Where Your Dreams Become Reality
Meet Neil Cusack: The 1974 Boston Marathon Winner & Ireland's Only Boston Champion
Sometimes it’s Better to Be Lucky Than Good.
My associates taught me that porter drinking was a scientific and ennobling art…I became a proficient pint drinker and never regretted it.
John B. Keane, Self-Portrait, 1964
April 16, 2009 - When Neil Cusack arrived in Tennessee on a partial athletic scholarship, it was perhaps the luckiest day in the coaching career of Doug Walker, the athletics coach with a gridiron background.
Almost single-handedly, Cusack put the athletics programme at ETSU on the map. He established new training routines, followed his own instincts, and Walker wisely decided to let Cusack take the programme to a place beyond his capabilities.
Cusack was aided and abetted by the Leddy brothers, PJ and Eddie, Ray McBride and Frank Greally. Cusack washed dishes in his first year to stay at ETSU. Needless to say his partial scholarship status was rectified as he amassed a stack of NCAA titles.
In 1972, he won the NCAA Cross Country Championships. Steve Prefontaine was injured that year and his supporters maintained that he would have won had he been healthy. Donal Walsh, (Villanova, Leevale, and Ireland) doesn’t buy this.
“Don’t be coddin yourself boy,” says Walsh. “Sure I nearly bate Prefontaine meself one year. No one would have beaten Cusack in ‘72. It was as well for Pre that he was injured because Cusack would have ran him ragged.”
When Neil Cusack won the 1974 Boston Marathon – the first and only Irishman to accomplish this feat – he received massive media publicity, a wreath and a coveted winners medal. There was no prize money.
This year’s winner will receive $125,000, a specially designed crystal trophy, appearance fees and innumerable lucrative performance bonuses.
He entered the 1974 race as an unknown entity; the favourite was Tom Fleming of NJ. Cusack recalled: “I started the race as an unknown and crossed the finish line into immediate international recognition. I didn’t realise how big this event was until I crossed the line. It was bedlam.”
“The Irish in Boston went mad -they were stuffing ten and twenty dollar bills into my bag. I was the toast of Boston.” ETSU paid his way to the race but Cusack, on an impulse, decided to pin a shamrock to his fishnet vest. Little did he know how important an element that shamrock was to play in his win.
The late George Sheehan watched Cusack do a comprehensive warm-up before the start. “I’m watching this guy in a string vest doing what I felt was an intense warm up for maybe half an hour. I thought this hotshot might run ten maybe twelve miles tops. I was gob-smacked when he won the race so easily.”
In the aftermath of his win, legendary American broadcaster, Walter Cronkite asked Cusack how he proposed to celebrate his victory: “By drinking lashings of porter,” the 22-year old former St. Munchin’s runner replied. The tabloids saw a good story line: “Irishman wins Boston, trains on beer.” (New York Daily News)
After a moderate start, Cusack hit the front at 6 miles and was never headed thereafter. At 13 miles he was 1 minute ahead of Fleming: “I was on a 2:09 pace coming off Heartbreak Hill and feeling no strain, running on my own. I didn’t see another body from six miles to the finish.”
In the meantime word filtered back that an Irishman was leading and the sight of the shamrock brought the Irish in Boston to life. Larry Rawson saw to that. He had been listening to radio coverage of the race and realised that the commentator was giving out innacurate information about Cusack as soon as he hit the front.
“He was saying that Cusack was a student at the University of Tennessee,” Lawson recalled. “In fact he went to ETSU, and was a native of Ireland and a collegiate cross-country champion.” An incensed Rawson drove to the marathon press-box, where he joined the commentary and quickly apprised the Boston public of the facts.
Cusack cruised home 46 seconds ahead of a tearful Fleming in a time of 2:13.39, the second fastest winning effort up to that point. Finishing well down the field was an up and coming Bill Rogers, who subsequently became synonymous with Boston and New York. We may never again see a more popular athlete/individual than the likeable ‘Boston Billy’
Cusack won many of the major road events in America before corporate sponsorship got involved. Consequently, he lived a hand to mouth existence, going to various races from his base in Florida.
In February 1975, a standout field gathered in New Jersey for the inaugural edition of the Newark Distance Run (12 miles) – Amby Burfoot, Bernie Allan of England, Eddie Leddy (1976 10,000m Olympian), and one Will (Bill) Rogers GBTC. Cusack (58:38.8) beat Rogers by 10 seconds despite going off the course slightly. Burfoot was a minute back in third. Leddy would finish 6th in 1:00.07.
One month later Rogers finished 3rd In the WCC in Rabat, Morocco, and in April, cruised to an American record 2:09.55 win at Boston.
Ray McBride won the accompanying 4 mile race in 21:39. The course actually measured 4.3 miles! For his victory Cusack received a TV, and partial reimbursement for petrol and lodging. What became of that TV is anyone’s guess.
For all his undoubted talent, Cusack never realised his full potential as an athlete. This can be attributed to working full time in Ireland to pay off a mortgage - barman, truck driver for a chicken delivery company, and for a short period a sports shop – all time consuming with erratic hours. More important was his approach to training.
By his own admission Cusack says he trained too hard and never rested enough. Donie Walsh trained with him in Limerick: “Racing was easier. He was a terror, but he rarely got injured.” Cusack would scale the heights one more time by winning the Dublin Marathon in 1981.
One of the saddest days for the Limerick man was being a spectator on the day the Irish Men’s team finish 2nd in the famous1979 WCC in Limerick. In normal circumstances he would have been an automatic choice but the fatigue of the long working hours prevented him from getting enough training.
Cusack represents one of the compelling ‘What If’ stories of Irish Athletics. This peculiar form of counter factual history, currently in vogue, wouldn’t impress Cusack. Still, one is tempted to ask what if he had been able to hang on in America for a few more years. What if he had been able to train full-time in Ireland? Cusack, with his distinctive goatee and bushy hairstyle, could walk around his native Limerick unnoticed. Compare that to the adulation Rogers got in Boston and the mind boggles.
Even so, Cusack’s athletic accomplishments are considerable. He is unassuming about his achievements. “It’s all in the record books,” is his stock answer. He has no regrets. Reflecting on Boston he says: “I still don’t know why I actually decided to run the race. It was a howl and I’m still above the ground and able to talk about it. I have a lifetime of memories to draw on but Boston is right up there.” There was no luck involved in that success.
Cusack represented Ireland 13 times in the WCC; competed in the 1976 Olympic marathon, won 10 NCAA titles including an outright victory in the NCAA CC in 1972.
The Newark Distance Run is now the Newark Distance Classic, a major 20 k tune up for Boston.