East Tennessee State University graduate Neil Cusack remembers himself 40 years ago, logging a 6 a.m. 1.5-mile warm-up run on an empty Boston Marathon starting line in Hopkinton so he could get his legs into race mode. His logic was: the second run of the day always felt better than the first. He came up on some buddies of his who were curious how he was feeling, and he gave it to them straight.
“I think I’m going to win,” Cusack told them and proceeded to do just that.
Two hours, 13 minutes and 39 seconds, or just over five minutes per mile, Cusack took the victory over fellow marathon greats Tom Fleming and Jerome Drayton, putting himself in the record books as the last Irishman to win the race. Cusack said it almost felt like home field advantage for him to be running through the streets of Boston with such a large population of people with Irish heritage.
Watch video of Neil Cusack's "Irish Brigade" teammate Tom McCormack below:
Tom Grilk, executive director of the Boston Athletic Association, the organization that has put on the race since it began in 1897, seconded Cusack’s Irish support.
“The win by Neil Cusack was a win by the home team,” Grilk said. “It was a source of great excitement here. We look forward to the next Irishman from ETSU doing the same, or, for that matter, anyone from ETSU.”
And, with that, Cusack admits he had a bit of a moral conundrum. It was ETSU that paid his way, as a student, to run what would be the biggest race of his life, but he couldn’t forget the place from where he came.
“I wanted to run it with the shamrocks across my chest,” Cusack said.
Tom McCormack, a fellow “Irish Brigade” runner at ETSU, said it goes further than that, that Cusack actually cut apart one of his Irish singlets and sewed the shamrocks on a singlet he’d already had the night before the race.
Irish pride aside, Cusack, who now lives in Limerick, Ireland, acknowledged the experience and opportunity he received from running in the United States and under the likes of the late great ETSU coach David Walker, who died at age 82 in January after coaching for 50 years. Walker, Cusack said, was tough, but listened to his athletes.
“We were doing 30 laps on the track one time, and I said, ‘shouldn’t we be out on the roads?’ ” Cusack asked Walker. And they did move the training to the roads, as well as at the Mountain Home Veterans Affairs Medical Center campus, training so intense it’s still often spoken about in distance-running circles.
Years after, Walker would go over to Ireland several times to visit Cusack, who was always proud to put his coach up and send him back stateside with mementos and memories.
As big as the Boston Marathon win was for Cusack, his experience at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Germany, might have more history wrapped around it than anything else. Runners in this year’s Boston Marathon will be returning after last year’s tragic bombing that occurred near the same finish line Cusack crossed ahead of his competitors four decades ago, where three people died and more than 250 others were injured. Because of the Munich games, Cusack knows what it’s like to compete amidst a terrorist attack.
Though he didn’t qualify for the final of the 10,000-meter run, Cusack had set an Irish record with his 28:45 in the second of three heats on Aug. 31, and was looking ahead to future races. A few days later, on Sept. 5, Cusack was out for a morning run when he came upon the gates of the Olympic athletes’ compound, where a guard told him he couldn’t pass and that the Olympic village was being put on lock-down because of a situation where Israeli athletes were taken hostage by a Palestinian group called Black September, resulting in the deaths of 17 people.
“There was a massive shootout,” Cusack said. “It was scary stuff.”
He and the other athletes did their best to remain calm and keep their minds on what they were there to do: compete with the very best athletes in the world. Cusack remembers watching legendary American distance runner Steve Prefontaine doing a track workout days before the 5,000-meter final, where he’d ultimately finish fourth, and covering the mile intervals in just over four minutes per mile.
“Prefontaine was some kind of animal,” Cusack said of the man people speculate to be the only man who could have beaten Cusack in the 1972 NCAA Cross Country Championships, though he wasn’t in the race. Cusack went on to claim the individual title, though he won’t say whether “Pre” would have beat him or not.
As Cusack and Prefontaine were able to put their minds back into their sports so quickly after a terrorist attack hit the world of athletics, so, too, will the runners coming in to run this year’s Boston Marathon.
Grilk said this year’s race will be a bit different in that it will require a different kind of spirit than the usual jovial, party-like atmosphere that surrounds the April 21 event, dubbed “Marathon Monday.”
“The running community mirrors all of Greater Boston, and indeed the entire country, in having a powerful desire to display the resilience and determination that we all saw following last year’s tragedy,” Grilk said.
Cusack originally planned on joining in the race festivities this year on the 40th anniversary of his win, perhaps run one of the shorter races, but was surprised to find out that the BAA was not honoring past winners this year, as the historic race typically has.
“I find it strange. It doesn’t make sense,” Cusack said about the BAA’s decision to forgo honoring past winners on their anniversaries. “I think it’s a breakaway from tradition.”
Frank Greally, editor of Irish Runner Magazine, and former “Irish Brigade” member at ETSU with Cusack and the other world class runners here in Johnson City, has set up a panel of speakers to talk after a race in Ireland the weekend of Boston’s premier race, though Cusack would rather be celebrating his anniversary.
Jonesborough’s Natalia Rivas, who recently completed eligibility at Milligan College, will be making the trek to Boston to run in her second marathon after finishing 16th overall at last year’s National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics marathon championships. She is hoping to set a personal best on the historic course and perhaps run under three hours and 10 minutes.
A self-professed “running nerd,” Rivas knows all about Cusack’s victory 40 years earlier and takes pride in training around the same area that Cusack did.
“It builds confidence that a runner from here has won,” Rivas said. “I’ve trained in the exact same environment as him.”
Having recently logged a 22-mile long run that included a giant circle around Johnson City, then three loops around the VA campus where Cusack and other Irish Brigade runners once famously trained, Rivas is bringing swiftness, fitness and confidence to this year’s Boston Marathon.
For more information about the Boston Marathon, check the BAA’s website at www.baa.org.