John Treacy On the Olympic Track
An insight into the training schedules of Ireland's gold medal prospect in the 10,000 metres.
The heat is climbing into the seventies and the humidity even higher. It bakes the synthetic track at a high school in Providence, Rhode Island, where John Treacy and a top American runner, Danny Dillon, are into the fifteenth lap of their toughest workout in the week - the speed-training.
Secretly, Treacy dreads those laps. Alternating the lead with Dillon, he clicks off the 400 metre circuits with precision. Starting at 43 seconds each circuit, the pair soon drop the pace to 62 seconds and even 61 seconds. Coach Bob Amato, stopwatch in hand, yells the split-times and the finish times. "A bit slower that time. Keep the pace up", he says as they complete the sixteenth.
The sweat began dripping off both runners early into the laps. By the tenth Dillon had stripped off his T-shirt, revealing a powerful upper body that contrasted rather starkly with Treacy's slender, fragile-looking frame. Coach Amato, commenting on the difference, remarks: "People who see him before the start, looking like this" - and he stoops and hangs his arms like a weakling - "say: 'Who's this. Look at him. Forget it'. But when John starts running, it's 'Wow!'" Amato points to Dillon's powerful legs and bronzed torso. "It's not what you see. It's what you don't see. It's all under the skin."
At the seventeenth, with just three more circuits to go, Treacy starts to press Dillon whose turn it is to lead. In the final 80 metres he moves to his shoulder. Amato, watching, smiles and says: "Sometimes they go over the top. They get competitive and say: 'I'm gonna beat you.' You've gotta watch that. But sometimes it doesn't hurt either." This time he doesn't intervene.
Of all the 26 runners in Amato's Providence College track-team, Dillon is the only one who can stay with Treacy on those laps. They contrast not only in physique but in style. Dillon charges; Treacy floats. As they stride past, Dillon's track shoes scrape noisily on the hard surface while Treacy's seem only to whisper. Into the final lap now and they both go for a fast one, having rested - as for all the others - with just a 200-metre jog in between. The pair sprint past the baseball scoreboard and a lone clapboard house on the track's perimeter, past Amato, and then sag. "Sixty-two. Good." Later, after a shower, Treacy sits on the concrete balustrade of the college's main block and says: "I'm tired."
When Jim Riordan went to Villanova University in 1948 on an athletic scholarship, he became the pathfinder for a steady stream of other Irish runners over the years seeking a taste of the American experience. For the most part, it seems to have worked well. The most obvious successes are Ronny Delaney (Villanova), Eamonn Coghlan (Villanova) and Treacy (Providence). There have also been failures. Some of the less reputable universities have exploited Irish running talent by using athletic skills to win points in intercollegiate meets while providing less than helpful academic qualifications. "I have seen some athletes come back a with qualifications which have been no use at all," says Brendan Foreman of the BLE.
Other runners failed to adjust to the tough academic demands of the better universities. Still others didn't hit it off with the all-powerful coaches. "I had a big bust-up with my coach after one year and there I was high and dry without a scholarship," said a former 800 metre runner, Pat Maher, who studied at Idaho State University.
But for those who know what they want and how to get it, the American experience has been important. Pat Maher, in spite of differences with his coach, is now a senior executive with Dataproducts (Ireland), subsidiary of a major American company. Mick O'Shea, who was the first Irish runner to attend Providence, now works with A.T. Cross, American-based manufacturer of up-market ballpoint pens. (Although he held an executive post in the Irish subsidiary, he has been seconded to the American headquarters near Providence while he trains for selection for the Moscow Olympics.) John Treacy, who has just completed an extremely successful six academic years at Providence (ten A's out of a possible twelve in his postgraduate Master of Business Administration) is probably hoping for something similar.
In all, there are 43 Irish athletes, including one woman, on scholarships at American universities from Arkansas to New England. At Providence, which Treacy describes as a "Utopia for middle-distance runners", there are six Irish athletes on the track team. "Here," says coach Amato, "we have the heart of Irish distance runners.;' It's a small campus by American standards, just 3,500 students enjoying a high standard of tuition amid what Amato describes, rightly, as a "family atmosphere". The red-brick buildings, dominated by the magnificently ornamental Gothic entrance of the main block, are set out in generous lawns, punctuated by scores of trees.
