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Jack Donohue had no business achieving the success he had coaching the girls at Mount Mercy Academy in South Buffalo.

He had no formal training. He and his fellow coach, his first cousin Kevin Kelly, a Buffalo Police lieutenant, got into it because they were recreational runners and their daughters and friends needed a coach.

He treated everyone like a star. The slowest member on the team got as much attention as the quickest.

He had too much fun. When his best runner, Katie Wirth, got the time wrong and missed the team bus for a meet, he didn't call her up and chew her out. He had the bus pull up in front of her house and personally knocked on her back door.

He was too easy. Two of his runners used to hide in the bed of his truck for the mile-long ride to the school's borrowed track. They felt so guilty they finally decided to run with the rest of the team. Jack, as all his girls called him, pulled over the next day and asked why they were running. They usually rode, he reminded them.

He was too likable. In a small school, at a time when high school coaches are having problems attracting runners, he had 40 girls on the cross-country team, 80 on the indoor track team.

He had a lousy heart. Not the one that caused 100 people to show up at the school last Sunday when they heard of his death, but the one that tried its best to keep beating through a massive heart attack 10 years ago, open heart surgery and finally last year, a pacemaker.

It was his heart that killed him, just as his team always knew it would.

"He was a walking time bomb," said Laura Finucane, one of his former runners. "Every once in a while he'd run a sprint with us, and we begged him not to do it. He'd just joke about it."

The end came when Donohue was, as usual, doing something for someone else. He was delivering a eulogy in church for his mother-in-law last Saturday when he collapsed.

Jack Donohue, 54, who coached his girls to 14 Msgr. Martin championships in cross country and track over the last eight years, who led them to a combined 132-8 in both sports in that time frame, is gone.

His runners always knew the time was coming, but still can't believe it. They came back to Mount Mercy last week from college, from new towns where they have moved, just to be with each other and remember their coach. Those who couldn't make it sorely wished they were there.

"I wasn't the best runner, but after every race Jack made me feel as if I had just won," Laura Prabucki wrote friends in an e-mail from Madrid, where she is studying as a Syracuse University student. "If I shaved seconds off my time, Jack's congratulations made me feel as if I had just won."

Finucane and Prabucki are familiar names in the running community. Laura Finucane is a cousin of Mark Finucane, the city's finest-ever marathoner. Laura Prabucki is a niece of Bernie Prabucki, an elite runner who still wins races when he returns here from Durham, N.C.

But the program run by Donohue and Kelly went beyond the top runners.

"If you want to run, I want you to run," he told anyone who expressed an interest in coming out for the team. That was the extent of the tryout.

Donohue had the resume of a tough guy. He ran cross-country and rowed for Bishop Timon, jumped as a paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne, was an iron worker and ran six marathons before his heart attack.

The damage was so massive that even after open heart surgery, he wasn't given much hope.

"We had a 50th birthday party for him," Kelly said. " 'I beat the odds,' he told us. 'I made it to 50.' "

His runners were so happy for him they rented a portable sign and put it up outside the school for two weeks, finally getting him to pose for a picture with them in front of it.

Four years later, there wasn't a dry eye in the church for his funeral.

"Every Mercy runner past and present will have Jack's favorite phrase echoing in their minds as they hit the pavement or trails," Laura Prabucki wrote her former teammates from Spain. "Hit a good one, kid."

Schedule problems

Most of the major local running clubs met a few weeks ago to discuss conflicts that continue to arise with races scheduled on the same day. It not only stretches finish line crews and police too thin, but also obviously cuts into the race fields and the money races raise for charities.

While no policy on conflicts was adopted -- some club representatives say no binding rule could ever be imposed -- organizer Jesse Kregal of the Buffalo Philharmonic A.C. described the session as a good starting point.

The debate continues as John Beishline renews the race directors' meetings he used to hold each year. This year's session is set for 7:30 p.m. on Feb. 15 at Rizzo's Restaurant, 2763 Eggert Road in the Town of Tonawanda.

"We can't force somebody to change a date, but we can advise them of a conflict," said Beishline. All race directors are invited.

Upcoming races

Mr. Ed's Super Bowl Warm-up, 5K, Middleport along NYS Canal, 11:30 a.m., today, 433-7152; Lockport Y-10, 9.7 miles, 11 a.m., Feb. 6, 434-8887; Wegmans Olmsted Winterfest, 2 or 3 miles depending on the weather, Delaware Park, 11:30 a.m., Feb. 13, 851-5806; Canisius (High School) Chilly Challenge, 5K, noon, Feb. 21, 882-0466.

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