Ian O’Riordan: Rekindling the running spirit of Jerry Kiernan – The Irish Times

Ian O’Riordan: Rekindling the running spirit of Jerry Kiernan  The Irish Times

At Mallow racecourse, where in winter the going is invariably heavy, they staged the National Cross-Country one time on such a freezing, rainy day that some of the runners almost died. At least remembers it as such, as well he might, given he was still young and hungry learning all he could about the sport.

It was 1974, definitely thereabouts, and it was also here he first laid eyes on an even younger , standing upright against the bitter wind, lean as a spider, drying himself off after mixing it with the strongest distance runners in the land. Something and everything about that long-hair, rock star look already set him apart.

That evening, on the train journey back to Dublin, they struck up a conversation, the Kerry man running for Clonliffe Harriers in Dublin, the Galway man running for rivals Liffey Valley AC, and discovered they were living just around the corner from each other in Cabinteely in south county Dublin. They should meet for a training run some Sunday, they agreed.

A week later, maybe two, Kiernan suggested his Sunday 20-mile circuit which set out from Cabinteely and headed straight up towards the Dublin Mountains, across as far as the Pine Forest, then back down again and without much let up. From the off Coleman couldn’t get much of a word in, even if he wanted to: Kiernan was the only one easy and able to hold a conversation at that pace anyway, and by the time they got back he had more or less verbatim given Coleman the entire history of India, up to and including and after the British occupation.

So began a lifelong training partnership and better still a dear friendship, which ended as still indescribably sadly as it did with Kiernan’s death after a short illness in January of this year, aged 67. Coleman certainly wasn’t alone in feeling a debt of some considerable gratitude for all that Kiernan had shared with him over those almost 40 years of experience, not only in running terms but in work and social and family life, and as irreplaceable as his loss was, started to think about some way of filling it, paying the kindness further forward.

Kiernan could be unabashed in considering himself an aficionado in some of the finer things in life – National Hunt racing, Barcelona Football Club, the Super Tuscan red wines – although distance running was always chief among them. In a world of people shouting to be heard, few spoke about the track or indeed field with such knowledge and authority: Kiernan could talk the talk because he’d run the miles, and later as an athletics analyst with RTÉ could read even the most tactical of races like an open book: sharp, witty and unforgiving in his view because he also knew exactly what it took to reach the top.

His genius of generosity, first towards the students he taught for almost 40 years and later the countless athletes that he coached, was dearly lost too, and as insignificant as that was to the loss to his own family, is what inspired Coleman to establish and chair the new as a way to keep giving back some of what he still left behind, remember him not just in words but some meaning too.

Jerry Kiernan crosses the line to win the Dublin City Marathon in 1982. Photograph: Billy Stickland/Inpho

“From that first meeting in Mallow, when he was starting as a teacher at St Brigid’s Boys’ school in Foxrock, and I was starting out in engineering, we just struck up a relationship, did almost all our running together over the next 30 or so years,” says Coleman. “Any time you spent with Jerry was never time wasted. We never had a falling out, we’d often just agree to disagree.

“Back in the day we’d regularly run 125 miles a week, six in the morning, off to work, then again in the evening. We were part-time, but with a completely professional ethic. We shared that love of running, and right up until the time of his death, he was still coaching up to 100 runners some evenings in Belfield, and he got as much satisfaction seeing those try their hardest at the back at the pack as he did those at front.

“He had the same time for them all. And he would never leave until all of them were finished. And of course he would never take a penny in return, everything he did was always freely given.”

Coleman was also inspired by Kiernan’s lifelong dedication. It’s said Kiernan never missed a day’s teaching in his life, and Coleman can vouch for that, recalling the time in May of 1977, a year after narrowly missing out of the Montreal Olympics, when Kiernan was invited to the Night of Athletics in Crystal Palace. He taught up until lunchtime, got two buses across town to the airport, and arrived in London in time for the 3,000m, where he clocked 7:56.9, breaking the Irish record of 8:02.2 (which had stood to Tom O’Riordan since 1966); Kiernan then made the last flight back, and in was class again the next morning.

Coleman also saw how a little financial support could go a long way, the headmaster at St Brigid’s back in 1984 raising, without any request, a small contribution towards Kiernan’s Olympic preparations that summer. It afforded him the chance to travel to Los Angeles well in advance and complete the acclimatisation process, and which unquestionably helped him produce the race of life, that ninth-place finish, in 2:12.20, in arguably the greatest Olympic marathon field of all.

“My son Brian, who taught with Jerry, my other son Fergal who is in Melbourne, talked about continuing that life work in some way, with something useful. Things like that inspired us, that a little bit of support for Irish athletes can go a long way, can help them achieve their goals. Education of course was his other great passion in life, and we’d like to channel some of the resources into teaching physical activity in schools, where possible, down the road.

“Initially it’s about delivering a structured funding programme for elite athletes, to help support their development to international standards. There is good cohort of young Irish athletes coming through, with a need for some more investment there.

“We’re a registered company, not for profit, and making sure we’re professional, transparent, and well advised. Every penny of every donation is accounted for, I’d be very big on transparency like that, and we have experts to assess each application, people like Anne Keenan-Buckley, to ensure it is all impartial, and independent from people like me. There’s a small pot there already, without much of an effort, so it’s about building from here, hopefully lobbying a few organisations, all for the betterment of Irish athletics. It’s about rekindling some of that spirit, which is what Jerry was always all about.”

For more information see www.jerrykiernanfoundation.org