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Junque Miles:

By Mark Roberts

The 1996 Boston Marathon

Marathon running may not be quite as lonely a sport as is widely believed but, when training through a miserable Rochester winter, it's pretty close! Marathoners often frequem=ntly a bit alienated outside their circle of running friends because normal people can't comprehend how a 20 mile training run is even possible, much less enjoyable. In Boston there was no shortage of people who understood completely. There were runners of every age from all over the world everywhere I looked -- thousands of them. I found I had suddenly acquired a peer group 38,000 strong and it was a startling experience!

Actually, I had traveled there with a first-rate peer group of my own. I do marathon training with the Oven Door Runners, a local group of runners who meet every Saturday at a bakery in Bushnell's Basin. You couldn't ask for a better support group to help you through those freezing 20 milers in February and a large contingent of us had persevered through a particularly nasty Rochester winter to make the trip to Boston more or less as a group.

I rode down to Boston on Saturday with marathon runner, hasher and lawn care expert Dave Sek. It rained the whole way. Not promising. On the Massachusetts Turnpike we saw one of those large programmable traffic warning signs usually used for construction detour instructions and the like. It read: "Boston Marathon April 15. Expect delays. Tune to AM 520 for information". And we were still 65 miles from Boston.

Upon arriving in Boston, Dave dropped me off at the hotel and set off to his own lodgings for the weekend. I dropped of my bags and set out to explore Boston on foot. I bumped into my friend Winston Guy (whom I hardly recognized because he wasn't dressed for running!) on the street that evening while looking for a place to eat--during the weekend I probably met almost half the people from Rochester who I knew were running the Marathon. I eventually found I nice Indian restaurant for dinner then went back to the Midtown Hotel to meet up with my roomies for the weekend, Jim Davis, John Litwitz and their friend Marlon from California. Well, I met them after splitting a pint of Ben & Jerry's Cookie Crunch ice cream with Greg Brooks in the lobby, anyway. If I hadn't been there he would probably have eaten the entire tub of high-fat dessert by himself and I couldn't have allowed that to happen. I'm always willing to help out a fellow marathoner, whatever sacrifices might be necessary.

Sunday was the day for exploring the expo at the convention center: Spending far too much money on shoes, clothing and miscellaneous items like a Boston Marathon mouse pad (I just had to have one). Those who liked standing in lines a lot could spend the day getting autographs. I reached my waiting-in-lines limit after Grette Waitz and Steve Jones. Surprisingly, amidst the crowds I did meet a few local runners I knew. I exchanged brief hellos with Paige Wyman, Margaret Henry, Robin Delorm and Linda and Rich Vallee as we squeezed by each other in the aisles. Every test peek outdoors looked the same: rain.

The low point for Saturday was when Walt Gronsky went out for a brief run to test his sore hamstring and heard something go 'pop'. He had to walk back to the hotel and ended up watching the marathon on TV the next day.

Sunday night was time for the traditional pre-race pasta feed. The official marathon pasta party boasted of having the vast amounts of spaghetti "pre-cooked" the previous day for our dining enjoyment. Pre-cooked? Yum. A group of us decided that freshly cooked food in a quiet atmosphere would be preferable so we converged on a local Italian restaurant for great pasta, a little wine and lame show tunes piped through the muzak system. Well, the good company made up for the background music. On the way back to the hotel we stopped at a frozen yogurt place for dessert where John Hixon fretted over the choice between low-fat and non-fat. Both were available, but the latter only in the quart size as opposed to pints. (Being a purist, John opted for the quart of fat free.)

The morning dawned bright and sunny to everyone's amazement. Our spirits lifted as we discussed breakfast strategy. Everyone has their own preferred pre-marathon food type (mine is pancakes) and quantity (a lot). After indulging in this final carb intake session, we walked down to get on a bus to the high school in Hopkinton. How could the weather be so good after two miserable days of rain? Good karma in Boston, no doubt about it!

The bus ride to Hopkinton was uneventful except for the last two miles or so...which took about an hour as a mile-long line of busses had to unload four or five at a time while the rest waited somewhere down the road. As the wait dragged on, runners who had been conscientiously consuming fluids all morning felt their bladders begin to protest. One runner asked to be let out into the woods for a minute. After a while a couple more did the same. As time passed this slow trickle (of runners, you know) turned into a steady stream (to push an embarrassing metaphor a bit further) and eventually a veritable gushing forth of humanity into the bushes to answer the call of nature. It's a good thing the area around Hopkinton is sparsely populated and fairly densely wooded.

The traditional gathering for group photos around the high school was impossible with the crowds present this year. A handful of us got our photos taken with the disposable Kodak cameras everyone seemed to be carrying as we made our way through the agonizingly slow line to the starting area. Here's a few of us at the high school.

I got to my starting "corral" about four minutes before noon. The atmosphere was fairly tense at this point but everyone seemed to be cooperating with everyone else. Still, I did notice a couple of 5-digit number bibs in my area, which was theoretically for runners with numbers in the 6000s. If those guys ran as far over their heads as it looked like they were planning to, they were probably hurting in a big way before the afternoon was over. I heard about bandits but didn't see any. I did see some strange pretty sights though: Here's one of them.

