the middle distance

'I got lost in many ways' - Marcus O'Sullivan on running for his life, exit strategies and a lingering regret

In a glittering career, the Cork native amassed three World Indoor triumphs and four Olympic appearances before dedicating himself to reaching 100 sub four-minute miles.

THERE’S A WONDERFUL black and white image of Marcus O’Sullivan from 1975. He’s mid-stride and assessing the steep decline as he comes down over a water trough gap in the middle of a cow field. The moment was captured by Kevin Cummins – of the fabled Cork sporting bloodline – who had a keen interest in the South Munster Colleges Cross-Country race in Rochestown for two reasons. Firstly, he was an accomplished amateur sports photographer. Secondly, he was a teacher at Coláiste Chríost Rí, the same nursery O’Sullivan proudly helped to success in the team event that day.    

Within five years, O’Sullivan would be at Pennsylvania’s Villanova University on an athletics scholarship. Within a decade, he’d be competing at his first Olympic Games in Los Angeles. But although that 14-year-old had aspirations, his immediate focus was a bit more low-key, though crucial in its own right.  

“Kevin had a display case outside the work shop – for metalwork and woodwork – and would have his film developed by Monday”, O’Sullivan remembers. 

“If we did something over the weekend, it was thrilling – really thrilling – to come down on your break because all the photos would be up. You’d be hugely disappointed if he was a day late with them, y’know? But to be a part of that – to see the whole school coming through on their lunch and stopping to look at the photographs – there was an incredible sense of recognition of sorts. To see the photos…it was the closest thing you could get to social media back then. It was important for us. And it gave us an impetus to continue. To see the school recognising us…it wasn’t Gaelic football or hurling but the teachers were proud of it and that was very forthcoming in Kevin’s photographs.”

“I think my dream was to just be good at something. I wasn’t quite sure what it was going to be. But I knew from a very early age that I wanted to be the best at something. When that photo was taken, I wasn’t the best. I didn’t win those races. The school races. There was always someone beating me. I didn’t make any international teams. Nobody really knew me as a youth coming through. In a way, I bypassed all of that. I went off, (renowned coach and Irish Olympian) Donie Walsh took me under his wing and catapulted me. The dreams were there but the reality of it being a destined ending certainly wasn’t.”

When he finished school, athletics still wasn’t an option. He didn’t have the times or the profile so nobody was sniffing around. But, he felt like he had something. And Walsh felt it too. So, a plan was devised. O’Sullivan would work intensely on his running for twelve months and then reassess. Maybe, just maybe, he could get fast enough to spark interest. To earn a few bob, he took up a gig making sails down in Kinsale. He’d be up at six, leave home an hour later, return at 5.30 and then train at Leevale. Each night, he’d hit between ten and twelve miles.     

“It was the late-70s/early 80s”, he says. 

“Economically, it was tough. I think my job was paying me about 25p an hour. That’s two quid a day. A tenner a week. Then there’s PRSI and all of that. It was a time where you’d hit the pubs at the weekend, spend it and start again on the Monday. But I seemed to be very determined that the money was going in the bank and that something was going to happen at the end of that year. And that I’d be prepared for it. I was very destined to do something. For that year – with Donie’s help and my family’s support – it was a do-or-die situation. Either I was moving on with the project or I wasn’t. And then you meet the right people and put yourself in the right environment. I was blessed, really. But there is definitely more to it than talent. There is a resonance that has to take place. Things have to line up. And I’m fully recognisable of it now. As the years have gone on, I acknowledge it more and more. The talent is one thing but having the determination and luck and opportunities is very, very important.”

Walsh had studied at Villanova and when O’Sullivan ran 3.47 in the 1500m at a summer meet the following year, he knew the plan had worked and a recommendation to the university’s legendary coach Jumbo Elliott quickly followed.

athletics-barcelona-olympic-games-1992-mens-1500m Marcus O'Sullivan competing at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona. Neal Simpson Neal Simpson

“I don’t know what it was back then but I think Donie believed in me way more than I could really visualise”, O’Sullivan says. 

“He said to me, ‘When Jumbo sees you, he’ll know why I sent you’”.

And, like that, he was bound for America. 

“The recruiting process is so intense now”, he says. 