The city of Providence itself, about an hour's drive from Boston, is dominated by a huge domed State legislature whose incumbent governor is named Garrahy and hails originally from County Clare. Governor Garrahy is fighting off in the current elections the challenge of Providence's Mayor Cianci, who originates from Italy. The two men's background accurately sums up the population composition of New England - Irish Catholic and Italian Catholic, proud to be American but just as proud of the fatherland. Near John Treacy's first-floor apartment about three miles out of the city is an expensive mansion with two flagpoles stuck in the front lawn. One flies the Stars and Stripes; the other flies the Irish tricolour. The area is prosperous, energetic, patriotic. And Ireland's young runners thrive there.
Two of them are Jimmy Fallon from Galway, a former Irish junior crosscountry champion, and Paul Moloney from Limerick who, like Fallon, has just completed his first (freshman) year. Now entering their sophomore year, they are feeling more confident, having adjusted to the quicker pace of academic life and the depth of competition in running. Both compare the more leisurely classroom atmosphere in Ireland, where "essaytype questions" dominated the examination papers, with the quick-fire, multiple-choice style of American tests. "Here", says Jimmy Fallon, "you have to work hard the whole time." Both are doing Bachelors of Science in Marketing, a practical industry-orientated degree that takes four years. The eventual aim: a job in (probably American) industry. The Masters (MBA) postgraduate degree takes another two years after that and most, unlike Treacy, don't do it.
Contrary to what many think, the college's main concern is not running. "Here," says registrar Laurent Gousie, "the order of priorities is study, running, social life." Still, Providence College is anxious to facilitate its sporting talent. Most of the Irish runners have finished classes by around 2 pm and are ready for training. Amato seems impressed by the Irish runners' self-discipline. He claims he doesn't need to chivvy them, to drive them to train. They just do it. After a five-miler in the morning, before breakfast, they launch into the day's major session in the afternoon. It may be 400-metre laps or a long run at a faster pace, around six minutes a mile, than the early-morning jog. At weekends they set off on the week's long run, anything up to 20 miles through the elegant leafy forests of New England. Most of the time the Irish contingent do it together and the time, they say, passes quickly.
Inter-collegiate competition is tough and regularly at weekends throughout the season they travel across America for meets. Amato has a generous budget and he spends it - the team travels first-class all the way. The translation from Ireland's inevitably smaller athletic environment to the cauldron of talent in America can be a difficult one. Jimmy Fallon wryly points out: "It's hard achieving so little in the short term to achieve so much later." Amato makes no apologies. "You can't dog it (takeshort-cuts) in middle-distance running," he says. And Treacy points out what is often forgotten: "I was here for three years before I did anything at all."
But perhaps Paul Moloney sums it up best when he notes, still slightly wide-eyed, how he went off to compete in a crosscountry event and found himself in competition with Henry Rono, the greatest middle-distance runner of them all. For the Irishmen it's a crucible of competition that, quite obviously, they could not find at home. Or, as one former holder of an athletics scholarship put it rather more bluntly:
"You have to go (to the States) because there's no fecking competition here. You would be running against the same guys all the time at home in tin-pot little meetings."
Bob Amato is obviously another factor in the astonishing success of Providence in spite of its small size. In his early forties, passionate about running, he has a philosophy of training that is refreshingly different from that of other more dogmatic and demanding coaches. He listens. All the Irish runners pay tribute to his role as an adviser, a guide. "It's my philosophy and I've always stuck to it," Amato says. "If I can't give a reason why I'm asking a runner to do something, then I won't ask it. Or if I do, he doesn't have to do it." His own priorities also reflect those of the college. When he looks at Irish talent which he has spotted on one of his trips to Ireland, he also studies the runners academic record.
Brendan Foreman says this about Amato: "He's one of the few American coaches who appreciate that there's something in life other than just running."
