It was tough and raw and it certainly hit the sweet spot of what was commonly perceived as the core element of the class differences. I wasn’t big into that debate, being more driven by elements like travel, and sport, writes Barrie Henriques.
I was absorbed by the efforts of the young Courtenay, a borstal boy, who saw success as a long-distance runner as a ticket to upgrade and progress. At the time too, memories of great runners, or at least those that had “trained on” from the 1956 Olympics were still very clear in the minds of many.
We still spoke of Delaney, Vladimir Kuts, who broke the combined hearts of the British distance runners, Ibbotson, Pirie and Chattaway in the big double of 5,000/10,000m finals in Melbourne and then a New Zealander came on the radar called Murray Halberg in Rome in 1962.
The only reason why such useless nuggets of information head up our profile this week is because on Friday night I happened to be in the company of a hugely interesting award winner at the annual Hotel Kilkenny and Kilkenny People sports star banquet.
Brian Maher from Conahy enthralled me with chapter and verse of what it takes to be a champion long-distance runner.
Over the years we read of African athletes hovering up every available long-distance competition, and with it, the enormous prize-money that is glove in hand with some events. Time was when most, if not all long-distance runners did not have a dark skin (it is now politically correct to use the adjective black; if I cause offence, I apologise). I have mentioned some above in my rambling introduction, but there were many more like Virin, Billy Mills, Michel Jazy and more who did their bit to make the running around a track lap after boring lap sexy.
But back to my Conahy friend!
Let me hasten to add that Brian Maher is in no way claiming any element of success comparable to any of the mentioned icons, nor would I be so stupid to do so on his or my own behalf. However, he does share the same common denominator.
They were all long- distance runners
Brian Maher, is and always has been, a hard-working farmer, helping his dad, Pa, run their sizeable farm just off the main road between Jenkinstown and Ballyragget. He also augments his earnings with private contractual work, like hedge-cutting.
He is the eldest of five Maher siblings, he being the eldest of three sisters (Marina, Pamela and Patrice), and his only brother, Eamonn.
His education finished with his Leaving Certertificate in St Kieran’s College, and being the college it is, it was not surprising to hear that he was attracted to the hurling game as his sporting outlet.
“Like all Kilkenny youngsters, you are drafted in to hurling from birth nearly,” he smiled. “Traditionally then at least, pre-season training was all about running. You would be doing laps of the pitch and runs through Jenkinstown wood. I would be leaving the lads well in my wake.
“In all honesty, while I could leave every one of the lads dead in a run for possession, the despatch, or passing of the sliotar was problematic. I just couldn’t compete with the lads there. Of course I could hit it, but to do so under pressure, or at the kind of speed they were using was a challenge that I just was not able to match.
Join a club
“So it was suggested that maybe I should join a running club. Now I was afraid that the running club would do to me by way of running what I was doing to the lads in hurling training, so I left the matter rest for a couple of years. Eventually I rang a man by the name of Sean Lynch in Kilkenny City Harriers, and he matter-of-factly just told me that they trained on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so I went in on a Tuesday. Thankfully I’ve been going in ever since.”
Talking to Sean Lynch, he remembered well the arrival of Brian Maher.
“I felt that he would be a good member of a novice cross-country team, so entered him early in competition,” Sean recalled. “We then put him on the team for the Leinster novice in Ballyfin. It would be his second race. I told him to try and pace himself without killing himself.
“I then told him that if he had anything left in the tank with 200 metres to the line to try to pass as many as he could to get points for the team. Conditions were abysmal. It was muck to the heels and higher. I saw this lad coming to the chute with two hundred left, and he started peeling back the lads in front.
“As the line approached there was still one ahead of him, but he couldn’t get purchase on the ground. He did what I have never witnessed before. He slithered in along the top of the muck and got home in front. I just said to myself that here is a lad with guts. How right I was.”
At the age of 12 Brian was diagnosed with the dreaded celiac disease. As most celiacs will tell you, diet is so very important, and gluten-free diet is mandatory.
“At the time, celiac ailment was very rare, and it took quite some time to diagnose,” Brian said when he opened up on the matter. “I was not developing physically from a strength point of view, so running was not on my horizon really. At the time too, we had to buy gluten-free biscuits from the chemist shop. Now all of those dietary requirements are available in all the supermarkets.”
On one particular occasion as Brian was going through a training session in the KCH track, he was approached by a physiotherapist called Anthony ‘Star’ Geoghegan, who runs a prestigious practice in Carlow. Geoghegan asked the aspiring young Conahy athlete whether he had a coach, to which Brian answered in the negative.
Got a coach
Geoghegan put him in touch with a Ned Kelly from the St Abban’s club in Laois. Kelly’s CV apropos cross-country running is beyond question, having trained such luminaries as Peter Matthews, and a number of others who featured on Irish international teams over a long number of years.
The St Abban’s club has a huge reputation as a club that has produced numerous cross-country champions. Ned Kelly took young Maher in hand, and suddenly the improvements were astonishing. The move to Kelly afforded Brian the advantages of good structures and valuable coaching.
Brian ran into 12th spot in his first county senior cross-country championship. He ran into 9th spot on his second attempt, and he was third the following year. A year later he was second.
That is consistency, but read on, please
From 2005 to 2012 Brian Maher was the cross-country King of County Kilkenny. He created a record that might never be equalled. He has won eight senior county titles on the bounce. Nobody had done that before. Some have won eight titles, but never in successive years.
To put such an achievement in context, it is generally acclaimed that the Kilkenny cross-country championships are practically the best in the land outside of Dublin. Last year, for instance, Eoin Everard ran up second to Maher.
Everard is a four-minute miler.