“You might have a kid from Australia and they’d visit the school for two days. they might do a stint of three different places, go back home, deliberate and then make their decision. In contrast, I had a bag of clothes, about 20 pounds in my pocket and I was going to Villanova. It was difficult in many ways but also easy and logical.”

I got off the plane in the international terminal in JFK, which was a bit different to what it’s like now. You’d nearly have someone carrying a chicken under their arm coming through alongside you. I was with another guy called Brian O’Keefe, who would become my team-mate, and we were told we’d be met by a fella called Cummin Clancy. Cummin grew up in Mayo and would have come out with Jimmy Rearden, who was the first Irish athlete to make his way to the US in the 1940s. We came into arrivals and there was Cummin. A huge man. We shook hands and he was chatting to us about Villanova as we walked. And then he put us in a transit van and off we went. And I remember coming across the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge, where the New York City marathon begins, and being convinced it was the Golden Gate. I thought we were in the wrong place because there couldn’t possibly be two of them. Vivid memories. And then we got to Villanova when it was dark and I was very discombobulated and uneasy but excited at the same time.”

Settling in was difficult. It wasn’t a pining for home. And, in fact, it wasn’t just the formative days and months either. Various issues arose and some lingered for years. In between, Elliot – who had coached a litany of athletic superstars and was regarded as one of the finest gurus in the world – died of a heart attack and O’Sullivan considered transferring. But Walsh – even from afar – stepped in and talked him down from the ledge. In his third year, he thought about quitting altogether. Again, Walsh was there to provide the necessary counsel.   

“You go through the homesickness part of it but I was never going back to Cork”, O’Sullivan says. 

“I remember Donie even saying to me, ‘Do not come home for Christmas’. It was simple instructions. ‘Suck it up and stick it out for the whole year’. But I didn’t have the money anyway and my parents didn’t either. After Jumbo died, I was angry and upset and I was going to transfer to Arkansas, where (Mayo native) John McDonnell was overseeing the program. But Donie told me to stay and I did. And as it turned out, Jumbo – who never would have opened up to me – had a friend called Doc Barry who I got closer to and who told me one day, ‘When Jumbo first saw you race, he said, This will be one of our great ones’. And that was enough for me to believe. A man like that – who had the great athletes come through like (Ronnie) Delaney, Eamonn (Coghlan), John Hartnett, plus all the Americans, plus Sydney Maree…He imparted enough information to me to keep myself moving. Posthumously, I was still being influenced by him.”

But, did it all go well? No it didn’t. For the first two or three years, I probably drank too much. I got lost in many ways. I got close to the edge in terms of missing the mark, so much so that I almost went home and quit college in my junior year. But Donie was there again to put me right and get me back on track. Sometimes when you’re that age, you need a strong and firm hand but at the right time. There’s lots of times people give you advice and you never take it. And you only do when the timing is perfect. Everything has to line up. I always say that people who take the advice best are the people at rock bottom and have nowhere else to go. And for most people that’s too late.”

Walsh is a constant presence in the story. The pair remain incredibly close and O’Sullivan has a photo of his lifelong mentor hanging in his Villanova office, where he’s been the men’s track and field coach for over two decades. When we’re three-quarters of the way through our conversation, O’Sullivan stops momentarily, giddy with excitement at the serendipity of the moment. He’s got another call coming through. From a Cork number.       

It’s tough for O’Sullivan to pinpoint Walsh’s greatest contribution to his career, the one nugget of wisdom that proved a seismic difference-maker. But it was at Villanova when Walsh admonished him for not being as prepared as he could be and that the fickle nature of sport meant an opportunity – maybe even the perfect one – could arise at any moment. And with the Olympics on the horizon, those words bounced around O’Sullivan’s brain during one particular race: the 1500m at the 1984 NCAA Championships.      

ronnie-delaney-1956 O'Sullivan's coach at Villanova was the legendary Jumbo Elliott, who had overseen a litany of athletic superstars including Ronnie Delaney, seen here winning gold at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne. Allsport / INPHO Allsport / INPHO / INPHO

“I always had an exit strategy”, he says. 

