As Noel Car­roll said: ‘You ei­ther ran to­day or you didn’t’

The Irish Times - Sports Weekend - - SPORTS - Ian O’Rior­dan

Wake up and smell your run­ners – this is the first athletics col­umn of the rest of your life. Or it might be the last, de­pend­ing on how these kind of quotes ac­tu­ally work. Who can even tell any­more?

It’s tempt­ing to stop right here, given how an­noy­ingly hard it has be­come to go through any sin­gle day of your life with­out be­ing as­saulted with some wise old words of in­spi­ra­tion. Or, worse still, some des­per­ately worn-out line of en­cour­age­ment.

For the next 15 sec­onds let go of any ex­pec­ta­tions you have of your­self . . . Turn your can’ts into cans and your dreams into plans . . . Live like there’s no to­mor­row, and if to­mor­row comes, live again . . . If you are laugh­ing, check that you don’t re­ally want to cry.

I am not mak­ing these up. Both Twit­ter and In­sta­gram force-fed me these quotes dur­ing my last cof­fee break. In­tended to pro­vide some sort of pow­er­ful adren­a­line rush to kick­start your day, or some Zen-like in­sight to help wind it down, they are more likely to have the op­po­site ef­fect.

Not only are they begin­ning to lose all pur­pose, but all mean­ing too – the same as hav­ing one too many elec­tro-shock treat­ments on the brain: after a while you start burn­ing out the cir­cuits. Given they typ­i­cally come suit­ably masked and anony­mous, or as some bas­tardised adap­ta­tion of a prop­erly heroic quote, who even cares?

Soft tar­get

The world has al­ways had its fair share of mo­ti­va­tional junkies, be­fore so­cial me­dia sim­ply opened the flood­gates. And, for bet­ter or mostly worse, the sim­ple art of run­ning has be­come a soft tar­get for these crimes against orig­i­nal­ity. I know that be­cause I oc­ca­sion­ally post the odd one my­self, none of which will last any longer than the 24 hours of an In­sta­gram story.

Part of the prob­lem is these of­ten-unin­spir­ing quotes can also dumb down the process, or else madly ex­ag­ger­ate it, like when run­ning a Satur­day morn­ing Parkrun is cel­e­brated as if con­quer­ing the north face of the Eiger. Then there are those who go around act­ing like they’re some sort of run­ning guru just be­cause they didn’t die when fin­ish­ing a marathon.

It wasn’t al­ways this way. There was a time when the run­ning quote had pur­pose and mean­ing and no one had a greater share of them than Noel Car­roll. I know that be­cause I’m still quot­ing them to­day, 20 years after his sud­den death – mid-stride, as it were – after his reg­u­lar noon­time train­ing run around UCD, in Oc­to­ber 1998.

Car­roll was only 56, the em­bod­i­ment of clean liv­ing and phys­i­cal fit­ness, the sadly gen­tle irony be­ing he died of a sus­pected heart at­tack do­ing what he loved to do all of his life. So much of what Car­roll achieved came from the heart of dis­tance run­ning, and when it came to the art it­self, he lived by his first and most last­ing mantra: “You ei­ther ran to­day or you didn’t.”

Car­roll not only talked the talk, he ran the run, never once los­ing his prop­erly com­pet­i­tive in­stinct, nor his proper ap­pre­ci­a­tion of run­ning. For a man who left school at 13 and held a se­ries of jobs be­fore begin­ning his run­ning ca­reer with the army, it was never any­thing less than in­spir­ing.

He went on to com­pete in two Olympics over 800 me­tres, in Tokyo 1964 and Mex­ico City 1968, one of the dom­i­nant run­ners of his time – set­ting a Euro­pean in­door record in 1964, win­ning three con­sec­u­tive Euro­pean and Bri­tish ti­tles, plus 14 Ir­ish ti­tles in all.

Car­roll’s abil­ity for mid-race machi­na­tion was once de­scribed as “like a scene-shifter at the Abbey The­atre”. When Vil­lanova’s fa­mous coach Jumbo El­liott first saw how flu­ently Car­roll moved around the old Madi­son Square Gar­den, he of­fered him a schol­ar­ship on the spot, re­paid when help­ing Vil­lanova set a world record in the 4x800m re­lay. When he beat Cana­dian Bill Crothers, who won 800m sil­ver in Tokyo, Sports Il­lus­trated de­scribed Car­roll as “one of the best mid­dle-dis­tance run­ners in the world”, which he was.

He was al­ways quick to share his wit and wis­dom, long be­fore Twit­ter made it so con­ve­nient. One of his first lessons to bud­ding young run­ners was re­mind­ing them that “athletics is a way of prov­ing you’re bet­ter than some­one else at some­thing that’s of no use to any­body”.

The last time I met him, a few months be­fore his death, he gently punched me in the stom­ach while ask­ing, “Have you run yet to­day?” and, 20 years later I also quote, on a daily ba­sis, his other last­ing line, “If you find your­self too busy to run on any given day, then you’re too busy.”

When Car­roll helped start up the first Dublin Marathon in 1980, he of course had to run it too, which meant ev­ery quote came from ex­pe­ri­ence. “It’s not the dis­tance that kills, it’s the pace,” he said of the marathon, which no one can deny.

Next Sun­day in his home vil­lage of An­na­gas­san in Co Louth they’re un­veil­ing a me­mo­rial seat with another of his quotes – “There’s a time to train and a time to rest; it is a true test of the run­ner to get them both right” – which for ev­ery run­ner I know still has last­ing pur­pose and mean­ing.

Noel Car­roll: not only talked the talk, he ran the run

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