Marcus O’Sullivan asked the question without the slightest trace of arrogance. The anniversary of a big track and field milestone, an O’Sullivan milestone, had brought me to the office of the Villanova men’s track and field coach.
“Which milestone?’’ O’Sullivan asked as we sat down Tuesday morning.
The 20th anniversary of his 100th sub-four-minute mile. It had been 20 years that day. I didn’t have to tell O’Sullivan only three men on earth have broken the iconic threshold so often. O’Sullivan explained that he had been on the phone that week with a reporter from his native Ireland who was asking about the 25th anniversary of his third and final world championship.
“Which I thought was a little obscure,’’ O’Sullivan said. “We kind of went off on that one and then went on some side roads. Then I said, it’s the 30th anniversary of my first one,’’ meaning his first indoor world championship. I asked O’Sullivan to go back further, to his first mile of less than four minutes. It turns out that was in 1983 — so let’s call it four milestones, since that was 35 years ago.
“It was at the Tin Can Arena, which is at UNC,’’ O’Sullivan said, and although he can’t pull out details from all 101 races in which he went less than four minutes, he can remember the first, in Chapel Hill, N.C. “It was an old wooden 200-meter track that they had set up, and I was a junior. I broke four minutes and I went right to the bathroom and I just threw up. In the corner, they had a little bathroom. I was so sick. It was kind of — not exactly a clean area, a little musty. I had a violent headache. That was the first time. I don’t remember the race itself. I just remember how I felt when I got done.”
O’Sullivan pointed to a wall in his office on Ithan Avenue. Right over a full bookshelf, there were framed photos of runners O’Sullivan, 56, has coached in his 20 years in charge at Villanova who had broken four minutes. All those guys did it while at Villanova?
“That one, he broke it the summer after,’’ O’Sullivan said, pointing to a photo on the bottom left. “He came in, first thing he said, ‘Look, am I going to get on this wall or not?’ ”
The early years
On a larger wall were photos of Villanova’s track Olympians. O’Sullivan, a four-time Olympian, was in a black-and-white taken at Franklin Field. I asked him to go back earlier, to Ireland. O’Sullivan began down that road, explaining how he had finished high school, had actually toyed earlier with leaving high school in Cork City to get an apprenticeship as a welder or mechanic. “You get a job and you move on with life,” he said.
He stayed on and finished, still not thinking about college, “wasn’t something I was destined to be in.” He got a job through a work-placement program as a sailmaker for yachts, in Kinsale — “a great seaport. For a year. About 20 miles, I used to take the bus up and down every day. It was an hour, a tough road to get down. Worked there for the year. During that year, I came under the tutelage of this guy.”
O’Sullivan pointed to the larger wall, to the photo right next to his own, a guy in a Villanova sweatsuit running at Villanova’s track, scoreboard in the background. Donie Walsh, also from Cork City.
“He was second to Steve Prefontaine back in the day when the NCAAs was the NCAAs,’’ O’Sullivan said. “He ending up becoming an Olympian. He kind of took me under his wing for the year. In that year, I would meet him at like 8 o’clock at night, train until 10. … We had committed to one full year. After one year, if I couldn’t make it, I was going to quit running and move on.”
Walsh was a member of his running club in Cork.
“You talk about being in the right place at the right time, and when people talk about serendipity and chance meetings — jumping forward, like 30 years later,’’ O’Sullivan said. “I’m big into science. I do a lot of lactic testing, blood testing, all that. And the more I dig into science, the more I realize this guy was brilliant. He just didn’t know he was brilliant. Donie, our meetings would be in a bar. It would be smoke-filled. There would be bookies and gamblers. … All these guys hung out, for horse races and greyhounds; they hung out at the bar. Donie was big into horses and dog tracks. Our meetings would be at the pub or we might meet at the dog track. It was really almost, very unusual …”
Cinematic might be the word.
“He’d be like, we’re going to do this,’’ O’Sullivan said, mimicking a Cork mumble. “I was a very compliant young kid. Whatever he told me to do, I did. He was probably 30. I thought he was an old guy. He works with me the whole year and took me from being a 4:25 miler, which is decent but not good enough for scholarship, to 4:05. He just catapulted me on to a moment where I ended up at Villanova. This would have been a dream school. The only reason I got it, a guy named Ray Brown ended up [backing out] and going to Virginia. Back then, we had no letters of intent.”