“You don’t go in to rob a bank without having a way of getting out and I think I got it from Donie. So, I studied hard at school and got an accounting degree at the end of it. And that was my safety net. I could earn a living and raise a family. And I look at the kids I coach now and the pressure, the anxiety is just incredible. Whether it’s social media or something else. I had pressure but it wasn’t delusional pressure. I wasn’t so pre-occupied with how it was all going to work out. If somebody asked me in 1984 if I was going to win a world championship three years later, that was never on the cards. It was about making the Olympic team and seeing what I could do.”

My best was about 3.41 for 1500m. And as much as I never won an NCAA title, I finished second that day in 1984 to Joaquim Cruz, who would win the 800m at the Olympics later that year. But, I remember there was one lap to go and I was about seventh or eighth. And I thought, ‘Jesus, this is it. You either do something now or it’s all over’. And I went from back there to the front of the pack and held on for second place in 3.37 and I’d qualified for Los Angeles. Years later, it was something similar. There was a race in Phoenix and it was a road mile. And I was out of the money, y’know? I was counting the spots and I was out of the money. And what flashed through my mind was my wife and how she was pregnant and due the following year. And I just said, ‘You need to get your ass up there’. And I finished second. In my three years at Villanova, I wasn’t prepared and Donie pointed it out. And it’s always better to be prepared for the opportunity you never get than unprepared for the one you do. Because once you blow it, everyone sees it. You can get that one chance to make the presentation and you ruin it. Or, you can prepare for years, the guy gets sick and you have to step up and make it happen. And you do it and everyone says, ‘Wow, that was really good’. As an athlete, I was always trying to be prepared. I knew something good would happen, I just didn’t know when or where.” 

His debut Olympics saw him reach the semi-finals of the 800m and 1500m but 3.39 in the latter – his preferred distance – wasn’t enough to advance. And, as much as the experience was enjoyable, O’Sullivan’s standout memory is his desperate chase for a sponsor that dominated the buildup.

athletics-los-angeles-olympic-games-1984-mens-1500m O'Sullivan tucked in behind GB's Steve Ovett during the 1500m heats at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. S&G S&G

“When I left college, I literally had no money”, he says. 

All through my college years, we were sponsored by a certain shoe company and they’d said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll look after you’. But even though I’d made the Olympic team, I still didn’t have a contract. I wasn’t looking for anything major, just something to pay the rent. There’s a point where you have to designate your shoe and write it down in an official Olympic form. It’s to prevent companies coming in after the semi-finals or whatever and taking advantage. So, we’re a few days away from the first race and the days before sports agents. And every morning I’d walk down to Wilshire Boulevard and sit on the steps outside where the major shoe companies had housing set up for themselves and their various guests. I’d wait there for a certain guy I had known all the way through college to come out. And he’d never come out. He knew I was there. And he never came out. And I felt like a beggar. I was stressed. It was the only leverage I had. After the Games, it wouldn’t matter and I wouldn’t get a contract after that. It was a window and I had to take advantage. It comes back to the point about opportunity. This was mine.”

“Now, I was still trying to prepare for my race. And I knew I had no money. I knew this was my chance. And I was anxious and worried and concerned. But one night I was in my dorm and a guy came to my door called Kevin Ryan, a Kiwi and an ex-runner in his day. He worked for New Balance and he had a bag full of clothes. John Treacy was with him and he told me, ‘You need to listen to this fella’. Kevin told me, ‘Look, I have no money for you but if you wear these clothes at the Olympics I promise I’ll give you a contract next year’. I asked John and he vouched for him. So I took the bag of clothes and the shoes, I wrote ‘New Balance’ on my Olympics form and Kevin came through with a big contract in January and I ended up spending the next eight or nine years with them. And there’s the opportunity versus the near miss. People did believe in me and felt I could do something. I wasn’t sure how it would end up but they saw some determination in my eyes.”  

By the time O’Sullivan competed at his next Olympics, he was a world indoor champion. Clocking 3.39.04 at Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis one March evening in 1987, the celebrations intensified when his long-time friend Frank O’Mara claimed the 3000m title the following night. And when the new year began brightly for him, O’Sullivan looked at Seoul as a genuine podium opportunity. But over three decades later, he still dwells on it. It still gets to him. Eighth place. 3.38.39.        

“A perfect example of not getting it right when I could’ve”, he admits. 

