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Boston Marathon Course section

Rabbits run, records fall

But high-powered fields have made them an endangered species in Boston

By Barbara Huebner, Globe Staff, 4/14/2000

e don't know who will be leading Boston Marathon 2000 as it wends it way out of Hopkinton and Ashland, into Framingham and Natick, past the women of Wellesley College, over the hills of Newton, through Brookline and onto Boylston Street. It might be defending champion Joseph Chebet. It could be two-time winner Moses Tanui. Perhaps it will be an up-and-comer asked by a federation or coach to set the pace for his training partners, or maybe it'll be an overexuberant neophyte who will soon pay dearly for his mistake.

What we do know is this: He won't be an official rabbit.

Despite a growing trend for top marathons to pay a set of pace setters to help ensure ever-faster times, Boston isn't joining the chase because, everyone seems to agree, it doesn't need to. While many other races struggle for some combination of sponsorship, media attention, top athletes, and respect, the 104-year-old Boston Marathon can afford, literally and figuratively, to stand apart.

''Boston is a historical marathon, and it is the best marathon in the world,'' said Tanui, who won here in 1996 and 1998. ''I don't think we should have rabbits because in the Olympics and World Championships we don't have those.'' Asked if he was equating Boston with those two pinnacles of the sport, he declared: ''Yes, of course.''

There are other reasons Boston feels no need to bring in pace setters, defined as runners who are paid to set an agreed-upon, quick pace for a given distance and then, usually, drop out around Mile 16 or earlier. For one thing, the net elevation drop of the Boston course, combined with its point-to-point nature, disqualifies it from consideration for world records regardless. And world records are the prime reason rabbits exist.

''It wasn't until we got the record back here that I felt we had reached our goals,'' said Carey Pinkowski, race director of the Chicago Marathon, a ''dead flat'' course. ''When we compete for sponsorship dollars, we have to be able to say we're faster and better. We have to give the writers something to write about.''

Another reason goes to genetics. ''The type of runners who run well in Boston don't need rabbits anyway,'' said Frank Shorter, the 1972 Olympic gold medalist, citing four-time winner Bill Rodgers and three-timer Cosmas Ndeti. ''You just get to Boston College and roll down that hill and it's all over for everybody else. There's just some sort of God-given ability to run downhill.''

Then, too, the goal at Boston is victory, period. ''Time is kind of unimportant,'' said Tom Ratcliffe, a Concord-based agent. ''Winning the race, that's important. In some ways, Boston can say they're the last real marathon where there's no artificial element to it.''

Exactly, say race officials. ''I don't think rabbits are either necessary or appropriate at Boston,'' said Guy Morse, race director. ''If you win Boston in 2:08 vs. 2:06, that's not nearly as important as the fact that you won. That's the badge you wear.'' Rodgers agreed: ''Heck, we didn't even have accurate time and mile markers. You raced your competition, purely. Today I won't say it's contrived, but the emphasis on records is so much more powerful. We just ran to win; it was so simple.''

Although single rabbits have been around for years, only recently have races been bringing them in by the hutchload, with the best among them fetching up to $10,000. The phenomenon seems to have been kicked into high gear a few years ago at the Rotterdam Marathon, where the course and race structure was geared toward breaking records. As the number of pace setters there grew, the benefits of multiple rabbits became obvious. Not only could one pick up the pace if another flagged, but together they could form, in effect, a windshield. David Martin, professor of exercise physiology at Georgia State University and an expert on the marathon, said a runner screened from the wind will reap an energy savings of 4 to 8 percent.

''If you can save some energy, you can run faster,'' he said. ''People have run about as fast as they can by themselves. They need a boost.''

Don't dismiss the influence of drugs, warned Shorter, named this week as chairman of the new US Anti-Doping Agency. ''To think that EPO is not being used on a widespread basis is foolish,'' he said. EPO, short for erythropoietin, is a banned substance that stimulates the production of oxygen-carrying red blood cells.

For whatever reason, times have plummeted since rabbits have become commonplace. Of the top-10 all-time fastest marathons, only one was run before 1998, and that is Belayneh Densimo's 2:06:50 in 1988, which stood as the world record for a decade. When Ndeti broke the Boston course record with his 2:07:15 win in 1994, it was the fourth-fastest marathon ever; today it is No. 19.

Some observers are dismayed. ''Times have gotten so watered down,'' said Mark Wetmore, a Boston agent who represents, among others, Ndeti. In Amsterdam last year, he said, ''four guys ran 2:06 and I'd never heard of any of them.''

At least as troublesome to some is the fear that rabbits change the texture of a race. Because a certain speed has been agreed on beforehand and it's the rabbits' job to run precisely that, all a competitor has to do out there is keep pace with the rabbits. Bascially, some say, he doesn't have to think.

''When you're talking about a marathon, you're talking about 26 miles, you're not talking about the last seven,'' said Morse. ''There are so many dynamics going on that need to play themselves out, not being influenced so that there's no opportunity for the real race to begin until the rabbits drop out.''

Nonetheless, no one denies there were great finishes last year in both New York and Chicago. In New York, the leaders were left on their own just after Mile 18, with Chebet and Domingos Castro still shoulder-to-shoulder with about a mile to go. Worth noting is that German Silva, the two-time New York City Marathon champion from Mexico who was the final rabbit, came under criticism for interacting with fellow Fila athletes in the lead pack. International rules, difficult to define or enforce, forbid giving advice or assistance, but race director Allan Steinfeld said Silva ''was a cheerleader out there for everybody.''

In Chicago, the last two of five rabbits - having gotten the eight-man lead pack in position to strike at the world record - had no sooner dropped out around 16 miles before Tanui stormed up to the group from out of nowhere to take the lead and force Khannouchi to give chase. When the dust had settled, Khannouchi had the world record (2:05:42) and Tanui (2:06:16) the third-fastest marathon in history.

The way Tanui and Khannouchi were running, said Pinkowski, ''had nothing to do with pacing. Pace setting can only get you so far, and if you don't have the horses and the manpower to back it up then it's wishful thinking. Ultimately, great competitions bring the best performances.''

And while Boston may not be known for speed, it's certainly known for great performances. Remember 1990, when Juma Ikangaa was about a week ahead of Gelindo Bordin in Newton, only to get reeled in and finish a distant second? Or 1982, when Alberto Salazar and Dick Beardsley raced to the wire, marking the first time two runners broke 2:09 in the same race? No bunnies.

''When I go to Boston,'' said Martin, ''it's Mecca. I don't go for records, I go to see raw talent do their best.''

You can call Boston old-fashioned, you can call the Olympics old-fashioned. They're great competitions. Some races do just fine without rabbits, thank you.

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