It was a balmy night in August. The 12th.of August 1984 to be precise. And, while it was balmy in Ireland, it was hot, muggy and humid in Los Angeles where the final event of the Olympics was due to take place. And the final event was the most iconic of all: the men’s marathon. The start time was 5 p.m. And, as there is an eight hour time difference, a long night beckoned for television viewers in Ireland.
We were hoping for a big performance from John Treacy , our last hope of a medal . Nobody expected anything from our other two runners , Dick Hooper and Jerry Kiernan. As the race evolved , Treacy was right up there, his white cap and milk white skin in sharp contrast to the brown or bronzed skin of his rivals.
And then, as they approached the 18 mile mark, it happened. Another figure appeared on our screens. Green vest, shaggy mullet (though shorn somewhat).....it looked like, it couldn’t be....but it was: Our Jerry, mixing it with the greatest marathon men in the world ! John Tracy does a double take. The commentators take a moment or two to identify this unknown athlete. And to add to our wild excitement (or sense of madness) it appeared that Jerry was cruising, moving more easily than any of the others except possibly Carlos Lopes ....... It had been a long road for the boy from Brosna to the Santa Monica Boulevard.
Growing up in that beautiful little Kerry village, Jerry ran the half mile to school every morning. He ran home and back to school at lunchtime and ran home again in the evening. A Kenyan type of regime. Laying the basis of extraordinary strength endurance. Taught by the great writer Bryan MacMahon. Learned a love for literature. Developed an appreciation for the importance of words and their precise meaning and usage. How could it be otherwise? Inhaling the same air as such literary giants as John B. Keane , Brendan Kennelly, Con Houlihan.
Inevitably he played some Gaelic football. Idolised Mick O’Connell. Played a few minor games for the Kingdom. But, all the while, running remained his true love. Won the Kerry Senior Cross Country Championship at the age of 17. Pushed Eamonn Coghlan all the way to the line in the All Ireland Schools’ 1500 in 1971. Got the coveted “Call to Training“ and came to St.Patrick’s Training College in Drumcondra. Shared classes with such literary, entertainment and sporting legends as Pat McCabe, Liam Reilly , Brian Cody and Jimmy Deenihan.
Loved to party. The Cat and Cage was an ever present temptation.
But Jerry was adamant that the main reason he came to Dublin was to join Clonliffe Harriers. And why Clonliffe? Simply because they owned Santry Stadium (or JFK Stadium as it was then called) and had that iconic track with the red cinders. The track on which Herb Elliott and Albie Thomas had set world records 13 years earlier. And so Jerry found himself training with Olympians such as Frank Murphy and Danny McDaid. He also came under the influence of wise, experienced experts such as Laro Byrne and Paddy Marley. On light training he won the National Junior Cross Country title in 1973. And gradually he began to realise that if he worked hard he could go a long way in this sport. Won the National Senior 1500 in ‘75. The following year he joined the exclusive Sub 4 Club.
On a windy day in Crystal Palace he ran 3:59.12, missing out on the Olympic qualifying time by 0.12 seconds. The great New Zealander, Rod Dixon came to him after the race and just said “Is it your first time?” Jerry said yes. “I knew from the look on your face“, said Dixon. The wind easily cost Jerry a second per lap yet he never whinged about missing out on Montreal. “I wasn’t good enough” was what he always said when asked if he was gutted. Typical hard, honest assessment which became his trademark as a pundit many years later.
And some people thought he was hard in his assessment of other athletes! Not as hard as on himself. He often described his 5000 PB of 13:32.71 as “so shabby, it’s embarrassing “If he said that on TV about another athlete there would be “ructions” as Jerry might say!
The following year, Jerry was back in Crystal Palace for a 3000. Being the ultra dedicated teacher that he was, he taught that day until 12 noon. Got a bus into town. Got another bus to the airport. Got to the venue around 5. Had a snack. Ran the race at 8 p.m. Set a new Irish record of 7:54.70. Got the tube back to the airport. Was back home at midnight and in his classroom the next morning again at 9 a.m. Awesome (A word Jerry despised and would never use!). But this was typical of a man so dedicated to his profession that he never missed a day in over 30 years .
