Gladys Ganiel O’Neill ran a personal best at the Dublin Marathon last October when she finished in 2 hours, 36 minutes, 40 seconds.
She accomplished the feat at age 42.
That won’t come as a surprise to anyone that knows the determined Harrington native, who will be inducted into the Maine Running Hall of Fame sometime next year.
O’Neill’s enthusiasm for running wasn’t dampened even after she collapsed 400 meters from the finish at the cross country state championships her freshman year — and was carried to an ambulance.
“I assumed I had to work harder to catch the girls who were ahead of me,” said O’Neill, who now lives in Northern Ireland. “And I didn’t mind doing so. I saw it as a challenge rather than a setback. I beat those girls the next year.”
O’Neill won three Class C cross country state titles at Narraguagus High School and paced the 1992 team to the program’s only state crown. In 1994, she later finished sixth at the Foot Locker national championships.
She also captured five Class C individual state titles, three at 3,200 meters and two at 1,600 meters.
O’Neill spent winters playing point guard spot for the Knights and finished with 1,234 career points.
“The team achievements are what stand out for me in high school,” said O’Neill, who considers an eastern Maine title in the 4×400 relay noteworthy.
O’Neill caught the eye of Providence College cross country and track coach Ray Treacy, an Irishman who offered her a full scholarship.
“I went there because I wanted to be part of a successful team and Ray Treacy seemed to take a sensible, long-term approach to training. I also thought I would get a really good education at Providence and I was right,” said O’Neill, who was the valedictorian at Narraguagus.
The Friars’ cross country team won the NCAA Division I championship her freshman year and she shone at 10,000 meters outdoors, finishing 13th in the NCAA championships and winning two ECAC titles.
“It was great being a part of the national championship team as a freshman,” O’Neill said.
She posted a cumulative grade point average of 3.98 and as a senior earned the prestigious Walter Byers Scholarship Award, which is awarded to one man and one woman nationally and includes a healthy stipend toward graduate studies.
Influenced by Treacy and several Irish teammates, O’Neill’s interest in the country led her to pursue her master’s and doctorate degrees in Ireland. She had to put training on the back burner, but eventually followed the advice of several people who suggested the marathon would be her optimal competitive distance.
“I ran my first serious marathon in 2009 in 2:46. I loved training for the marathon and pushing on to see how much better I could get,” O’Neill said, admitting it is a physical and emotional challenge.
“You wouldn’t be able to stick to it in competitive running for as long as I have if a large part of you didn’t enjoy the pain that comes with hard training and, of course, the pain you have to endure in a marathon,” she said.
O’Neill’s work ethic was forged in part by her experience with the back-breaking job of blueberry raking, which she began when she was 8.
“My parents [Carl and Jennie] instilled in me from a very young age that it was important to work hard in everything,” O’Neill said.
Her inspiration for running came from neighbors Steve Berry and Judy Berry, whom she watched compete in high school cross country meets. Joan Benoit Samuelson of Cape Elizabeth, who won the first women’s Olympic marathon in 1984, was another.
O’Neill said her parents allowed her to go running in the dark before school.
“My dad followed behind me with the headlights from his truck. Then I would go into school and practice free throws,” O’Neill said.
The 1999 NCAA Rhode Island Woman of the Year has been successful as a competitive runner as an adult. O’Neill finished 12th competing for Northern Island in the marathon at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, Scotland, and placed 33rd in the 2018 European championships in Berlin while competing for Ireland.
She considers last October’s Dublin Marathon performance the best race of her career.
“I was third in the Irish National Championship, which was held as part of the race, and finished ahead of two Irish Olympians who are younger than me. It was one of those rare days when everything comes together,” she said.
O’Neill is a sociologist at Queens University in Belfast, where she lives with husband, Brian, and their 5-year-old son, Ronan. She is also an author and researcher whose recent projects include the role of religion in Ireland dealing with the legacy of a violent past and how churches there are responding to the coronavirus pandemic.
O’Neill is home-schooling Ronan, so admits she isn’t as fit as she would like to be.
There may not be any major marathons held in 2021, but there are three in 2022: the World Championships, the Commonwealth Games and the European championships.
“The aging process is a great unknown. It is impossible to predict if I can maintain or build on what I did in 2019,” O’Neill said. “Father Time always wins in the end. But I would love to qualify for one of those and compete at a major championship one last time.”
She is thrilled to have been elected to the Maine Running Hall of Fame.
“It is a testimony to all the people Down East who invested in me as an athlete and as a person when I was growing up,” O’Neill said. “They helped me to achieve a lot in high school, laying the foundations that would keep me active in the sport for 30 years now.”