By Jeff Keeling
Perhaps he just needed to be injury-free, but Tom McCormack – a retired Johnson City firefighter and member of East Tennessee State University’s 1970s-era “Irish Brigade” running contingent – has hit his peak at 60 and is winning national masters races with regularity.
The Mullingar, Ireland native collected his latest USA Track & Field gold at the 10K (6.2 mile) championships in Dedham, Mass. April 27. McCormack, who turned 60 last Sept. 1, crossed the finish line in 36:02, well ahead of second-place finisher Peter Mullin of Houston, who finished in 37:30. McCormack also was second overall in the men’s “age-graded” standings, which adjusts times for age differences.
The race added to a trend McCormack has been on since entering his first USATF national race last fall, several months after his retirement. He won that race, a 5K in Flemington, N.J., and shortly after finished first in the national 12K championships in Alexandria, Va. McCormack was second in age-graded in the 5K and first in the 12K.
It’s all pretty heady stuff for a runner whose ETSU career was marred by injuries and who, by his own admission, achieved less-than-stellar results as a Buccaneer.
“I guess that’s why at this stage of my life I’m still out here trying to prove myself,” McCormack said this week.
For the love of it
In Mullingar, a town of about 20,000 west of Dublin, McCormack participated in sports, but didn’t start running competitively until he was 16.
“I realized that one of my neighbors, who was a year older than me, had been running and was successful, and I kept thinking, ‘well I can beat this guy, so why don’t I just go out and do it.’”
It didn’t hurt that McCormack liked running and the way it made him feel.
“I lived three miles from my school, so I jogged to school and jogged home,” McCormack said. “It was a natural thing for me to do. I played other sports as well, but I loved the running part.
“I just liked running because it made me feel good. The type of personality I was even at that age, the running relieved my stress, which it does now, because I’m a type A personality.”
McCormack won a few school races before joining the Tullamore Harriers, a regional club. He was running for Mullingar’s community college squad when a running friend, Kevin Breen, suggested McCormack follow him to ETSU.
Ups and downs with the Irish Brigade
McCormack joined a handful of fellow Irish lads and a couple of Americans in 1973, and ran track and cross country for legendary coach Dave Walker. He finished a criminal justice degree and met and married his wife, Teresa Gill McCormack (they have two grown sons, Brian and Neil).
On the road, trail and track, McCormack didn’t live up to his expectations. The high mileage training (120 miles a week) common to the day induced injuries, but Walker’s emphasis on making the most of the academic opportunity was a message McCormack took to heart. Back in Mullingar, jobs were scarce and money was tight. The “Celtic Tiger” wouldn’t rise for a couple of decades, and the best his friends at home could expect was a construction job, and that often elsewhere. Not much had changed since 1953, when he was born in Bristol, England, where his father was working construction.
“All of the guys that were here back then understood that we were given a unique opportunity, whether it was running or it was college.”
Old but not in the way: Bursting onto the national scene
McCormack had won numerous local races during the last few years of his career with the fire department, despite running just three times a week. After retiring last June, he upped his workouts to five or six times a week, though he maintains a relatively low mileage regimen. “I focus on quality, not quantity, and I train fast.” He also dropped about 20 pounds and is a wispy 121 pounds at 5 feet, 7 inches.
Sometime last year, McCormack said, his family made a suggestion.
“I’d been running in the low 18s for 5K, and both of my sons and my wife said, ‘you know what, we’re looking at times nationally. If you will just look at those times, you need to expand your horizons and get away from the Tri-Cities and run some races.’”
A local running friend, Welshman Matthew Studholme, also encouraged him, so McCormack “finally made the decision to go to New Jersey, which for me was a huge decision. It was totally out of my element to go someplace where you’re running against guys that are the best in the country.”
The New Jersey course narrowed, McCormack said, so he got out fast to avoid having to maneuver past competitors later in the race. It was during that race, in which he clocked a 17:17, a pace of 5:34 per mile.
A month later, McCormack shattered the 60-64 age record for the 12K in the USATF National Road Racing Championships in Alexandria, clocking a 43:01 – 3 minutes, 42 seconds better than the previous national best set in 2000. After that performance, he accepted an invitation to join the elite Atlanta Track Club and is no longer running unattached.
He’s the subject of an extensive feature in a recent issue of runningtimes.com, and said he’s ready to try setting more records.
“To do that, I need to get on the track and do some speed work, but I’m having fun.”