I mistimed it. I don’t even know how I made the final. I was struggling. I was thinking how the hell I was going to get ready. In the February, I’d run 3.50 indoors (the second fastest indoor mile ever run at the time) and felt great. And I’ve always thought that if I could’ve replicated that form, it would’ve put me in the money. In the medals. Peter Rono won in Seoul that day and I don’t think Peter ever beat me before or after. We stayed friends for years and were in Kenya together later on and I told him, ‘You won the real one. You won the one that counted. You were in the right place at the right time.’ I was barely making it through the rounds at a time when I should’ve been top of my game. I still think about it often. At the same time, I try to offset it with all the wonderful things I achieved through the sport. And I try not to define myself by it too much. I squeezed a lot out of my career, with the exception of a few moments. Like ’88. Periodically, there were times I felt I got a season wrong. It was drudgery. Every day I’d get up and not want to run. And it was 15 years of a career split in two, so 30 seasons of running. It’s like being in a job for 30 years. Some days were painful. But sometimes you’d get a rejuvenation and an excitement about what I was doing.”

“I can see where the flaws were in the build-up but that’s years later. A case of if the old only could and the young only knew. I learned from it, moved on and recycled. I went back, did some very relaxed training and said, ‘It’s another opportunity’. The purple patch was probably 1987 to 1989 and slap in the middle was ’88. And maybe it hurts a bit more than LA because I was young and coming on and in ’92 I was thinking about retiring. So ’88…it would be the one thing I’d like to do again.”  

marcus-osullivan Andy Heading Andy Heading

Maybe what happened in Seoul made the following year that much sweeter but O’Sullivan’s not sure. It was just about preparing again, waiting for the right circumstances to come together. But he does hold his second World Indoor triumph close to his heart for a few reasons. 

“I’d come off a very disappointing year and I’d lost the previous race to Frank O’Mara in New York, about two weeks beforehand”, he says. 

“I was very concerned and I knew I was sick with a chest cold by the time I got to Budapest. So, I’m not confident at all for the race. But I get to the venue and become aware that a whole bunch of Irish soccer fans have turned up because the Republic were playing a World Cup qualifier a few days later against Hungary. So I felt an abnormal sense of pressure. Firstly, I was trying to repeat something people are expecting you to do and you’re realising it’s not as easy as they think it is. Secondly, I had no idea how the race was going to go because I’d lost to Frank in a sprint a fortnight earlier so I wasn’t confident I could out-sprint people. Thirdly, the soccer fans had brought the flags, the trumpets, the horns and they’re all in one section. And I’m thinking, ‘Oh, my God. Of all the days I need to perform it’s today.’ Again, like stepping up to give the presentation after preparing for so long and you don’t want to blow it. So I had a whole bunch of things going on in my head.”

Screen Shot 2019-10-23 at 12.20.13

“And when I went out for the warm-up, it was the only time in my career that I actually lost my place. I didn’t know if I had actually done the jog. I wasn’t sure I was warmed up at all. I was scratching my head and saying, ‘Did I run or not? I think I did but I can’t remember’. I lost myself in some other place and I just couldn’t wait for the race to start. The first lap went out steady and Sydney Maree took up the lead. I got in behind and thought, ‘I can’t believe it’s going to be like this’. And sure enough, it was 3.36. It might have been a championship record and it ended up so steady. That last lap, I had so much energy left. I was just biding my time. And it was way easier than I expected. One of those races where it was fulfilling to be able to arrive as somewhat of a favourite and deliver. And to do it in front of so many Irish fans meant a lot too.”

And to have my coach Tom Donnelly there…He rarely came with me but he was in Budapest and the level of stress he would put himself under…I remember the night before the final, my room was facing the main street and there was a lot of traffic and noise. I went to Tom’s room, which was facing a courtyard, and I thought we could either swap or I’d just stay with him. So I knock on his door at about 10 or 11 at night. He opens the door and all of this smoke just drifts out into the corridor. And I said, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ He said, ‘I’m smoking’. And I say, ‘But you don’t smoke’. And he says, ‘I know I don’t but I’m so nervous I just had to’. And he’s chain-smoking inside in the bedroom. So I said, ‘Well, I can’t stay in here’. So I went back to my room, got some toilet paper, jammed it in my ears and just lived with the traffic rather than the cigarette smoke. It revealed a lot about Tom because we’d been working with each other for about four or five years and I saw things from the perspective of a coach and how emotionally stressful it was. He’d invested so much. And only years later, I started to realise.”

