Read about this great distance runner of Irish descent who represented the Millrose AA during the 1960's and 1970's.
Shufflin' Mac - an aristocrat of the running spirit
Sat, Sep 27, 2008
It should be only a matter of time before Loughrea gives Jim McDonagh a permanent monument to ensure he's no longer forgotten, writes Ian O'Riordan
TODAY IS the first day of a long-overdue holiday and I intend spending every waking minute of it free of all talk and thoughts about running. But first things first: this evening I'm heading to Loughrea for a running seminar and the annual five-mile road race.
The good people at Loughrea Athletic Club are making it a weekend celebration as part of their 40th anniversary and were kind enough to invite me along. Truth is they've a lot to celebrate and the one enormous pity is that Jim McDonagh won't be there to share in it.
Loughrea has always been one of Galway's hurling strongholds, with a fairly strong running tradition too. McDonagh was born there on February 24th, 1924, and sure enough started out as a hurler, then turned to cycling, and after a brief spell as a motorcycle stunt rider, later made his name as a runner - and no ordinary runner at that. If the definition of greatness takes age and height into account then McDonagh is one of the great Irish runners not just forgotten but never really known.
Over the years, the Loughrea road race attracted some of the great distance runners of the world. Brendan Foster won there in 1976 and 1977, and 30 years ago this weekend, another Briton, Mike McLeod, just got the better of one Sebastian Coe.
There was no race in 1979 as it clashed with the Pope's visit to Galway, but still the tradition continued, and eight years ago the race was made famous again for the clash of Sonia O'Sullivan and Paula Radcliffe.
McDonagh never won there - at least I don't think so - but then five miles was always way too short for him. With McDonagh, the longer the race the better he became, and in America, where he spent a large part of his life, he was almost unbeatable at any distance upwards of the marathon.
It took McDonagh a while to realise this talent. He was 29 when he left Loughrea and sailed for America aboard the converted troopship the MV Georgic, and at that stage his sporting endeavours were over. On his first night in New York he went to an Irish gathering and met a woman from Kinvara named Helen, and they soon married. McDonagh found work in construction and for the next 10 years that was the only exercise he got.
On his 40th birthday, Helen finally commented on his increasing weight. McDonagh stood 5ft 5in in his shoes, and since his teenage years had weighed a little over eight stone. By then he was over 10 stone, his growing fondness for American beer being part of the problem. McDonagh realised himself something had to be done.
"I was 40 years and three months old when I took up my running," he recalled in an Irish Runnerinterview earlier this year. "They all told me that I should get my head examined. I started off walking and then jogging and eventually I got to running and that was that."
McDonagh soon rediscovered his competitive instincts and on his morning runs into Manhattan would race the school buses along the concourses towards 56th Street: "They were my stopwatch, and I used to beat the bus all the way down." This coincided with the burgeoning marathon scene in New York and after a few months of this regime McDonagh entered the 1964 Yonkers Marathon, finishing eighth in 2:58:30. It was all the encouragement he needed.
Now a US citizen, McDonagh aimed higher, and longer.
In 1966, the father of American ultra-distance running, Ted Corbitt, organised the first US National 50-Mile championship, partly because he would be fancied to win. The race took place around Clove Lake Park on Staten Island, and while Corbitt led up to 40 miles, McDonagh eased past with his short, choppy stride to win in 5:52.28. The New York press quickly christened him "Shufflin' Mac" given his deceptively quick stride, and aged 42, his best was yet to come.
In June of 1967 the US National Marathon championship and Pan American Games trial took place in Holyoke, Massachusetts, on a freakishly hot day. So hot, in fact, practically the entire field dropped out before 20 miles. Leading at that point was Boston's Tom Lardis, and while victory seemed to be his, he then had a horrifying premonition he was about to collapse, describing it as a "flash of doom".
He stopped there and then on the road, determined he wouldn't die to win the race.
Only McDonagh and Midwesterner Ron Daws made it to the finish the day; Daws first in 2:40:07, and McDonagh second in 2:43:42. The race was soon dubbed the "Holyoke Massacre" although that didn't put McDonagh off; he returned to Holyoke and won there in 1968, 1969 and 1970.
One of the many myths that developed out of that race was that McDonagh drank 36 beers the night before to ensure he was well hydrated. Years later, he neither denied nor confirmed that: "I'd drink a good few alright. Coors beer was great if you were running a race the next day. You'd only sweat it out very slowly. You could drink a lot of them and it'd only do you good."
There's been a lot of talk this week about Lance Armstrong returning to competitive cycling at age 37. McDonagh could teach him a thing or two: in 1970, aged 46, he improved his marathon best to 2:28:49 in Boston, and in 1972, aged 48, ran 2:42:34 to finish seventh in New York.
His prize that day was a gold wristwatch, which he promptly gave to Helen to make up for losing her wristwatch during the 1969 Boston Marathon - despite retracing over a mile of the race in an effort to find it.
In 1984 McDonagh and his wife returned to Ireland and purchased a beautiful farm at Larch Hill, about two miles outside Loughrea. McDonagh continued to run marathons with remarkable ease (including Dublin, six times), until one day he was up a tree on his farm cutting branches with a chainsaw, and fell. In trying to avoid the chainsaw, he landed directly on his hip - and for obvious reasons "Shufflin' Mac" was never the same again.
He later settled at Newtown, Kylebrack, close to where he was born. Earlier this summer, Helen was driving out of the house, with her husband in the passenger seat, when another car hit them from the side. McDonagh took the brunt of the impact. He spent several weeks in Ballinasloe hospital with only two things next to his bed; a picture of Helen and the trophy he'd won three times at Holyoke.
McDonagh appeared to be making a slow recovery when he died a fortnight ago, September 13th, at the age of 84. I never met him and I'm sorry I didn't. McDonagh was an aristocrat of the running spirit and had a colossal character to go with it.
It should be only a matter of time before Loughrea gives him a permanent monument to ensure he's no longer forgotten but also forever known.
© 2008 The Irish Times