You had guys like Donie Walsh, calling his old coach, the legendary Jumbo Elliott. O’Sullivan wrote a paper about Walsh, called it “A Diamond in the Rough.”
“I get goosebumps, when I started to discover the technical side of things,’’ O’Sullivan said. “This is Donie. I can’t believe he was doing this stuff without any technical influence. He had this intuitive feeling. He would always talk about softer, more relaxed, within yourself. Don’t press it. Never be about speed, this [specific pace]. Just pull back a bit. All the while, I used to come back from practice that whole year and say, ‘Man, that was a total waste of time.’ ”
No heat at home
O’Sullivan said he didn’t have a bathroom in his own house, “no heat or anything like that. The highlight, when I went to Donie’s house, I got to get a bath at his house. The things that crystallized in your mind as the years go on. You forget about the races. The things that resonate with you, I’d remember going to bed at night and there’d be droplets coming off the ceiling because there was no heat, so the condensation … I remember one particular night, he came to the house, it was pouring.”
An Irishman noting a heavy rain is about like someone from Buffalo being impressed by a snowfall.
“I wasn’t going to the club — it was too wet. I didn’t have a washer and dryer, so anything I wore, I needed to have it ready for the next day. I could manage sweat, but I couldn’t manage rain. I had this heater in my room. It was this gas heater, put the clothes around it. After a while, they’d start standing up — there was so much salt left in the clothes.’’
Walsh wasn’t worried about all that.
“He comes to the house, pouring rain, and he’s in a yellow coat like a fisherman in the North Sea,” O’Sullivan recalled. “This big heavy-duty thing. ‘Heh, heh, you ready?’ This is a Cork accent. I’ve got to do the accent: ‘Boy, I’m going running for a few minutes and when I come back, be ready and I’ll get you.’ You’re 17. I guess I’m going.”
Villanova came into the picture.
“He pushed me hard to come here, but behind the scenes,’’ O’Sullivan said. “He never told me I should go, never told me I need to go, but he wanted me to go. Years later, he said, ‘I knew when Jumbo would see you, he’d know what to do with you.’ And then Jumbo died that first year.”
Jumbo Elliott’s direct influence on O’Sullivan maybe came down to one sentence, which wasn’t even said to him directly. (The indirect influences could fill a book.)
A friend of Elliott’s told him after the coach had died, “When Jumbo saw you run, he said this will be one of our great ones.”
“What I got from Jumbo was an endorsement that lasted a long time,” O’Sullivan said.
The connection to Villanova, O’Sullivan said, has never left since he was 17. From being with Walsh; to running for Villanova; to training under the great Tom Donnelly, former Villanova distance star and Haverford College coaching great; to taking over a job O’Sullivan never thought he’d want, as Villanova’s coach.
We eventually got to talking about the 101 four-minute miles, how that became a mission to keep going in the sport when his drive had been flagging, how the 100th had to be planned a year and a half out since there weren’t so many mile races being run by then. Converted 1,500-meter races didn’t count — he had another 90-some races that would have converted to sub-four — and longer races in which he was less than four minutes for the first mile also didn’t count. O’Sullivan wanted to hit 100 in New York, which took some doing, and created pressure, since he ran plenty of 4:01 races in his life. No. 99 was at Haverford College. When he got 100, he flew to New Zealand to get one more to have in his pocket in case a race was ever contested.
And the guy who got O’Sullivan to the starting line still lives in Cork.
“Occasionally, I stay with him,’’ O’Sullivan said. “He lives about a half-mile from where I grew up.”
Maybe they’d have a Murphy’s, the local stout?
“Believe it or not, Donie is a Heineken drinker, always has been,’’ O’Sullivan said.
And this drinker of Dutch beer who changed O’Sullivan life is still into the sport?
“In fact, it’s interesting,’’ O’Sullivan said. “He’s rekindled his life in coaching. He got out of it for a while, into other sports, soccer and that kind of stuff. And he’s back at the club now. I want to say he had two athletes at the last Olympics. He’s a very good coach, but all rough, like, intuition, a good common-sense approach.”
Let’s assume there’s no coincidence how O’Sullivan placed those framed photos on his wall, Walsh directly next to him, the older man closer to the middle of it all, as the milestones keep adding years, and more photos join them.