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Striding to be king of clubs

Teams foster intense Marathon rivalry

By Tony Chamberlain, Globe Staff, 4/10/2000

This year's Boston Marathon marks a silver anniversary for Bill Rodgers, and much will be written about that 1975 breakthrough race in which the hometown hero blistered the course in 2:09.55.

But in 1978 Rodgers snapped the tape again - as an individual to be sure - but also sporting the colors of one of New England's most famous running teams, the Greater Boston Track Club.

That year, under the steady hand of legendary coach Bill Squires, the GBTC placed three finishers in the top five - Rodgers, Jack Fultz (4th), and Randy Thomas (5th), not to mention Jim Donovan (20th).

This year, with the Kenyans still dominating the men's field and the top Americans skipping Boston because of Olympic trials in Pittsburgh next month, it would seem an off year for US runners.

But beyond the individuals, team competition still is very much a part of the scene as two old rivals - the GBTC and the Boston Athletic Association - continue to slug it out, with the BAA defending the men's title won last year with the fastest three cumulative times (7:30:17) since 1995.

''We want to beat the BAA,'' said GBTC member Tom Derderian in the best spirit of the Red Sox and Yankees, or any other such melodrama. ''They're just pure evil to us.''

Derderian, author of the Marathon's bible - ''Boston Marathon: The History of the World's Premiere Running Event'' - said the team aspect of the race maintains a tradition that goes back to the early days of the event.

''The teams are interesting to people in the way the Red Sox and Yankees are interesting,'' said Derderian, who finished 164th in the '78 race. ''The runners are different from each other - not just as individuals - but by what team they run for.''

Derderian believes team competition aids those for whom ''running and racing well is their serious artistic pursuit.''

And though team competition now exists at a level well below world-class times, it is true that the top clubs train together all year, meet and develop strategy together, and approach the spring classic with an intense focus.

Which team, for instance, will be the first to knock off the Greater Lowell Road Runners, with their dominance of the male masters division (eight straight wins)?

And can the BAA repeat its win in the male open class, or regain its 1998 female open title from last year's winner, Forerunners Track Club of Florida?

And in the female masters class, can the Cambridge Sports Union, the winner two years ago, retake its title from the Atlanta Track Club, which won last year's race with a cumulative time just two minutes off the record pace set in '94 by the Buffalo Chips?

''Club competition, with a whole group of people running and racing well, [is] like runners of the old Boston Marathon,'' said Derderian. They have full-time careers in various fields, ''and yet they manage to get in a world-class amount of training.''

On the GBTC team, he said, there's an MIT grad student, a 40-year-old math professor at Boston College, a Harvard doctor, and a West Point graduate studying aeronautics.

''Each of them has a different story to tell,'' said Derderian, ''but they have a common devotion to running, and that's a tradition that hasn't changed.''

He remembers the salad days of team racing, when Alberto Salazar was ''a geeky kid'' hanging around luminaries such as Rodgers, Randy Thomas, and Bob Hodge, who called Salazar ''the rookie'' but let him try to keep up in training runs as Squires had them toil again and again through the Newton Hills. To Derderian, the GBTC was a model of how teams developed talent.

''Alberto was so young he'd come out on training runs with the older guys. He'd try and try to keep up with them, and then he was able to keep up with them.''

Salazar came back from the University of Oregon in 1982 to set a Boston record of 2:08:52 in a slugfest with Dick Beardsley (2:08:54) in one of the closest (and possibly most painful) Marathons ever. After finishing six strides apart, both needed medical treatment and now point to that race as the zenith of their careers and also the beginning of their physical decline

The GBTC in those days was a model for runner development, said Derderian, before the big contracts with shoe companies began to break up the old powerhouse teams where ''top runners came about slowly, gradually through training sessions. A runner had someone faster in front of him to catch, and someone slower behind trying to catch him. Everybody got faster. That's what team running is about.''

Squires, who honed the first GBTC squad more than 25 years ago by pushing runners up and down hills, agrees. Before the great running boom of the '80s, he says, there were only a few track clubs and the competition was fierce.

''In the Boston area you had the BAA, the North Medford Club, Springfield had a track club, New York AC - maybe 10 clubs along the Eastern Seaboard. They were pretty regional, but I had been coaching at Boston State when I was asked to coach this new club.''

Almost immediately the GBTC began winning prestige events that had the established clubs asking, said Squires, ''Who the hell is the Greater Boston Track Club?''

The way the GBTC came together under Squires was simple. ''All my distance runners had to run track,'' he said. ''They were all kids on the MBTA line who all lived within about 8 miles of each other. But we all ran track - Randy Thomas was a Nationals 5K winner, and he and Bobby Hodge ran the 10,000 meters on the track and did very, very well. Rodgers finished fourth in the Olympic Trials 10,000 meters on the track.

''So all the speed guys learned endurance and the long-distance guys learned speed. And we went along for a few years doing all right with no sponsors. We had to run raffles and put on the Freedom Trail Race. That worked for us.''

In 1975 as the GBTC broke into the Marathon, Rodgers got the ink for winning, but, said Squires, ''I had four or five guys who finished in the top 30.

''From '75 to '83,'' said Squires, ''we were at the top. We ranked three years as the best club in the world.''

Few believe that even the fiercest club competition can bring back such a golden era, yet the clubs thrive.

''We'll field teams in all four divisions,'' said BAA coach Mike Pieroni. ''We start planning for the next Marathon on the day after the one we just ran. Training for a marathon is an individual pursuit, but the training goes easier and the friendships are kindled in a club atmosphere.

''Several groups will train with long runs along the course - the Clubhouse Run - through the Newton Hills,'' Pieroni said. ''We like the structure and plan to maximize the athletes' time and ability. That's a benefit of group running.''

With such tremendous incentives for individuals to win the big-money marathons, the clubs still compete as they did before the age of prize money and shoe company contracts, for few tangible rewards.

''Will we ever have runners from these clubs coming down Boylston Street in first place?'' said Pieroni. ''Probably not. But there are eras with peaks and valleys. But no matter what, we've all been out training through January and February to try and beat each other.

''There's still a spirited rivalry among clubs. We're all battling it out for bragging rights.''

This story ran on page D11 of the Boston Globe on 4/10/2000.
© Copyright 2000 Globe Newspaper Company.

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