The Holy Grail of the cross-country vista is the representation of your country on the international stage. In 2008 the call came to Conahy that Brian Maher was needed to race for Ireland in the World cross-country championships in Edinburgh.
Scarcely believable!. The Irish team numbered a strange seven members, not the customary nine.
“Athletics Ireland felt that the talent available for the last two spots on the team was very poor, and would not have enhanced the reputation earned over the years of great cross-country days for Ireland,” Brian informed us. “With me there were Garry Thornton, Alister Cragg, Paul McNamara, Vinny Mulvey, Mick Clohessy and Andrew Ledwith.”
How did the team get on? How did he get on?
Impossible to compete - “I finished 139 out of over 260 competitors,” Brian said with a smile. “With the emergence of athletes from the African continent, it is now practically impossible to compete against them. At the start, with nine per team from Uganda, Kenya, Botswana, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Nigeria and so on one could be forgiven for feeling that he was competing in the African National.
“They are awesome athletes to give them credit. Our team didn’t score because you need six finishers to register a score, and two of ours gave up in the conditions. They just couldn’t handle it.”
It was not a satisfactory outcome on a personal level for Brian Maher.
“I felt that I might get into the top 80 or 90, but unfortunately I woke up on the morning of the race coughing up gunk. I just couldn’t even contemplate not running,” he insisted. “I was disappointed.”
On his return from the World Championships, Brian was hit with a medical condition, latterly diagnosed - after
a long period of investigation - with a condition called Post Infectious IBS.
“Even though I continued running, I knew that I was not right,” he explained. “The condition was horrendously debilitating, and it took nearly two years for it to clear up. However, I started my assault plans on the European singlet in September last with a good run in the Phoenix Park.
“That was a good quality field. I needed good quality competition for my prep, but that was scarce in Ireland. There was however a very high class race in Burgos (near Madrid) in late October, so I travelled out there, and did good work, returning for the national trials. At the trials I was fortunate to run a good race which propelled me into the team, and my international singlet was secured.
“I was over the moon. The year was 2012, and the venue was Budapest. Unfortunately we ran poorly, although the women won their championship, with Finnula Britton getting her gold medal, which was phenomenal. I couldn’t handle the underfoot conditions at all. It was packed snow and ice, and it spooked me.”
Brian is looking more and more towards the marathon menu. Presently he is in solid preparation for the Rotterdam marathon. Such ambitions are costly.
Who is his benefactor, or who will render the necessary funding?
“When I was chosen to run at the Worlds, Conahy Shamrocks organised a fund-raiser to help me,” he revealed. “They raised a whopping €3,500, which was quite staggering, and so generous, for which I will be eternally grateful. But there is a man by the name of Jim Aughney, who is the Race Director of the Dublin City Marathon, who has organised a kind of co-op Marathon Mission. This will assist runners who have notified his organisation of their plans to run in certain marathons.
“Jim, with Dick Hooper (Brian’s coach) will fund elements like travel, hotels and entry fees for athletes. They are tremendous people. For instance, I will incur no expense for my trip to the Rotterdam marathon, which is terrific.”
Being a farmer, the constraints are rather palpable. What would a normal day pan out like?
“I get up at 6.30am and go down to the yard to start the milking,” he replied. “I’m lucky in that I have my dad with me. I do whatever jobs are screaming for the doing. My mother too helps me, in that she feeds calves. Its all hands to the pumps.
“I go for a five mile run after the milking and jobs, and I’m back for breakfast and shower. If I’m not doing tractor work, I will be doing jobs with dad, including the evening milking up to 6.30pm. I will then go for a 10-mile run or go into Scanlon Park for a track session, which could last two hours.”
Now that he is gearing towards the longer marathon distance, would he be crafting his preparations differently?
“Yes I would,” he assured. “For instance, I would be doing a lot of road work, doing anything up to 100 miles per week. During the busier times during the Summer, that figure could be altered dramatically, but on average, the 100 mile road work schedule is key.”
Great man to eat
Having wheedled answers on running and training practices from the Hotel Kilkenny and Kilkenny People star, I pursued the dietary route.
Do you have to be careful about what you eat?
“Not really, because we use up so many calories (over 2,300 in a long race) that I live by the maxim that if it is in the way it goes down,”, he laughed. “ I avoid white bread for instance, but if there is a cream cake on the table, I’m afraid to say that it will disappear.
“I start the morning with porridge, orange juice, two poached eggs on toast. Normally I have two dinners a day. At lunchtime I have my mother’s meat and two veg dinner, and then in the evening I have another dinner of pasta.”
Brian married his sweetheart, Emily, of six years or so on New Year’s eve last.
What a romantic gesture, I felt.
“She is a tremendous help and inspiration to me all the time,” he assured. “She does a bit of running herself, but not with me.”
Now listen to this!
“We went on honeymoon to Florida, and just before we boarded the aircraft in Dublin, I got the Winter vomiting bug, which meant that I couldn’t go training for two days.”
Come on I said, give me a break. Nobody goes training on their honeymoon?
“That is the nature of our sport,” he laughed. “It is an all or nothing demand. The hammer is down all the time, just like a race. There is no let up. Fail to prepare etc.
Brian Maher has won numerous road races the length and breath of the country. Even as we spoke (Saturday afternoon) he was making plans to run in Ballycotton in Cork on Sunday. His marathon ambitions kick off in Rotterdam later in the year, and it will then be a case of wherever the wind turns the spinnaker.
A more level-headed young man one could not wish to meet. As the old saying goes, if you want to know a man, go a few miles of the road in his shoes.
Brian Dowling was so honoured at getting his reward on Friday night in Hotel Kilkenny. Hard earned it may have been, but he simply wouldn’t have it any other way.