The years 1978 to 1981 were difficult as he was plagued by injury. Some people were quick to write him off saying that he wasn’t mentally tough enough. But the comeback started in ‘81. He ran the Cork City Sports and posted that 13:32. He dipped his toe in longer road racing by finishing 5th. in the Clonliffe 20 Mile in 1:42:50. He made the Irish team for the World Cross in ‘82 . But a dreadful run in the Jack Hartigan race two weeks before made him question his fitness and he considered crying off the Irish team. Luckily, he had his resident Sport Psychologist on hand in the person of one P. Keane. “You’ve got the bad run out of your system; now get on that f*****g plane and you’ll run a blinder in Rome”.
And, of course, Pádraig was right. Jerry finished a fabulous 26th. in a field that was frightening in quality. Just 10 seconds behind Olympic 5K and 10K champion, Yifter the Shifter. Breathing down the necks of world record holders (or former world record holders) such as Alberto Cova and Fernando Mamede. Was this the moment that Jerry finally realised he could run with the very best?
Frustrated at not getting the opportunities to race abroad in the top track meets, Jerry decided to hit the road racing scene in 1982. And hit it he did - with a vengeance. He took quality fields and record books apart with times that are still unchallenged. Imagine running 46:30 for 10 miles (Now that was awesome!). His marathon debut in Dublin is well documented: how he was on world record pace for 18 miles before cramping up (due to problems with his “architecture“ as he put it ). He recounts having to stop and stretch for several minutes outside the National Maternity Hospital in Holles Street. “A felicitous spot to stretch“ was how he described it. A typical Jerryism. He still hung on to win in 2:13, a course record that lasted over 20 years.
The following year he overcooked his preparations to defend his title. 20 mile runs at 5 minute mile pace on the lush, energy sapping grass of Leopardstown racecourse and 8 X 1 mile reps. all under 4:30 on the Santry track took their toll. After those Santry sessions, he would come into the Clonliffe Bar with a huge mound of banana sandwiches and order one pint of Guinness. He shared the sandwiches with anybody who wished to have one. He was at pains to point out that bananas should only be eaten when they started to have little black spots on their skin. He gave one poor lad an earful when he caught him eating unripe bananas. Typical Jerry: always teaching.
The Olympic year of 1984 started well for him. After that poor run in the Dublin marathon ’83, Jerry knew that he had overtrained and he began to appreciate the value of recovery days. And of course that hard training had not gone to waste. All it needed was a spell of easier running for its beneficial effects to kick in. The old “Miles are money in the bank” syndrome. He travelled to Kilmacow for the National Cross Country in confident mood. So confident that he backed himself to win. On the bus travelling to the venue the day before, Pat Bonass did his annual bookie gig inviting Club members to bet on the race. Jerry put £20 on himself. Must have been the first time Pat suffered a loss!
Winning that title meant a lot to Jerry. “Winning the Dublin marathon may have increased my profile with the public , but winning the National Cross Country enhances my status among my peers” was Jerry’s succinct verdict on his achievement.
And so on to the National Marathon cum Olympic Trial in Cork on Easter Monday. The pundits reckoned beforehand that ultra reliable Dick Hooper would run an almost guaranteed 2:13-2:14 But they felt that Jerry could either drop out - or break the World record. In the event Jerry DID win. But after having a sizeable lead up to 20 miles he again experienced hamstring trouble in the closing miles and just managed to hang on from Dick. Afterwards he was disqualified on the flimsiest of technicalities: the logo on his vest was about a millimetre too big! At the presentation, the officials handed the winner’s trophy to Hooper. But, in a marvellous display of sportsmanship, Dick immediately turned to Jerry, gave the trophy to him and said “We all know it was you who won this Jerry.“
That magnificent gesture by Dick (a runner’s runner if ever there was one) encapsulated all that is good about sport and was a marked contrast to what had immediately preceded it. A month later, Jerry ran a sensational 22:50 for a 5 mile Club race (no Vaporflys in those days) and had his final pre-Olympic race on the June Bank Holiday Monday. This was the Dublin Half Marathon championship.
A brash Canadian was in town and had announced to all and sundry that he was “going to kick this guy Kiernan’s ass”. Famous last words. Jerry blew him away. He was, in his own words , “feeling as tired as an auld dog“ as he hadn’t tapered for the race but he wasn’t going to allow this interloper beat him on his home patch. “His hubris was his undoing“ was how Jerry summed up this one.
