Feb. 11, 2015
For immediate release

Former national, world champion earns spot in SRA Hall of Fame

(Third in a series highlighting the six members of the Sacramento Running Association’s 2015 Hall of Fame class. Today: Jim O’Neil).

At 89, with his competitive running days ending 20 years ago and his life in Sacramento close to 35 years in the

rear-view mirror, Jim O’Neil said his latest recognition came as a surprise.

“I’m very honored,” he said of his selection into the Sacramento Running Association Hall of Fame. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been a runner. I thought people had just forgotten about me.”

O’Neil’s achievements make that hard to do. He dominated the Masters running scene in his 50s and 60s, winning several national and world championships.

He captured four consecutive national titles in the age 60-64 division at 10,000 meters, setting a national record of 34 minutes and 27 seconds in 1985, and won a world masters crown in the 55-59 age group at 10,000 meters with a 35:18.8 performance in 1983.

O’Neil also clocked 16:15.4 in the 5,000 meters and set an American record with a 2:35:48 marathon, both efforts coming in his early 50s.

He and the other members of the SRA Hall of Fame 2015 class – California International Marathon co-founder Sally Edwards, legendary Jesuit coach Walt Lange, Jesuit distance aces Eric and Mark Mastalir and talented ultramarathoner Bill Finkbeiner – are scheduled to be honored at the SRA’s Hall of Fame and Annual Achievement Awards dinner on Feb. 21 at the Sheraton Grand Hotel in Sacramento.

Tickets for the 6 p.m. event are $50. For more information, visit www.runsra.org.

O’Neil, who lives in Palm Springs with his wife, Linda, chuckles at the realization he ran 80,000 miles in 22 countries over 40 years.

“That’s three times around the world,” he said. “I’m proud of the fact I logged so many miles.

“I won a lot of national championships and a few world championships. I was one of the best in the world.”

For all of O’Neil’s achievements, the one he savors most is the record he set with his son Tom in 1976 for fastest father-son marathon. Jim ran 2:35:48 and Tom delivered a 2:24:28 effort for a combined 5:00:16 performance.

“It was a very proud moment for me to share this wonderful experience with my son,” Jim O’Neil said. “That was a great father-son moment for me.”

Tom O’Neil ran at Jesuit for Lange, with Jim O’Neil lending a hand by tagging along for workouts on the American River Parkway bike trail.

“I was always working out with the Jesuit team,” O’Neil said. “They had a hell of a good cross country team. That was very beneficial to me to work out every day with those youngsters.

“He (Lange) considered me his co-coach.”

Tom O’Neil said his Dad made a positive impact on Jesuit’s runners.

“My Dad mentored some of the kids, especially as they got older,” he said. “I’m sure it helped the younger ones go faster in intervals trying to keep up with an old guy.”

Jim O’Neil won the Chicago District Mile Championship with a 4:40 effort in 1943 and clocked a 10:00.3 two-mile at the University of Miami. But he got away from running for the better part of two decades.

“For 16 years, I was in search of the perfect martini,” O’Neil said.

He recalled moving to Sacramento around 1970, working as a contractor and building houses in Sacramento and Carmichael. O’Neil said he attended a Masters meet at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, then returned to Sacramento intrigued by the possibilities.

O’Neil wanted to run in the meet the following year, break five minutes in the mile and not finish last. So he trained, returning to the meet a year later and delivering a 4:56 effort that left him “fifth or sixth.”

“I reached my goals,” he said. “That’s how it all started.”

O’Neil, who has six children, ran in the first 13 World Masters Championships, part of a stellar career that included records from 5k to the marathon.

He was a distance runner, but put an emphasis on speed in setting a world record for the fastest round of golf ever played, once shooting a 99 at The Olympic Club in San Francisco in a quick 47 minutes.

With his 90th birthday approaching on May 14, O’Neil said he cherishes his past.

“My health is good,” he said. “For a guy my age, my fitness is fine … A good attitude, you’ve got to look at the positives.

“I never wanted to be 89 until I was 88. I’m looking forward to being 90.
I’ve got my scrapbooks and my memories.”

The Sacramento Running Association is a non-profit organization dedicated to finding new ways to encourage people of all ages and abilities to run. The SRA is committed to developing new, quality running events that appeal to a broad variety of runners.

SRA events include the Credit Union SACTOWN Five- and Ten-Mile Run on April 12, the Gold Rush 50k on May 9, the California International Marathon on Dec. 6 and the recently concluded Super Sunday Run.