What happened during the rest of the afternoon was amazing: The 100th (or 99th to be precise) Boston Marathon actually lived up to its billing! The start probably exceeded it; I reached the actual starting line less than three minutes after the gun and the word is that all 38,000+ got across in 30 minutes! At the start you could feel you were in the midst of a momentous occasion. The unbelievable mass of runners. No fewer than five helicopters hovering just over the treetops. Scaffolds absolutely overflowing with TV cameras.

High above the helicopters were airplanes towing advertising banners and doing skywriting. A blimp seemed to be following the leaders, presumably to get aerial views for TV. It humbling to note how quickly it receded into the distance. How the hell can anyone run that fast?

The crowds were amazing: 26 miles of cheering people! There were runners in all kinds of strange costumes, several of whom I stopped to photograph. Bands jammed at various points along the course. Kids everywhere reached out to slap the hands of the runners or to offer cups of water or orange slices. There's nothing like the sheer delight on the face of a five-year-old when a marathoner takes his or her offering during the race. A small boy handed me a Power Bar somewhere around the 10 mile mark (I think). The pack at that point was too dense and quick moving for me to be able to stop and thank him and I wondered why anyone would be giving out a whole Power Bar. I realized later that his parents probably bought it for him as something to give out to the marathoners and that it probably was all he had. I never got to thank that kid and I'll forever regret it. If I'd been going for a fast time it would have been different but, because of the crowds, I was using Boston as a training run for a later marathon and not running very hard so I might have been able to stop if I'd had time to think about it. That's my strongest memory of the race itself.

Although I'd planned on running around an 8:30 pace, but the energr from the spectators and other runners made it impossible for me to run that slow. After a few miles I gave up and just ran at a pace that seemed pleasantly easy. I relied on occasional photo stops and pauses at water stations to help keep my time down. Once I heard a spectator laughing from the side of the road: "Look, that guy's stopping to take a picture!" Glad to provide some entertainment.

The infamous heartbreak hill is nothing compared to what the Oven Door Runners routinely train on (although I'm sure I would have found it tougher had I been really running at race pace) but the crowds there were the loudest and densest anywhere but the finish line. There was an amazing drum ensemble (The Japanese Taiko drummers from Burlington, Vermont) playing at the top. They had a huge, primitive-looking bass drum that I didn't get to hear but looked as if it would make some truly frightening sound. The runners who struggled up this hill had most supportive audience anyone could ever hope for. It's difficult to express the feeling of running through all the famous landmarks of the Boston Marathon course that I'd only read about up until then. It was a powerful emotion of some kind and I was suddenly glad to be running this marathon slowly enough to take everything in.

Just after turning onto Hereford Street I passed roomie-for-the-weekend Marlon. I never did learn his last name or even, now that I think about it, the spelling of his first name. It could have been Marlin. Perhaps he was Marlin Perkins Jr. doing an undercover report on marathon runners for Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom. Regardless; he wasn't feeling very good at that point but we were very close to the end. "Only about half a mile to go" I shouted as I went by. Since this was my first Boston I didn't actually know that for a fact but it seemed about right. And as it turned out, it was.

After the ordeal - and it was an ordeal - of getting through the finishing area, retrieving my bag from the bus and turning in my timing chip for my finisher's medal, I walked out into the streets of Boston with a feeling of great satisfaction…and promptly got lost. After I was sure I was lost I got directions and found my way back to the hotel almost an hour after leaving Boston Commons.

I think my favorite part of all the post-race celebrations was the impromptu party that sprang up in the hotel rooms as runners arrived slowly in ones and twos, each with their own marathon stories to tell. Bill Hearne, the Oven Door Runner himself, stopped in and was soon joined my many others. We were just starting to become concerned about Rauni English and John Litwitz, both of whom were running injured, when they walked in, all smiles. Bottles of beer were opened and soon the champagne was uncorked. Those guys in the beer commercials who say "It doesn't get any better than this" have no idea at all how good it really gets. But then they don't run the Boston Marathon with friends like mine.

In the evening we looked over the official post-marathon party and decided against staying. A couple of crazy Boston cab drivers took us to Peter Haggerty's gathering at the Knights of Columbus hall where we met more runners we all knew. Doug and Gloria Ralph and Tina Ratulowski and her family shared pizza and stories with us and then Peter Haggerty squeezed more people into one car than I have ever seen done since college to give us a tour of the neighborhood where he used to live and a ride back to the hotel.

I believe I slept pretty soundly that night.

On Tuesday it poured rain again. And no one minded at all.

My reward for goofing around, admiring the scenery and stopping for photographs was my slowest time of my three marathons: approximately 3:22:30. I guess if I want to improve on that I'll just have to come back and run Boston again. I can live with that.

Copyright © 1996 Mark Roberts

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