Jerry departed for California six weeks before the Games were due to start. He had often told his Clonliffe team mates that if he could get as much time to rest and recover as his high profile opponents had, he could compete with any of them. “Ya could in your b****x Jerry“ was the vulgar reply he got from those ever supportive friends. (It was an unwritten rule that we should always disagree with Jerry just for the craic. But if any outsider verbally attacked him we closed ranks and defended him to the hilt).
This was his chance to prove his theory. He moved into his agent Mike Long’s apartment in San Diego and for six weeks did nothing only eat, sleep and train. Read books. And watch MTV. He loved training on Mission Bay (a bit like the Clontarf sea front) and some of his runs there were breathtaking.
Once again he was frustrated by officialdom. Jerry and his coach Brendan O’Shea wisely decided that he would not go to the Olympic Village until just 48 hours before the race, remaining instead in his San Diego haven. Too many distractions and too much noise in the Village. But at least one Irish official tried to have him thrown off the team because of his reluctance to toe the line .
Knowing how upset Jerry was, O’Shea told him to go out and do a hard 8 mile run to get the frustration and BS out of his system. Jerry did just that, running the 8 miler in 37 minutes flat. I’d love to see the look on the faces of the skateboarders and joggers as Jerry thundered past them on Mission Bay! He knew now he was ready.
He remained very relaxed the day before competition. Had two bottles of Bud the evening before. (The following description of the race itself was told by Jerry to his Clonliffe companions a few weeks after returning while out on a training run. And as his account progressed, the pace of the run became faster and faster until eventually it was almost as fast as the marathon itself !)
Brought out by bus from the Village to the start at Santa Monica High School. Surprisingly the bus is not very well air conditioned. Jerry is sitting in shorts and tee shirt with rivulets of sweat pouring down his neck. He glances across at the guy sitting opposite him. Juma Ikangaa of Tanzania, one of the favourites, and he’s wearing a full track suit with a wetsuit over it. And looking as cool as the proverbial cucumber. People didn’t have OMG moments back then but this was the 80s equivalent.
Got to the school. Guided into a large gym. Air conditioned. Typical call room. Psyche Out Central. Guys looking surreptitiously at each other. They’re all here.
Jerry recognises the big guns. World champion from Helsinki in ‘83, Rob de Castella from Australia. Big bandit moustache, legs like tree trunks. Tough as they come. Gerard Nijboer of The Netherlands, silver medalist in Moscow four years before. Alberto Salazar, World Record Holder, the darling of the US media, dressed in a strange outfit that’s cut to allow maximum ventilation. Looking cool and brimful of confidence. Maybe just an act : he had been beaten in the US Trials. The So brothers from Japan where marathon running is practically a religion. Former world record holder, Hugh Jones of the UK. Rod Dixon of New Zealand, a 5000m Bronze medalist in ‘76.
And then there was Toshihiko Seko, from Japan. An almost mystical runner around whom all kinds of legends had already grown. He had lived in a Buddhist monastery for a year. Eating, sleeping, meditating. And running. A lot of running. He had gone to New Zealand to train at altitude in their beautiful mountains. Reported to be running up to 50 miles a day. Hadn’t been beaten in any marathon that he had ran in three years. Exuded a Zen like calm. Raced in a trance like, transcendental concentration. Had a lethal kick .
All this is head wrecking. Jerry has to get out.
He strolls around the track. Heat intense. Why have the race at this hour? To suit television, of course. To hell with the runners. Jerry has a straightforward race plan: run at 5 minute mile pace for as long as he could.
At 5 p.m. precisely the gun goes and the large field runs two laps of the track before settling out for the Coliseum almost 26 miles away. Glances at his watch after the first lap. 75 seconds. Looks at it again after the first mile: 5 minutes on the button. Feels comfortable.
There are huge crowds of spectators, five and six deep on both sides of San Vicente Avenue. With typical American enthusiasm they are brewing up a storm. The noise is deafening. U.S.A! , U.S.A! U.S.A! It would be easy to get carried away. Concentrate. Concentrate.
The heat is bouncing back off the concrete. Jerry is glad he got a haircut the day before. There are drink stations every 3 miles. And there are sprays or showers positioned half way between every drink station. So the runners are getting water into, or onto, them every mile and a half. They turn onto Ocean Avenue and get a welcome sea breeze. The pace is quite uneven: some miles are as fast as 4:45 others slip to 5:12/13.