O’Sullivan would claim a third World Indoor title in Toronto in 1993 and take in two more Olympic appearances in Barcelona and Atlanta too. An introduction to heart-rate training recharged his batteries and the latter part of his career saw him shelve retirement plans and focus on becoming only the third man to reach one hundred sub four-minute miles instead. That happened in February 1998 in front of 17,000 at Madison Square Garden. To be certain of the milestone, he went to New Zealand and racked up his 101st shortly after, just in case any result was disputed.   

Screen Shot 2019-10-17 at 13.27.16 O'Sullivan celebrates his third World Indoor title in Toronto in 1993. ©Tom Honan\INPHO ©Tom Honan\INPHO

The training switch had revitalised him and fuelled a new sense of purpose and enjoyment. 

“You get a personal best at 35 when you thought you were washed up at 32″, he says. 

“So the latter part of my career became far more interesting, even though I wasn’t winning some of the bigger races. I wanted to remain in the sport because I was learning so much.” 

O’Sullivan repeatedly extols the importance of mentorship in his career. He reels off the names of those who went before him and who subsequently plotted a safe course: Donie Walsh, Eamonn Coghlan, John Hartnett. People who’d gone through the same journey and, crucially, knew the better path to take.    

“I always say to athletes that what they really ought to be looking for is mentorship”, he says.  

They are critical. In terms of the crossroads of decisions, that’s when your mentor really comes through. Because they’ve made so many mistakes. They won’t tell you that but a mentor is someone who’s made the wrong decisions at times but has finally figured it out. They’ve observed through experiences. After college, the most valuable thing I got from Villanova was the mentorship of the alumni community. The advice was incredibly valuable and part of why I lasted as long as I did was because I had great mentors that guided me along the way. If you couldn’t find the answer, they’d help you. Even this coaching job at Villanova, I didn’t want. But my mentors told me it’s what I needed to be doing. In retrospect, they saw things in me that I didn’t see in myself. You’re too close to the action, to the decision making.”

“I’m in the middle of a book – Running Full Circle by Frank Greally – and I can’t put it down. He was chronicling his story – coming through as a young Irish runner, going to Tennessee and how it all didn’t work out for him. And I can’t help but reflect on the antithesis of that, which is my story. You have all these dreams and aspirations and you’re determined to try and make it. And what I’m trying to wrap my head around when reading Frank’s book are the moments when I came so close to not making it. For 99% of people, they go through a situation where it doesn’t work out for them. And the challenge is how you move on with life. For some it’s easy and for others…it’s not.” 

Though it took O’Sullivan some time to find his stride as a coach, he came to realise it was the all-encompassing, multi-faceted, holistic approach rather than a daily technical grind that he found more appealing.  

“In college, you’re still on safe ground”, he says. 

There’s still a sense of purity there. Do I coach post-collegiate athletes? Yes. But they have to have been in my programme and some years there’s a lot and some years there’s a few. But it can become more of a struggle once you’re past the collegiate level. I don’t overthink it and I don’t have them overthink it. But it’s the purest time and it’s why we coach. You’re influencing lives and helping them grow as individuals and helping them mature. And it’s all of that along with athletics. The higher you go on the totem pole, it doesn’t compare. It’s about the sport and not personal growth. I don’t know if I’d get as much from that. I don’t think it would be deep enough for me. Coaches are teachers and parents and the beauty of it is seeing a growth in individuals athletically, physically, mentally, psychologically and I’m in the perfect spot. I can help influence it, shape it.”

“Tonight was a team dinner at my house. Twenty or thirty kids all eating steaks and hanging out together. To have that opportunity, I think it’s the quintessential reason to coach. Beyond that, it becomes an entirely different medium and I’m not sure that appeals to me. You don’t get the same fulfilment and you’re not dealing with the same interface because post-collegiates are moving on, getting married, having a family. Maybe because there are so many things you can’t control…maybe that’s a deterrent. But maybe I’ve done enough as an athlete to feel I can affect people in deeper ways.”

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