Cormac Dalton on running through the pros and cons of US scholarship trail

Experienced athlete set to lead Irish men at Sunday’s European cross-country championships in Brussels

Of all the Irish athletes who followed the US scholarship trail over the years, Cormac Dalton is eminently qualified to discuss all the pros and the cons.

In part because that trail was already running in his family, his mother Amanda (nee Nolan) was one of the early Irish women’s scholarship recipients at the University of Arkansas, under the famed Mayo-born coach John McDonnell, back in 1982.

Dalton has also experienced both sides of the trail, completing his undergraduate degree in biotechnology at Dublin City University (DCU), before completing a further two years of running eligibility and an MA in business administration at the University of Tulsa, the second largest city in Oklahoma.

His journey wasn’t without setbacks, before the now 25-year-old from Mullingar proved it all worthwhile when winning his first National senior cross-country last month, and will next lead the Irish men’s challenge at this Sunday’s European Championships in Brussels.


“I’d have been quite injury prone as a younger lad,” Dalton says. “When I was growing, I got my fair share of injuries, so that kind of knocked me out of the American system going into undergrad. In school, I got three stress fractures in a year — all in my toes [and] metatarsals. I couldn’t really explain why, maybe I wasn’t strong enough, my running form was a bit off. I had to build up really slowly, those years in DCU. [But] I knew what I could be and where I wanted to be in the sport.”

His running career unquestionably made a turn for the better once he reached Tulsa.

Dalton twice made the NCAA cross-country with Tulsa, his transition to the US helped by three fellow Irish team members, Peter Lynch, Mícheál Power, and Shay McEvoy.

On the question of which system best serves the young Irish athlete, Dalton can point to the pros and cons of both: “I do feel it depends on your situation. I can’t discount the fact you’re doing a session over there, with five guys in front of you, helps push you on, you naturally get more used to the miles.

“If you are more injury prone, that’s no good, you’re going to be doing too much. But it does depend on the coach as well, he needs to realise where you’re at, build you up over the years, which is why Taylor [Gulley] was good at Tulsa, just getting us to stay right.

“I do think it’s a pot shot at times, if you don’t know exactly where you’re going.”

Things didn’t quite work out as planned for his mother, who underlined her clear talent when winning the Irish schools cross-country in 1982, running with Loreto Mullingar.

“She spent two or three years over there, it didn’t really go her way, she got a knee injury which knocked her out, and she came home. So she had one of the more ‘bad’ American experiences, I suppose.”

Not that his mother ever put him off: “It just didn’t go her way after that, and she gave it up, but I’d still call her an assistant coach, most of the time, she’s always been involved and it’s great to have her.

“She knew it was one of my dreams as well. And you do get racing experience that you would never get anywhere else in the world, really, in terms of the amount of races, at such a high quality.”

That experience certainly showed at the Nationals, Dalton timing his run to perfection to out-kick Kevin Mulcaire (Ennis Track AC) and Hugh Armstrong (Ballina AC), who also came through the US scholarship route.

“I was definitely gunning for a top three,” says Dalton, who last won an Irish title 14 years earlier. “The day before I said to my dad if I didn’t make the team it’d be a disaster, but the win was a nice bonus. It’s something I always wanted to do, I didn’t know if it was my time yet.”

Now based in Dublin, working part-time with FPK Engineering, his old coach Joe Ryan is back guiding him also. His goal on Sunday is “to make sure there’s nothing left in the tank”, a lesson he’s learned well from both sides of the US scholarship trail.

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics