Goodbye, Dublin

BOSTON -- When Kieran O'Leary took the trip to last year's Boston Marathon, the County Dublin resident met up with several other Irish visitors before the race.

"Some of the guys I knew from before from other races -- I'd met a few of them previously," O'Leary said by phone last week. "We met up on race day and traveled out to the start together and then hung around together, waiting for the start." There were plans to meet up afterward as well.

No post-race reunion happened however, because O'Leary found himself in a medical tent, receiving an I.V. drip -- a recovery from one of the hotter Boston Marathons in history.

"Being Irish, we weren't prepared for the heat of Boston last year. We were training through the winter here last year," O'Leary explained.

This time around, visitors from cool climates are hoping for a less stifling version of the race, which will be in its 117th running Monday morning. Prominent among that group as always will be runners from Ireland, which perennially has among the highest per-capita representation in the ranks of finishers. Whatever the weather, however, one thing that remains the same is the mentality: Over and over, in interviews with Irish participants, variations are repeated on a theme of running Boston as a bucket-list experience, rather than a personal record or an award placement.

A competitive effort for some

Ireland and Britain are not the only countries with prominent trans-Atlantic roles in the race. Kenyans and Ethiopians regularly win the runs, and last year's champions are back to defend their places: Kenyans Sharon Cherop and Wesley Korir, who ran 2:31:50 and 2:12:40, respectively, will be racing again on the point-to-point Boston course.

With the presence of Ryan Hall and Meb Keflezighi, some Americans had dared to think that for the first time since 1983, they might have a 2013 men's winner under the host flag of the United States: Now, after a series of disappointing announcements, that's significantly less likely to happen. Hall dropped out in March, citing a quadriceps injury, and Keflezighi announced with just over a week to go that he would not run, blaming the same hurt calf muscle that caused him to skip the NYC half last year. American Abdi Abdirahman also scratched because of illness: That leaves the host Americans with Jason Hartmann, Kara Goucher and Shalane Flanagan as their best podium hopes.

While Goucher and Hartmann have each placed within the top four spots at Boston in the past -- good enough for thousands of dollars in prize receipts --  they will be facing an experienced field.  In addition to Cherop and Korir, Rita Jeptoo, who won the women's race in 2006, will be competing, as will Robert Kiprono Cheruiyot, the 2010 men's winner.

The top returning Irish resident from last year is Seamus T. Clancy, who ran 4:00:18 in 2012. Clancy's time was good for 8,707th place.

That type of performance is more the standard than the exception, according to Alan Titley of University College Cork.

"Sonia O'Sullivan did figure hugely while she was winning and almost winning, and Eamon Coughlan before that (he is now a Senator, by the way)," Titley wrote in an email last week, "but they seem to have done it on their own, unfortunately."

Cultural background

Despite the lack of competitive promise, Boston has a lot to offer Irish visitors. The city has the usual greenish trappings -- Dublin-themed bars, festivals and derivative sports brands -- but it also has its own newspaper for the Irish community, a business association, and a dedicated cultural center, among other assets.

"It's like Boston is the next parish over when you look off of the west coast of Ireland," says Martin Leahy, who lives in Cork and ran the 2012 race. "An awful lot of Irish people would have direct links to people in Boston -- I mean, my grand uncle, he moved to Boston as a young man and then raised a family there, and I would be typical, you know?"

Leahy finished last year's race about 15 minutes more slowly than he had hoped, but he says he responded better to the heat than many others from his country. Like others, though, he cited the experience as trumping the time.

"The race itself is intense -- it's one of the most fantastic marathons -- it's probably the marathon to do."

According to Dr. Paul Rouse, a sports history specialist at University College Dublin, both Leahy's family story and his view toward running are quite typical for 20th century Irish.

"You have to understand that in Ireland, [running events] -- although it is popular -- is very much a poor relation to the major field sports, such as hurling and gaelic football, rugby and soccer." Rouse said last week. Rouse says the running sports -- known as "Athletics" in much of Europe -- are seen in Dublin much as they are in Baltimore: As a way to stay in shape. "You couldn't consider athletics to be a mass-participation sport in Ireland in terms of competing. What you would have is mass participation in the idea of running itself as a kind of a recreational or fun activity -- kind of a fitness activity."

Rouse sees this attitude partially as a product of the country's size, and partially as an understanding of the fickle nature of competitive training methods. The biggest international Irish distance wins -- Neil Cusack's Boston victory in 1974, John Treacy's Olympic silver medal in 1984 and Sonia O'Sullivan's in 2000 -- are all a decade or more in the past, and the Irish are "extremely small country with limited resources," Rouse says. Add to that a perception that many distance events are now what Rouse calls "like Big Pharma dressed up in shorts," and the Irish have a good reason to focus their limited resources on their areas of strength -- sports like boxing and Gaelic football.

The latter is a good lense through which to look at the Irish-American experience as a whole: Initially clustered in certain cities, but spreading out over generations, with Gaelic sports leagues now popping up in places like South Carolina.

"There's no doubt that Boston is a major Irish hub, and the story of immigration is a story of clustering, if you look at the drift of Irish people to particular places, and the manner in which they stayed somewhere," Rouse said.

"The story again as I say of immigration is people following one after the next -- of remittance being sent home -- and of it being a staging place for people."

Additional reporting from Newark, NJ and Baltimore

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