Tom Humphries finds Mark Carroll lying low near Boston, readying himself for Sydney, and eager to make up for lost time.
ATHLETICS/Olympic Countdown: It's getting dusky in Dedham, a snoozing little dormitory town outside of Boston. You've seen a million movies set in gentle places like this. Saturday night is quiet here. The quirky little Museum of Bad Art is closed, a flock of teenagers are getting fat and giddy outside the ice cream parlour, and a little three-piece band are setting up in The Cookhouse. Stick around and you'll hear Forever in Blue Jeans. Murdered.
A mile out the road and a few hundred skinny people and thousands of fat mosquitoes are gathered at the Solomon Track and Field facility for a twilight meet.
Three tricolours hang over in that corner where they start the 200 metres races, but this ain't the Olympics, this isn't the stand-on-your-hind-legs-and-cheer-for-the-little-country business that gives you your jollies every four years. This is nuts and bolts. You hear the thumpety thump of runners' feet as they pass, you pick up the hisses from the pack urging the pacemaker to shift it, shift it. People here know how the inner engine of athletics functions. What's a good split? Who's a good rabbit? What's a fast time for early June? Who's on course to lower their PB?
The athletes chat loudly as they stretch languidly around the perimeter of the green-topped track as the sun bows out. Their audience - coaches, injured athletes and recently retired athletes - lean on the fences or sit in the little stack of bleachers near the finish line. The air hums with track gossip.
By the time the main event begins the sky is inky. People talk softly to each other, fingers point in the gloom. The guy to watch is number one-four-six. Carroll. Mark Carroll. Irish guy. Used to be a European junior champion, got a bronze medal in Budapest. Just getting better and better. Ran 7:30 for the 3,000 last year.
Mark Carroll does his business with routine briskness. His brows are furrowed over his swimming pool blue eyes as he pumps out the laps. Over 5,000 metres the race never gets beyond his control. He'd set himself a target. Run 13:20 in Dedham. He runs 13.21 and finds a little burst down the home straight to kill off the challenge of the sticky Australian, Sean Creighton. Not bad, not bad, he says afterwards. He hasn't been to the track yet this season. He's running 13.21 off base work. Tonight he's wrapped up Olympic qualification. The summer is young. He's feeling good.
A lost weekend in Cork
He was in Blackrock Clinic knowing what was about to be said, but not believing that it would be said. Finally, the charts and clipboards were set aside and the sentence floated out like a dark squall over a beach. "You won't be going to the Olympics." He was 24. It was summer in Dublin. Outside people were going about their business.
Carroll hurried towards Cork and home. All he will say about what happened next is that he got acquainted with a few places in Cork that he hadn't really known before. Lost weekend. That kind of stuff. That purging took a few days. Then he spoke to Br John Dooley, who knows that athletes move forward like mules after carrots.
Br Dooley told him that his cycle as a runner in his prime was the next four years. Sydney was when Carroll should expect to be arriving at the summit. Carroll seized the words and built his rehabilitation on them.
Two white guys, only one with an unimpeachable drugs record, have been under the 13 minute barrier. Gebrselassie and Komen have been under 12.40. That's like coming home from the moon and finding out that people have been picnicing on Mars.
His talent and his obsessive need to consummate it had nearly devoured him. He liked to run at race pace as often as he could. He had hyper-mobility in his ankles, which meant that he went over on them often and when he did his shins took the strain. For years he could never get to be as good as he knew he could be.
His love of the sport started in the North Mon with inter-class cross country competitions. In his last year at the school, the track squad flew to America with Br Dooley, a bunch of spotty school-kids from Cork running in the Penn Relays in front of 40,000 people.
By then Carroll had an image stuck in his head, a great sporting moments clip which he'd seen on RTÉ one Christmas at home. The soundtrack was One Moment in Time and the pictures were a collage of great Irish sporting moments. Shuffled in there was John Treacy winning in the mud and the rain in Limerick.
Treacy, over all the others, seemed to epitomise something about Irish sport. Treacy was a Providence College man. His brother Ray was the Providence College coach. The decision was what the Americans call a no-brainer. Carroll would be a PC guy.
He loved America. He met Amy Rudolph in first year and by the end of the second semester, well Mark and Amy were k-i-s-s-i-n-g and it's been like that for eight happy years, running parallel careers and supporting each other in bad times. He's had his dose of them.
He's always had bad luck with his body. He remembers in school dying to take on a mouthy runner from Tipp by the name of PJ O'Rourke. Carroll knowing in his own cocky heart that he could beat him. Injury deprived him there. Even last summer, for the World Championships in Seville, he found himself running on empty. Literally.
He was diagnosed as anemic, and his iron content had somehow evaporated. He got through the semi-final race in Seville and just hoped he could find a way to go out and survive the final.
He has learnt. Two weeks ago he felt a slight twinge in his right leg. He took two days' rest. Before he would have run through it, defying and denying the pain. In 1996, when Atlanta was taken from him, he went back to Providence and watched his Olympics go by on the television, watched his long-standing girlfriend Rudolph compete for the States. He didn't flinch. He just lay back and thought of Sydney.
