April 16, 2012

Quinnipiac Director of Athletics Jack McDonald Featured In Hartford Courtant

"A Running Start: Greater Boston Track Club Started On A Shoestring" by Lori Riley, Hartford Courant (April 15, 2012)

Quinnipiac Director of Athletics & Recreation Jack McDonald was featured in the Hartford Courant on April 15, 2012, in an article written by the Courant's Lori Riley.

A Running Start: Greater Boston Track Club Started On A Shoestring
 
By LORI RILEY

Track season was over and Jack McDonald, a senior miler at Boston College, was cleaning out lockers as part of his work-study job in May 1973 when the athletic director called him to his office.

A group of track athletes from Oxford and Cambridge in England were in Boston to compete in a meet at Harvard. But it had rained that day, the track was a mess and performances were terrible. The teams wanted to get in another meet before they went home. Could McDonald organize an exhibition at BC's state-of-the-art track? In two days?

Sure, McDonald said — he wasn't sure how he'd do it, but it got him out of cleaning lockers. Somehow, he did.

The exhibition meet went off wonderfully. The British and American athletes socialized afterward; everybody had a great time.

"Here we are, Monday morning, everyone's raving about this great event we had … and it's done," said McDonald, a Cheshire resident who has been the athletic director at Quinnipiac University for the past 17 years. "I thought, 'So let's keep it going. Let's start a track club.'"

Thus was born, in the summer of '73, the Greater Boston Track Club. It wasn't so much a distance running club at its inception; it was more of an all-inclusive club where throwers and hurdlers and sprinters all were welcome. But the distance runners — Bill Rodgers, Bob Hodge, Randy Thomas, Alberto Salazar — started migrating to BC on weeknights for workouts, too.

And that is how, two years later, on Patriots Day in 1975, McDonald found himself climbing a tree on Boylston Street to watch Rodgers — wearing a hand-lettered GBTC shirt — cross the Boston Marathon finish line first, setting an American record in the process.

"As he came by, down Boylston Street, I'm up in the tree, holding on to the tree and trying to clap my hands at the same time, screaming," McDonald said. "And then you look to the finish line — 2:09:55. An American record, at the time.

"It's like, 'I know that guy. He's my friend. I drank beer with him two days ago.' It was a lifetime memory."

McDonald, 60, ran Boston three times, completing it twice, the last time with two of his brothers in 1980. He became the track coach at BC, got married and had four boys with his wife, Linda.

He never ran Boston again, but he always thought of the 26.2-mile course from Hopkinton to Boston as one of the iconic cathedrals of sport — right up there with the likes of Wimbledon, Fenway Park and Churchill Downs.

And he always wanted his four sons to run, to have the experience he and his brothers did. Monday, the four McDonald boys — Brian, Jim, Jack and Dave — all will all run the Boston Marathon.

Jim, 27, and Jack, 26, ran at Quinnipiac; Brian, 28, was a lacrosse player and Dave, 23, ran track in high school.

"Dave was probably the toughest to pull into it," the younger Jack McDonald said. "But there's no way he's not doing it if we're all doing it."

Their parents will be there to watch, although it probably won't be as hectic as the day Jack watched Rodgers win for the first time.

McDonald and his friend Don Ricciato, another club member and Rodgers' friend, didn't go to the marathon starting line on that cold and rainy day in 1975, but planned to drive around the route and cheer for their GBTC teammates at various locations.

On the car radio, the announcers were talking about the race — some guy named Bill Rodgers was leading, from the Great Britain Track Club.

"I was pretty ticked off about that," McDonald said, laughing.

They went to Speen Street in Natick first, then to the Newton fire station at mile 17, then to Cleveland Circle.

"At the finish line, we had to park the car and get to the finish line," McDonald said. "Thank God we were athletes, because we were running everywhere. I probably ran 10 miles that day myself. We got to the finish line. We climbed a tree because we couldn't see him."

Although he didn't plan it that way, McDonald decided to start his track club at a fortuitous time, in the middle of the running boom. In 1968, Kenneth Cooper published his groundbreaking book, "Aerobics," introducing the concept of aerobic exercise to the masses. Frank Shorter won the Olympic gold medal in the marathon in 1972. Rodgers popularized the marathon by winning at Boston in 1975, 1977, 1979 and 1980. In 1979, four GBTC runners — Rodgers, Hodge, Thomas and Dick Mahoney, who was a mailman — finished in the top 10 at Boston, dominating a world-class field.

"For the first two years, it was primarily a track and field team," McDonald said. "By the spring of '74, Bill Rodgers was enrolled at BC to get his master's degree in special ed. [Ricciato] knew Bill Rodgers. He became one of us. Every Tuesday and Thursday night, we'd get together at BC, go for a 10-mile run or do a track workout, socialize afterward. We became not only an athletic bunch but a very social bunch."

Bill Squires, the coach at what was then Boston State College, was at the initial meeting at BC in the summer of '73 and became the club's coach. Nobody was paid. There was no money in road racing back then.

"It was as pure as it gets, as far as amateurism," McDonald said. "It was for the love of the sport."

And everybody back then wanted to run Boston, even McDonald, the miler. He went out too fast in his first attempt, dropping out in Newton. He finished in 2:45 in 1978. In 1980, he ran with his brothers Dan and Michael, who were ice hockey players in high school.

"It was the thing to do in the late '70s," McDonald said. "And the thrill of running with your brothers was light years better than running by yourself. I remember finishing — after 26 miles, you're a basket case emotionally — my brother and I held hands when we crossed the line and I lost it. I'll never forget that. We waited for Michael. Those days, you could hang around the finish line a little bit."

McDonald was at BC until 1990, then moved to Denver to work as an athletic director at the University of Denver and eventually settled his family in Connecticut. The top GBTC athletes were lured away by shoe companies in the early '80s, and American distance running suffered in the '90s until running clubs, sponsored by USATF and others, made a comeback this past decade.

The Greater Boston Track Club is alive and well and will celebrate its 40th anniversary next year.

McDonald has been back to Boston a few times to watch the marathon. He still runs 3 to 4 miles a day and thought about running this year, but injuries derailed him and he decided he would rather watch.

"As a parent, the thrill of watching is much greater," he said. "I'd be an hour behind them all and miss all the fun. It was more about them."