It's 9 am, later than his usual starting time but it is Sunday. Treacy is off on his "ugly run". He describes it like this because the five-mile circuit involves running around streets, Providence's suburbs, rather than the long runs through the forests which he relishes. Nevertheless it takes him past prosperous neighbourhoods of handsome clapboard houses with elaborate balconies, tailored lawns and freshly painted shutters. In the driveways of each are invariably two, but often three and four cars. The road becomes an incline, and then the gradient turns steep. Treacy hardly slackens his speed, floating effortlessly up the hill. The speed is around seven-minute pace, slow because his body is still waking up but fast for the averagely fit jogger. As he runs, he chats, pointing out different features of the area. After 35 minutes, although wearing a full tracksuit on a humid morning, he hasn't got a single drop of sweat on his face.
By his own admission, Treacy has changed a lot since he left Villierstown (population 100), County Waterford, six years ago. "I was a very conservative person when I came here," he says. Although his friends joke him mercilessly about his disciplined lifestyle, he is plainly very different from the slim young hopeful who first confronted the American lifestyle. His athletic ambitions obviously don't allow him to drink much but he enjoys a glass or two of wine with most evening meals. His preferred newspaper is the Wall Street Journal ("I'm a capitalist"). And he leads a busy social life, even busier now that he has completed his studies.
Yet his mother calls him "a cool customer" and, by the evidence of his American experience, he is. None of the success, academic or athletic, has turned his head. Treacy points out that in Providence nobody knows who he is - "and that's how I like it". And, at his centre, he is the same person he always was, "a country boy".
The personality that emerges is that of an unusually single-minded person. Treacy recognises the necessity of the grinding discipline of staying at the top in running and, therefore, he-does it. He has a good time, but always within those self-imposed perimeters. It's hard to know what drives him on. Although certainly an achiever, it's difficult to establish the motivation. Probably more than anything else, it's pride. Describing a bad run at Madison Square Garden, he says how "mortified" he was. About the relative failure at the World Crosscountry Championships in Paris he is, one senses, still regretful. But his philosophy is never to brood. "Analyse for a short time and then forget," he says.
And certainly he's cool enough to think of his future after running "I'd like to think I've got a brain as well as a pair of legs". (Registrar Gousie pays unstinted tribute to the brain while Amato waxes lyrical about the legs - "John is the incredible exception," he says, citing his successive World Cross country wins at such an early age.)
One reason why Treacy has combined an athletic and academic career so successfully is that he's organised. Even his small one-bedroomed apartment, with its black and white television set, is a model of tidiness. For appointments he's punctual and he got his college assignments in on time, including a major 3D-page paper on the operation of a local bank. It's not insignificant that one of the aspects of American life he mentions most often is "the pure convenience", citing the astonishing example (for anybody living in Ireland) of the Bell telephone man who turned up to connect his phone just one day after he was asked, apologising for being so late!
The American experience has opened new horizons for John Treacy that undeniably weren't apparent at home. One of them is what Coach Amato calls the "technology of running", the science of sports medicine which he is convinced is the next and probably last breakthrough in athletics. Its major aim is to prepare and deliver the runner in the exact required condition for any given day. Today's high level of competition demands that technology. As Danny Dillon says, "these days if you're just 98 per cent you're out of the money." Amato's early work with computers and treadmills encourages him to predict that it will soon be possible to guarantee the 100 per cent.
With Moscow looming, John Treacy wants to hit the 10,000 metres as his first priority at peak, 100 per cent. "When I'm out running, Moscow is what I'm thinking about most of the time", he says. Is he going for gold? Of course, say Amato and Treacy together. But both point out that other runners of equal, even better, reputations have the same ambitions. Yet Treacy has prepared longer and harder than ever before. His total weekly mileage is around 115 miles and he runs hard - nearly at racing pace three times a week instead of two as before. Shortly, Amato will begin those final delicate steps that will bring him to a peak, a summit fitness Treacy can hold for about three weeks and no longer.
But there's no doubt that Treacy is in with a chance. Just that fact alone is worth considering. He's only just turned 23 (in June). As Irish coach Phil Conway points out: "He's very young for the events he's in". Whatever happens in Moscow, we have only seen the start of John Treacy's career.