Home thoughts from abroad
Jimmy Harvey says that Carroll has a temper but it blows over quickly. Generally, he's not an angry young man. He has issues, though. He's had his problems with the artists formerly known as BLÉ. He complained bitterly about their lack of support in the aftermath of his bronze medal win in Budapest.
Back then an accusation that he had feigned sickness to avoid that year's National Championships rankled with him. He explains it all again, how sick he felt, how he told Niall Bruton that he couldn't get off the bus, how Bruton told the BLÉ man and the BLÉ man said don't worry, Niall, I'll deal with Carroll and the tone just got worse from there on in. In May, when he was getting ready to run in Stamford, California, where he would break John Treacy's decades' old 10,000 metres mark, his agent Ray Flynn called with an offer. If Carroll would go from the west coast to Osaka, Japan to run a 5,000 metres, there was $10,000 in it for him. Carroll is at that stage of his career where 10k is still a lot of money. He talked to Jimmy Harvey.
One race? Jimmy shook his head. Carroll never went to Japan.
"That's the way it had to be. I wanted that money, but it didn't fit in with what we've planned for the season. It's too early in the summer for that. But with the BLÉ or whatever we are called now every year it's the Europa Cup. They want you for that. It comes early, you're not right, you get a letter late, you have to give up a week's training, sometimes you'll end up paying your own fare. And they think if you say you can't compete that you are messing them around." Then there's the drugs business. "You can't help thinking. You look at the progression of the distance records. I won't name names, but I know athletes who will name others, of doctors, of places they go. I hear about EPO, too much about it for some not to be true. It makes you angry, but you can't run angry. It's a waste of your own energy. "
To his amazement and frustration, he has been tested only once this year, Olympic year. That was back when he won the European Indoor 3,000 in Ghent. A tester called to the door once in the spring looking for Mark's girlfriend Amy. Communications in the testing world were apparently so bad that the tester didn't know that Rudolph had told them that she would be competing in the US Indoors championships at the time. The situation provides him with little foundation for confidence.
"To be honest for someone in my position, with a 13:03 for the 5,000 and 7:30 for the 3,000, I've only been tested once this year. I find that unbelievable. I haven't been randomly tested by the IAAF or anyone else. Ask me do they do a good job? I don't think so.
There should be a lot more testing for everyone in the top bracket. How can I have confidence that other people are clean when it's so lax in Olympic year? Even at home you would think that with the huge embarrassment the country has been through in the past, somebody would have tested me by now."
Why not go for it, though, why not wise up and speed up, drop the pill, embrace the needle, join the brotherhood, slip through the net, buy a medal?
He is almost at a loss to answer the question. He talks about his past, about Br Dooley, about the place he grew up in, about family, about John Treacy in the mud, about the feeling he had in Monaco last year when he ran the 3,000 metres in 7.30 and remembered hardly any of it so deep, deep in the zone was he. All these things would be polluted and invalidated and betrayed. He speaks about that thing which athletes rarely speak about any more - the thrill of getting the very last out of yourself.
He knows what he'd like. He'd like EPO testing in Sydney. Lots of it.
"Let's do it like cycling. If your afraid of being sued, ban people for health reasons. Take the haemocrit levels when we arrive. If your level is too high you go home. Then let's test us all in the final. Do it the day before and the day after. Do it the day of the final for all I care. If your too high, well sorry you can't run. No clean athlete is going to complain. "I'll tell ya something, boy," he says laughing and shaking his head at the same time, "whoever takes my Irish records away will have to be either really talented and work really hard, or be really talented and take a lot of drugs."
Mark and Mrs Jones.
Nothing goin' on
Marion Jones is on the TV. Nike have put her there, trying to get her face known. The gig is this: Marion Jones is a DJ and Billy Paul is singing Me and Mrs Jones. Marion does this stilted rap. Dis is Mrs Jones transmitting. Why are our athletes getting' no love. Maureeece, Michael and Marion . .
Carroll isn't getting enough love either. In truth he doesn't know if his own profile at home is much better than Marion Jones's is in America. The Irish public don't know the context of athletic things. When he won the Wanamaker Mile in February, people stopped him in the street next time he was in Cork. "Kicking some ass over there in the States, boy. Good on ya."
When he ran his 7.30 in Monaco last year it meant nothing to the general public. He knows it. We are a "show us your medals" sporting culture. He could do with an Irish sponsor just now, a big company happy to get behind somebody pushing the envelope of their talent.
Here's the deal on Carroll. Put Henry Rono, Lasse Viren, Ron Clarke, Dave Moorcroft and Carroll in a 5,000 metres race on their best day ever and Carroll wins easily. Put him in the fastest Olympic 5,000 metre final ever run (1984), and he wins with a couple of seconds to spare. Put him in a race with the current bunch of 5,000 metre practitioners, though, and Carroll is losing altitude fast. Two white guys, only one with an unimpeachable drugs record, have been under that 13 minute barrier. Gebrselassie and Komen have been under 12.40. That's like coming home from the moon and finding out that people have been picnicking on Mars.
