7:35 PM EDT, September 29, 2012
P.J. Tierney was not a runner. But in 1978, he made a big impact on running in Connecticut.
Tierney, who died Tuesday of cancer at age 82, was an Irishman first and foremost, a Dubliner who loved sports. Eamonn Coghlan, also a Dubliner, was one of the top milers in the world. P.J. wanted him to come to his hometown race, the Manchester Road Race. Amby Burfoot had won the race seven straight years, and Tierney thought his lads could give Amby a little competition.
"He just called [Coghlan]," P.J.'s son Jim said Friday. "He hadn't met him. When two Dublin guys are talking, it doesn't matter if they haven't met. They feel like kindred spirits. Dublin men are that way and always will be.
"Eamonn would have come in '78, but he couldn't. He suggested to Dad to give John Treacy a call."
Treacy was a Providence College student. He had just won the World Cross Country championships in March. He was intrigued by this Irishman and the Thanksgiving Day race.
"I think I met them halfway between Manchester and Providence," Treacy said Friday from Ireland, where he is the chief executive of the Irish Sports Council. "They wanted to make sure they had my entry in on time. When I met all the lads from home, living in that lovely community … all I needed to do was to go there the first year, and that was it."
Treacy, a four-time Olympian, would win the silver medal in the 1984 Olympic marathon. Coghlan set the world record in the indoor mile in 1979 and was a three-time Olympian. P.J. finally got him to come to Manchester in 1981. He won three times. Treacy won four times and set a course record in 1979, which held up for 16 years.
Between 1978 and 1987, the Irish Connection dominated at Manchester, winning all but one race. They staged great duels with each other and the other runners. They trash-talked at the prerace pasta dinner. And their success piqued the interest of the international running community, whose members began to make their way to Manchester on Thanksgiving morning.
"It was always a great race, but it took off from there," said Ray Treacy, John's brother, the longtime Providence College track and cross country coach who has supplied many race winners, including Mark Carroll, Amy Rudolph and Kim Smith. "It brought up the level of competitiveness there. It was all through P.J."
P.J. was the "Godfather," making sure his Irish runners were cared for, housed and, of course, entertained at the Irish American Club.
Charlie Breagy, another Irishman from Providence who came to Manchester with John Treacy, ran three times and ended up coming to Manchester to help out at every race afterward until last year, when he started his own Thanksgiving Day race in Rhode Island.
"The guys were telling me about this race in Manchester, there were some great Irish characters there," he said. "It was really a special occasion for us to go there. We felt that it meant something to the Irish community, so it was incentive for us to go there to try to perform.
"I'd never seen a course lined with people all the way around. There's a party at every single house. How could you not run fast on that course, even with the hill? It was the best excitement in road racing I knew about."
P.J. and his wife Mary, who died last year, opened their home to the Irish runners. There was always tea and scones and jam for two-time winner Carroll and his wife, five-time winner Rudolph. P.J. would make homemade vegetable soup, and he would always take Carroll to the Irish American Club in Glastonbury for a pint with the lads.
"I think I met him at the Millrose Games," said Carroll, now the cross country and distance coach at Auburn. "He said, 'You've got to come to Manchester and take a shot at the Manchester Road Race.' He told me about Eamonn and John Treacy and the Irish history. He sold me on it."
Carroll first came to Manchester on a very cold Thanksgiving morning in 1996.
"My first year, Khalid Khannounchi won," Carroll said. "P.J. said, 'Well, you've got to keep coming back until you win the thing.' "
Carroll, an Olympian in 2000, won at Manchester in 1998 and 2000.
Good thing, too. Rumor had it that he might have been looking for different accommodations if he hadn't won.
"No more tea and scones from Mrs. Tierney," Carroll said that day in 1998, laughing, "I'd have to stay at the hotel, like everybody else."
"Nah, we wouldn't do that," P.J. said.
John Treacy remembered the pasta dinner the night before he set the record (21:26) in 1979.
"The first year, I failed to break course record by a second," said Treacy, who ran 22:23 over the 4.748-mile course in his debut. "Charlie Duggan was my main competition the second year. He laid down a challenge to myself on that Wednesday evening. Ray [his brother] was running as well. I said to Ray, 'I'm going to take him out so f hard, and you can pick up the pieces.'
"I went out the first mile in 4:16, and Charlie was gone. I won the race by 65 seconds. And Ray picked off Charlie Duggan."
Or how about 1983, when Dave Prindiville, one of the race organizers, remembered Randy Thomas trying to mix it up with the Irish lads?
Thomas got up at the pasta dinner, Prindiville recalled, and told the assembled runners he knew there were a lot of good Irish runners there and that he planned to wear his Irish Claddagh ring the next day.
Coghlan spoke after that. At the end of his speech, Prindville recalled, he leaned close to the microphone and said quietly, "It's going to take more than a ring, Randy. It's going to take more than a ring."
"The Irish runners took one through five the next day," Prindiville said. "Thomas was sixth. I saw that one coming."
Coghlan, now an Irish senator, was in New York for a fundraiser and came to Manchester to visit P.J. a few weeks ago. John Treacy spoke with P.J. last week.
"We reminisced about all the great days in the past," John said. "It was lovely to do that with him. I have great memories.
"The night before the race, the banter, the pasta dinner, the great tradition and P.J. and all the crew would be there. It was just one of these races that grew on us because of the people. When I think about the Manchester Road Race, the first person I think about is P.J."
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