Jerry maintains his even pace and even though the leaders are out of sight, he is beginning to pick off a number of guys who started too fast. The chants of “USA, USA“ are beginning to wane as the crowd begins to realise that Salazar is having a bad day. Jerry sees the American star is rapidly coming back to him. It gives him a fresh impetus and he sweeps past the struggling favourite.
“I went past Salazar like hot s**t out of a duck’s arse” was Jerry’s colourful way of describing how he went past. He also passes Gerard Nijboer, who had been 2nd. in Moscow four years earlier. “I blew past him as if he was standing still“.
The next section of the course is a soul destroying stretch of the dead straight Marina Freeway. But at about 16 miles, Jerry notices something: it’s the flashing blue lights of the lead car and the police outriders. It’s the lead pack: he’s pulling them back! Nothing rash now; keep it steady. He catches them at the 18 mile mark and for three glorious miles he matches them stride for stride.
Only Treacy, Spedding and Carlos Lopes would know who he is. He knows Lopes well as he has often raced against the Sporting Lisbon man in the European Clubs Cross Country Championship. He notes that his familiar rival is “only jogging“. With five miles to go, Spedding puts the hammer down. Drops a 4:47 mile. Suddenly, the race is on. This is the real thing. No more jousting. Cards on the table. Let’s see what you’ve got. Treacy and Ikangaa cover the move but the effort is clearly visible on their faces. But Lopes glides alongside Spedding effortlessly, barely changing gear.
Jerry tries to cover the move. He’s feeling quite good but suddenly, the onset of the sickeningly familiar tightening in his hamstrings makes him realise that the same problem that plagued him in Dublin and Cork has come back to haunt him. As the leaders pull away, Jerry can only look on. If he tries to run faster, he knows he will strain or tear his hamstring and have to drop out.
He tries to maintain some sort of rhythm and momentum with a stiff legged shuffle. It’s going to be a very long 4 plus miles. Very occasionally he hears a shout of “Come on Ireland“, but those shouts are few and far between. This is the West Coast; not New York or Boston. A few athletes pass him. What a sickening feeling compared to the glorious elation he had experienced earlier when passing people himself.
He plods grimly on. Has to stop a few times to stretch. And then he sees the huge, looming edifice of the Coliseum. He draws inspiration from remembering that it was here in 1932 two Irish athletes had won Olympic Golds on the same afternoon.
At last he reaches the long, dark tunnel leading down onto the track. Mercifully cool. Comes down the ramp into the blinding light of the stadium. The noise of the crowd hits him like a tsunami. Nearly bowls him over .
Gotta concentrate. 500 to go. Now 400. God , how many 400s has he ran in training? 20-25 X 400 with Big Frank, Danny and Paddy. Later with Coghlan. Later still with young Harvey, Rashers and Murt. But now it seems to go on forever. 300 to go. “Come on Jerry “. He seems to hear someone shouting in his head. Sounds like Seán Callan. Surreal. Is he back in Santry? 200 , 100. Round the final bend. Up the home straight and then his brain barely registers that he has crossed the finish line. A couple of officials grab him and throw a tin foil blanket around him.
“Jerry, you did it. Fait Accompli! Par excellence!” Those familiar expressions which he had heard so often after countless training sessions.
It is Laro; of course it is. In the mental haze of those final torturous miles he had forgotten that his old coach was here as Team Coach to the Irish team. Jerry sinks to the soothing grass of the infield and watches his exalted rivals come in. Dixon; Pfitzinger (American champion and winner of the US Trial); Hugh Jones; Seko; Salazar ...... A Who’s Who of the greatest marathon men in the world.
It is a truly remarkable achievement. To run 2:12 at any time is amazing. To run 2:12, and beat so many of the world’s greatest runners, in the humid heat of LA and in the white hot heat of Olympic competition is utterly extraordinary.
He sees John Treacy hobble, stiff legged, up on the podium to receive his Silver medal. He commiserates with Dick Hooper. Dick has had a nightmare. Mind you, while he was “only” 51st. he still had 57 runners behind him.
The marathon men are ushered out of the arena. Later, deep in the bowels of the stadium, he sees Bronze medalist Charlie Spedding getting a massage. And he thinks: “Has he really got more ability than I have? No. It’s just that he can train full time”.
The closing ceremony begins. Lionel Ritchie starts singing “All Night Long”.
Jerry’s heart is singing too. The boy from Brosna has come a long way. He has taken his rightful place on the world stage .
By a grateful domestique.