I have been fascinated by the marathon ever since I watched Frank Shorter win the 1972 Olympic Marathon in Munich. His running through the streets and parks of what was then a West German city seemed effortless. The late, great ABC announcer Jim McKay said that in fact Shorter was running to an Olympic victory in his hometown, because he was born in Munich when his father was an Army doctor there. When Shorter crossed the finish line, he put his hands to his head as if to say, “Oh my God, what did I just do?” What he had done was launch the American running boom, which included me. I got a pair of running shoes, Asics Tigers, and soon I was circling my Illinois neighborhood. I was 17.
The marathon is unpredictable. It’s variable. It has a certain mystique and romance about it that you can’t put in a box and you can’t write criteria for and you can’t define.
Then of course, I started to read about the Boston Marathon, the Holy Grail — Hopkinton, Heartbreak Hill, the finish down Boylston Street. In the 1970s and early 80s the race was dominated by American runners who trained with coach Bill Squires and the Greater Boston Track Club (GBTC). One of those runners was Bill Rodgers, who would win the Boston Marathon four times. “You know, if you’re a New Englander you feel a connection to this race,” he told me a couple of years ago. “Most people don’t understand it I don’t think, but man when I came by Cleveland Circle, I would be tough to beat there. I wanted to win this baby. All of us New Englanders, we wanted to win this race.”
Those New Englanders included a young Wayland, Mass. man named Alberto Salazar. He hooked up with Rodgers and the GBTC and won his first and only Boston Marathon in 1982 in thrilling fashion. Salazar and a runner from Minnesota, Dick Beardsley, broke away from the pack and ran neck and neck for the last 10 miles of the race, with Salazar winning by just a few feet. It was a race that took a tremendous toll on both runners. “Dick was running so hard and he was so out of his mind that day that he couldn’t feel his legs, he’d lost touch with himself,” said John Brandt, author of “Duel In The Sun,” a book about the 1982 Boston Marathon. “Besides being a great race, it was almost like two lives came together at this marathon for just under two hours and nine minutes. It was like some sort of a great unconscious force, greater than both of them, brought them together to have this sort of Custer and Little Big Horn moment, and after that neither man was ever the same as an athlete or a person.”
That was the last first-rate marathon Dick Beardsley ever ran. After a farming accident, he developed an addiction to pain medication. Alberto Salazar also won the New York Marathon later in 1982, but then suffered a series of health problems, including depression. He never won another marathon. Both men eventually recovered and they returned to Boston last year to reflect on the 30th anniversary of their great race.
I have been fortunate to cover 14 Boston Marathons for WBUR, but the one that stands out for me is the 2011 race. At the finish I was staring at the clock above the line and it read 2:03:02. Kenyan Geoffrey Mutai had just run the fastest marathon in history. His time, however, doesn’t stand as the official world record because the Boston course doesn’t meet the international criteria for records. That’s because it’s point-to-point (as opposed to a loop) and downhill overall. The skeptics would also add, there was a tailwind that day two years ago.
After the race I asked the great Australian runner Rob De Castella, who once held the world record for the marathon himself, for his thoughts on the controversy and he said, “Look there’s no such thing as world records in the marathon. The marathon is unpredictable. It’s variable. It has a certain mystique and romance about it that you can’t put in a box and you can’t write criteria for and you can’t define. And that’s the beauty of it.”
That is the beauty of it. When Frank Shorter won the 1972 Olympic Marathon, his roommate in Munich was fellow marathon runner Kenny Moore, who would go on to become one of my favorite running writers. In a story he wrote about that race Moore recalled a conversation the two friends had the day after the race. “You know,” Moore said to Shorter, “all this time I thought the Olympic champion was somebody incredibly special.”
Shorter replied, “And then you found out, that it was only me.”