It'll come down to a race in September. Quarter-of-an-hour in the sun. The right kind of day and the right kind of race and we'll carry Mark Carroll on our shoulders and cover him in laurels. He deserves that. A bad day and we'll say goodbye, get back to us in four years. He deserves better.
A Sunday in Providence
Some romance left in this dry old world. Ken Nason decided to give up his job for a year and bust his gut trying to get to the Olympics. Didn't want to get old and think of what might have been. He told his old friend Mark Carroll what he was doing and how he hoped to do it. Carroll said not to worry about a thing and went out and bought bunk beds and put them in the spare room of his house. Any of the lads who want to spill sweat going for the Games are welcome. Rent free.
Ken and Mark are on the first hill of Jimmy Harvey's course, a 1,000 metre leg stretcher which reminds them of home. Back in Cork they first began to know what sort of animal Carroll was when it came to the hills. They'd be out hammering away, a gang of them, friends from North Mon and Leevale, and when they'd come to a decent hill Carroll would devour it whole.
Always the same. Carroll remembers times not too long ago when he'd be driving his car and he'd come to a decent hill and he'd have to stop and park and run the hill a dozen times before he could drive on. Today Ken and Mark have a few hills ahead of them.
Harvey, too. Jimmy must be a serial killer in his spare time. It's impossible surely to be so nice and obliging and not have a dark side. Harvey is a displaced Brummie living in athletic heaven in a sweet wood-framed house in Providence. Carroll came to him a few years ago after he'd decided he needed more individual attention than Ray Treacy could give him at Providence. They had a year or so of informal work together, a period when leery acquaintance grew into fast friendship.
Now Carroll says that Jimmy is his coach for life and Jimmy's mild English midlands accent has absorbed some of the Corkman's patois - "Those hills will take it out of you today, boy."
Ken and Mark's route this morning take them up three hills, the second a rhythm-breaking series of small, steep hills and the last another 1,000-metre killer which ends all conversation and filches your breath. Obeying a little twinge, Ken Nason drops out after the third hill. Carroll pounds onwards. Sixteen miles in about an hour and 45 minutes. "Nothing strenuous the day after a race. Just goin' easy, boy."
Young, gifted and, er, Cork
When he thinks about Sydney, he sees a room. Well, first one room, then another room. All the Olympic finalists ushered in silence from one holding area to the next while the clock ticks loud and slow. Finally they are let loose on to the track, liberated to the noise, surrendered to their own adrenalin. In the room, though, mostly it's nervy silence and undetonated energy. The Kenyans huddle together and the Ethiopians huddle together and the Moroccans whisper. Carroll and the American middle distance runner Bob Kennedy might sit beside each other. The Africans will be talking.
"What would you say they're talking about?" Carroll will say.
"About how they're going to kick our asses," Bob will reply.
Hard not to think about it. In Monaco last year, Carroll came through 1,500 metres in 3:41, through the mile in 3:59. Phenomenal pace. Yet he was 12th and Kennedy was 11th. Everyone beyond that was African. He's cocky, but he ain't no fool. He looks around the starting line sometimes and, yeah, of course he feels intimidated.
You want him to say he doesn't? "When it's one of those days, and I know that by the second half of the race I'm going to be hurting like no man on earth, when I know I'm just going to be pulled along for as long as I can keep going, then I'm intimidated. Yeah, that intimidates me. Other days they might be watching each other and the Moroccans might decide to wind it up from a long way out and I know I can take anyone in a race like that. On days like that I fancy my chances."
He has few illusions left, just plans. He holds with no kooky theories of anatomical apartheid which would bestow all of nature's distance-running gifts on Africans. He works instead to replicate the African culture of running, to lay down a base of work over a period of years which will give him the conditioning he needs. In the three days after his 13:21 in Dedham, he will lay down 50 miles on the road.
The task is daunting, though. His friend, Bob Kennedy, is one of only two white runners ever to have run under 13 minutes for the 5,000 metres. The other is Dieter Baumann, who is fighting a drug ban just now. The next will be Carroll, who thinks he can hit the 12:55 region if he gets in the right race this season.
When he thinks about Sydney he thinks about the room, he thinks about the faces of his African rivals. He thinks of the start line, the bang of the gun and the pain of the race. Sometimes it's a runaway train.
Sometimes it's his kind of day. He has his plan now. He'll stay in America till late July after the US trials and then hit Europe running, taking a couple of 1,500 races to sharpen the pace and then running maybe one 5,000. In Sydney, he won't be looking for any "special considerations" as the artists formerly known as BLÉ like to call it. He's an athlete's athlete. He'll be in the village, enjoying the company of guys he likes.
"There's nothing they could have there that would shake my concentration," he says. "Nothing."