "Salazar should have been here," said Virgin. "He needs to be exposed to this."
As a coach, Amato is a diagnostician who prescribes different sorts of running for different athletes. "Deegan likes to be practically bleeding from the mouth after workouts, he runs so hard," Amato said, "but I've had to adjust to Treacy's not needing that severity. He responds better to relaxed, measured efforts. I'll never forget him when he arrived at Providence at age 17—5'10", 120 pounds and so pale he looked like death warmed over."
Little about John Treacy has changed, except now he says he weighs 130. "He's good over soft ground—what the Irish call a 'mudlarker,' " said Amato. "He floats over the ground, while heavier runners sink and stagger." Thus, the site of the 1978 international, Glasgow's Bellahouston Park, which was an unprecedented quagmire on race day, was fine by Treacy. He stuck to the U.S.S.R.'s Aleksandr Antipov for the first seven miles, then drove on to become, at 20, the youngest man ever to win this event and Ireland's first world champion in any kind of running since Ron Delany won the Olympic 1,500 meters in 1956.
"John was an outsider then, with no pressure from anyone but himself," said Amato. "Not this year." Indeed, the weight of Irish hopes seemed to mount unbearably through the week. Full-page stories on Treacy appeared twice daily, making up in passion what they lacked in information. In Treacy's hometown of Villierstown, near Waterford, the Very Rev. John Morrissey said from his pulpit, "The champion won't let us down," and the town's entire population (210) then rushed out for the 70-mile drive to the race. Runners in Limerick were told again and again by stern-faced children: "You can't run as fast as John Treacy."
They were right. Near the end of the third lap, Treacy had a 100-yard lead and knew he wouldn't fold. "I said to myself, 'It's all over, John, you've won,' " Treacy revealed later. Whereupon he tumbled, slipping in the muck while approaching a sharp turn. The crowd fell into horror-struck silence, but Treacy was up quickly with blackened shins and a fistful of grassy mud, which, chastened, he wiped on his shirt.
Maintaining second place was Bronislaw Malinowski of Poland, the 1976 Olympic silver medalist in the steeplechase, who was deriving a measure of unintended aid from the throng's singing of Ireland, Ireland. "My grandmother is Irish," he said afterward, "but that wasn't enough today." Still, he would outsprint Antipov for second.
On the fourth lap Treacy gained another two seconds, and he was clearly out of reach. Behind the glassed VIP stand, where dignitaries had sat through the early going calmly sipping Irish Mist, the celebration was such that the windows steamed over. In her ecstasy, one middle-aged matron, who was sitting not far from International Olympic Committee President Lord Killanin, elbowed one of the sizable panes out of its frame, crying, "That's for Ireland!"
Ever more demented hosts ran upon the course. "The crowd scared me at the end," said Treacy. "I didn't know what would happen. I was afraid I'd be trod on." The scene at the finish could only have taken place in a small and rather poor and fiercely proud country, that pride not having been much tempered by athletic success in recent years. The men roaring and the men crying were in about equal proportion. Treacy turned into the last 150 yards and raised his arms as if to plead for quiet. If anything, the gesture had the reverse effect.
Across the line was Treacy's father, Jack, a grocer, who had jumped a hedge and was waiting to greet him. He never got close. Three steps after he had won, in 37:20, the younger Treacy was seized by the police, carried through a cordon of guards, thrust over a gate and into an ambulance that took him to a nearby jockeys' shed where he was rushed down some stairs to the doping test. Outside, the singing carried on as 37-year-old marathoner Danny McDaid, a letter carrier and sheep farmer from Donegal, ran the race of his life to come in 11th and assure Ireland a second-place team finish. It was the first time for Ireland to finish in the top three since 1927.
"You could live a hundred years and not feel as proud again!" called one official to another. U.S. women's coach Chris Murray of Iowa State was wet-eyed. "I've never been to an event with this emotion," he said. "You could feel it. Today John Treacy was Ireland."
It was the second time that afternoon that Murray had cried, the first being when his women had swept to the team championship over a formidable group of Soviets. They were helped, indirectly, by the magnificent individual performance of Norway's Grete Waitz, the world-record holder in the marathon and, without question, the finest female cross-country runner of all time. Soon after the start—a sparkling assemblage of bright silks and shoes thrown blithely into the mud—Waitz ran strongly ahead. The Soviet women, including European 3,000-meter champion Svetlana Ulmasova, went with her, while the U.S. women started modestly. "I felt as if I were running dead last," said Ellison Goodall, a medical student at the University of North Carolina. If this wasn't exactly according to plan, it was to be expected, because, as Murray pointed out, the Soviets were accomplished at the shorter track distances of 1,500 and 3,000 meters, while the Americans, thanks to the distance-running boom of the past few years, were more experienced at 10,000 meters.
Over 5,040 meters of heavy turf, it was U.S.S.R. speed against American strength, and once Waitz had exhausted the Soviets and pulled away, the Americans went to work, led first by Jan Merrill, then by the astonishing Goodall, who, although she is the AAU 10,000-meter champion, had never run on a team of any kind before. Diminutive and with a quick, light stride, she dodged through the field until at the rise of Dead Horse Hill on the final lap she reached second place, though still far behind Waitz, who would win by 26 seconds in 16:48. "The mud made it feel like I was mashing grapes for a while," said Goodall, who had come to Ireland as an alternate, taking the place of the injured Kathy Mills. "I just didn't want to be an embarrassment for the team."
At the end, speed told once more, and Raisa Smekhnova outsprinted Goodall for second. Merrill finished seventh and one place behind her came Julie Shea of North Carolina State. In 11th was Margaret Groos of the University of Virginia. The U.S.' 29 points easily beat the U.S.S.R.'s 48 and England's 68. Even though they were world champions, Shea and Groos thought they might have done better. "I just seemed to get stuck in one place and couldn't get out of it," said Groos, echoing the sensation experienced by Shea and anyone who has ever run across a plowed field.
Murray had stressed team loyalties as essential to good cross-country running, saying, "If you have a team concept, you don't lose hope just because you're not winning the individual race. Every place counts." Even Merrill's contentious coach, Norm Higgins, was enthusiastic over the job Murray had done. "He should be named national coach for the next three years," said Higgins. For her part, Merrill thought the trip had taught her a few things about Higgins. "He is Irish and this week I've met more people like him," she said. "There are no street signs here so they tell you to 'go down around that church and then through the square and to the dead tree and then back here.' I always wondered how he got that."
At length, John Treacy was released from the protection of the Irish police, but before his poor father could get to him the press crowded around. Wrapped in a blanket and still carrying a look of faint alarm, he patiently described the race, saying it was easier this year than last because breaking away early let him relax. On the pressure of being a favorite son, he said in a tone almost of wonder, "I don't react to that kind of pressure." Neither had the mad cheers lifted him. "The people on the field were a distraction," he said. There was a groan when he revealed he would be flying back to Providence the next morning. "No triumphant return to your own village?" wailed one promoter. "No, just a quiet night with my family," said Treacy with relief, rightly anticipating any larger Irish celebration as ruinous. Finally his father was allowed to reach Treacy, and was in turn besieged by questioners.
The mob of reporters shifted slightly, allowing Treacy to spot Amato, standing to one side. The runner's spikes clattered on the cement floor as he made his way to his coach. As the two men embraced, Treacy's eyes finally lost their wary alertness. Both men's faces had the same expression, a look of immense satisfaction and thanks, the love of a great victory shared.